A Grief Support Blog

This blog will allow you the opportunity to acquire both support and guidance after experiencing a significant loss.

Grief Support: Knowing What To Say And What To Avoid

The majority of grievers are desperately in need of support to help them in coping with their losses. They need someone to listen to them without analysis, criticism or judgment. Fear of how to approach grievers and assist them stops many well-meaning people from being there for these people when they are most needed. A vital tool in providing grief support involves knowing what to say and what to avoid.

While many people think they know the best things to say, based on what they have said in the past, the vast majority are often surprised to find many of these same statements on our list of what to avoid! Thinking that these well-intended comments will be positive is just another bit of misinformation that most people utilize in an effort to be helpful. That’s why it makes perfect sense to start this discussion with those phases first.

What to avoid

In the past, we have covered what not to say to grievers in detail in several articles. Rather than repeating that information again, I encourage you to read:

These articles not only cover what you should not say to a griever, but also provide insight in why those “expressions of care” often cause more problems for the griever.

What to ask and say to really support grievers

A common question we are asked is what to say when someone dies or what to say to a griever. You will notice that many of the things we are suggesting involve asking grievers questions, rather than just saying things. The reasoning behind this isn’t so much one of gathering information as it’s giving them a chance to express their feelings. There is very little anyone can say that will actually “fix” whatever issue is causing them their grief. Grievers are not broken and don’t need to be fixed. More often than not, all they need at the outset is for someone to listen.

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What happened?

This was a question that I was once afraid to ask! My fear was that asking a griever to relive their pain by retelling their story would only add to that emotional loss. After more than 30 years of utilizing the Grief Recovery Method as a funeral director, I found it to be exactly the opposite! The truth is that most grievers really want to talk about this. It is in retelling that story that they have an opportunity to express some of their emotional pain that they are already stuffing away inside.

The bigger problem for them is that very few people ask them this question in an inviting manner! More often than not, you can simply ask, in a caring way, “What happened?” Please keep in mind that given their particular loss, they may have already been asked this by first responders, medical staff, legal professionals or even a reporter who was gathering information. If you are aware that this is the case, you may need to address that in your question. An example of how to do this would be: “I know that I heard about this in the news, but, in your own words, would you be willing to share with me what happened?” A careful choice of these words takes it from “information gathering” to being a caring request for their personal story.

After asking this, you simply need to be quiet and listen to what they have to say. Remember, this is all about them! Please don’t interrupt them by trying to share a similar experience from your life. All they need at this point is someone to listen, again without analysis, criticism or judgment. Suggesting to them that they could have done something differently in the moment of the loss event will not help either, since they cannot go back in time and change things. You are simply offering them a chance to tell their story. Stay in that moment with them and let them see that their story is touching your heart.

How did you find out?

If they didn’t share this in telling you what happened, and it’s appropriate to their loss, asking “how they found out about it” is generally a great follow-up question. Again, keep in mind that the reason to ask this is in no way based “on your need to know.” You are simply offering them the chance to tell their story and express their emotions. This is often a subject to which a great deal of energy is attached.

They may ask you if you have ever been through something like this...

If this does happen, answer them truthfully, but then turn it back to them. You might say, “Yes, and I remember what it was like for me, but please tell me about how you are dealing with this.” If you have never dealt with a similar situation, you might say, “No, I cannot imagine what you are going through and I hope you will share that with me.”

When they ask you a question like this, it’s not time to tell the story of your personal grief. If you are trying to support them, you need to give a brief answer and then invite them to share more of their story.

Use “feeling words” with them

Grievers will often tell a point-by-point story about their situation, without sharing feelings. They may have found that, with this or a previous grief situation, when they shared their feelings others offered reasons why they should feel differently. If that is the case in this situation, let them see that you are different as a listener. You might say, “I cannot imagine how devastating/painful/heartbreaking that was for you.” It’s not that you are trying to put words in their mouth, but rather to reinforce that their emotions are something with which you are comfortable.

Offer to handle specific tasks for them

One of the most common things a griever hears from others is the statement, “call me if you need anything.” In all likelihood, they will never make that call.

When people are grieving they rarely know exactly what they need. Most grievers lack a sense of concentration and are frequently stretched in several different directions at the same time. This lack of focus can leave them lost when it comes to making decisions.

