What Do I Say?

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Dear Readers, This post is longer than usual but due to a recent news event, I wanted to offer some specific ideas about how to respond to the bereaved.

President Trump recently asked his Chief of Staff the question “What do I say?” as he prepared to call a Gold Star family. Who among us has not asked the same question before entering the home of a grieving family? Perhaps we all need some gentle reminders and guidance about how to handle the difficult challenge of what to do and say when someone has died. Should I just call? Should I stop by? What if I say something wrong? What do I say?

It is perfectly normal to feel some concern about how to approach the bereaved. I have been a grief counselor for more than 35 years, and I too have a twinge of anxiety about what to say when a death has occurred.

Being in the presence of those who are grieving is hard. We want to help them feel better, but sometimes our words hurt or offend, rather than help. We want to help them make sense of the death: “Everything happens for a reason.” We offer clichés and try to lessen the pain: “Find the silver lining.” We point them too soon in a direction toward healing and recovery: “Time heals all wounds.” The bereaved often feel minimized and misunderstood by the words of people trying to help.

In these difficult, awkward moments, compassion really is what is needed. The word compassion literally means to suffer together, deciding to enter into their sorrow, brokenness, confusion and fear, connecting with them emotionally. Suffering with another will not decrease their pain, but it will decrease their loneliness as they begin to learn to live with their loss.
Clients who come to me for help with their grief consistently describe two desires – acknowledgement of their pain (without advice or judgment), and for their loved one to be remembered in the years to come.

Here are a few more ideas to help those who grieve:

Don’t compliment the bereaved about their strength or courage. Appearing “strong” in the moments after a death is not necessarily a true reflection of the grieving person’s emotional state. Saying that they “seem to be holding up well” may create unnecessary pressure on them to present better than they feel.

Avoid clichés and giving advice.
“You have to move on,” “You can’t dwell in the past,” “You have to find closure,” are frequently said to those who grieve.  Don’t try to move the bereaved from their sorrow to decrease your discomfort with their pain.

Don’t imply there is a timeline for grief.
Grief does change over time, but how and when that happens is different for everyone. For almost 50 years, numerous psychological models have promoted the idea that grief should follow a predictable pattern and come to resolution in a defined period of time. That idea is rarely the experience of those who mourn.

Avoid comparing one loss to another.
Even if the loss is similar (a sibling, parent, etc.), everyone’s experience of loss is unique, so don’t assume that your loss is the same. The loss of a beloved pet can be a significant trauma, but it is not a helpful comparison to someone who has lost a beloved person.

Do say “I am sorry.” 


Mention the name of the loved one.
The bereaved long to hear the name of the one who died. Continue to say their name through the conversation and in the months and years to come. Those who mourn fear their love one will be forgotten.

Be curious about the loved one
if you did not know him or her well. “Tell me about him” or “I would like to know more about her” gives the bereaved the opportunity to tell their story and honor their loved one. When appropriate, share your own stories about the deceased if you knew them.

Do something that lightens the load of the bereaved.
Offer to mow their lawn or pick up their kids from school, instead of saying “Let me know If there is anything I can do.” Suggest a practical idea of what you can do that might be helpful.

Send a message or make a call
throughout the next months and on special days and holidays. Donate in the name of the deceased to a charity that is meaningful to the grieving family. Bring a meal weeks after the death to express your care. The bereaved often feel forgotten after the last casserole dish is picked up.

Above all, listen.
Let the one who is mourning lead where the conversation goes. Be by their side, not in front of them.
The answer to the question, “What do I say?” is to remember our words should be very few. The bereaved need a place for their story to be received. And, if what they need is to sit in silence, sit with them. Offer care not cure. Companionship not advice. And, let them know their loved one will never be forgotten.

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Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O'Malley has recently published a book, "Getting Grief Right" about grief recovery.

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