Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I have a friend who recently had a tragic loss, but I find myself uncertain about what to say to her. I don’t want to intrude. What is the best thing to say to someone who is bereaved?
In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path describes the attitudes and behaviors that lead the follower to self-awakening and liberation. Similarly, eight simple principles can guide those of us who wish to support a mourner to do so in an enlightened fashion, without falling into the common extremes of unwanted intrusion or anxious avoidance. Here are a few recommendations to guide the way.
Begin by letting go. Before even approaching mourners, do the inner work of letting go of the idea that your goal is to reduce their grief or cheer them up in some fashion. Instead, recognize that your goal is simply to communicate that you care about them, with no need to quickly “make it better.” The bereaved person will feel more respected and understood as a result.
Run the litmus test. Before saying something, put yourself in the mourner’s shoes, imagining that you’ve had a similar loss, and then imagining how the comment you were considering would feel to you. The chances are that if it sounds condescending, trivializing or hackneyed to you, it will feel the same to another.
Consider your relationship. There is no “one size fits all” answer to what to say to someone in the wake of loss; it all depends on the relationship you have to that individual. Clearly, while “I’m very sorry for your loss” might work with a coworker in another department, it could fall far short of what is needed by your sister or an intimate friend. As a rule of thumb, it is probably better to err on the side of saying more, rather than less, especially because many others in the mourner’s world may fall silent.
Practice deep listening. Recognize that listening may be more important than speaking. Even a candid admission of awkwardness that opens the door for the griever to speak might be a welcome step in this direction: “I don’t know what to say… but I do know that I wanted to see you at this hard time.”
Speak from the heart. Skip the cliched consolation (God doesn’t give us more than we can bear; At least he’s at peace.). Instead, speak to what you feel (I felt sick when I heard the news), or ask a “real” question (How as it been for your family in the months since you lost ______?) rather than one with a simple “right” answer (How have you been doing? –Fine.)
Be specific. Avoid generic offers of help (If there’s anything you need, just call), which are meant to be declined. Instead, be concrete in what you offer to do (We’d like to bring by dinner for your family one day this week. What night might be best? And what would you like? Barbecue? Chinese?). The loss of a partner leaves many roles unfilled, and even the loss of someone outside the nuclear family (such as an aged parent) can leave mourners feeling disorganized and unmotivated. Stepping into the clear needs that result can be a compassionate act.
Go beyond words. Sometimes meeting a person’s eyes or offering a silent hug can be as consoling as any conversation, recognizing that grief can be unspeakable, but nonetheless a heavy burden to carry alone. In such cases, the respite of taking a walk or engaging in an activity with the mourner can be as appreciated, or more so, than a heart-to-heart discussion.
Stay the course. Avoid the hit-and-run hallway consolation, and instead make space for a deeper dialogue if the mourner is open to it. The unhurried opportunity to acknowledge the emotional, practical and relational challenges of dealing with loss can be a simple gift that is long remembered.