Offering to perform a specific task, such as bringing over dinner, mowing their lawn, shoveling their sidewalk, babysitting or picking up someone at the airport is far better that asking them to make a decision about how you can help. Even if the decline your offer, they know that you are actually willing to help them out, rather than just telling them to call you. It’s very possible that they may ask you to do something other than what you suggested because they really do know that you are there for them.

Should you mention feeling guilty?

At no time, as was mentioned in those previous articles, should you suggest that they should not feel guilty! Most people don’t feel guilty about something until someone else tells them not to feel that way.

Grief and guilt are often miss-associated with one another when they are two completely different things entirely. If they mention feeling guilty about something related to their loss, you might want to help them look at their situation in a different light. For instance, if they say, “I feel so guilty that I did/did not do…” You might ask them if they had known that this was going to happen, would they have done things differently? Most likely their answer to that question will be “yes.” This gives you the opportunity to redirect their expression of guilt by asking them “Instead of feeling guilty, are you wishing that things might have been different or better, or perhaps you wish there had been more time to work things out?” Again, their answer will likely be “yes.” What you have accomplished in doing this has been to help them better understand their feelings and opened the opportunity to introduce them to The Grief Recovery Method.

If this grieving situation relates to a death, you might now ask them if there are things that the wish they had previously said to the one who died. Again, this is a question that is almost always answered with a “yes.” You might now invite them to voice to those emotional feelings, if they would feel comfortable sharing them with you. In essence, you are offering them the chance to “complete” a few elements of that relationship and release some of those feelings that they have already stuffed inside. Rather than telling them how to feel, as so many others have done, you have invited them to express their feelings. Once again, as with most such situations, this isn’t the time or place to analyze, criticize or judge what they have to say. This is another example of the value of just being there for them as a listener.

a Hug is the Most Valuable Gift.jpg

Sometimes a hug is the best gift you can offer!

It’s not uncommon that grievers appreciate the human contact that a simple hug can offer. Even if you have a long standing association with this particular griever, that has frequently included hugs in the past, it’s always wise to ask them if they “could use a hug,” rather than just moving into one. Many people are far more guarded about their personal space today than they were several decades ago. Even those who are regular huggers can be more sensitive regarding this action when they are grieving.

The key to giving a proper supportive hug is in how you do it. Never pat the griever on the back while you are hugging them! They do not need to be “burped!” More often than not, others have patted them on the back and given them a variety of reasons why they shouldn’t be feeling things as part of their hugs. Even though you are not saying such things, just the fact that you are patting them on the back can have a similar effect on them. Simply give them a heartfelt hug and, if you are 100% in the moment, you will know when to release.

Concluding thoughts

Grievers are among the most abused people on our planet. People that they trust to support them often instead tell them how to feel or that they shouldn’t be feeling whatever they express. This isn’t because these friends and family members mean to do harm, they simply have no solid information in how to offer meaningful and positive support. Rarely does anyone have a mentor that sits them down to explain how to handle grief or how to best support someone who is grieving. Most people’s grief education or information comes from watching how others handle this and then following their example, without any thought as to how worthwhile that example ever was.

I shared, in one of the articles that were mentioned at the beginning of this article, on what not to say, things that I heard in my personal moments of grief that offered me no assistance. When I was lying in the hospital, after breaking my neck, and a friend told me he knew just how I felt, because he had once broken a finger. I felt anger, rather than support in hearing those words. He was trying to help and say something caring, but that is not what I heard.

Our goal, at The Grief Recovery Institute, is to provide meaningful bereavement support, bereavement advice, and direction to help grievers recover from that significant emotional pain of that accompanies any kind of loss. We hope that the words shared here, and in those other articles mentioned, will offer you better direction on how be assist the grievers you encounter during your lifetime. We also invite you to take a moment to look into both the books and educational trainings we offer for grief and loss support as well. With the best information at your disposal, you can make a difference, for those who have experienced a loss that they will long remember.

Photo Credit: 123RF Stock Photo - Katarzyna Białasiewicz - Poland




Wow Steve! This is the most comprehensive "what to do" I seen. Thank you! I will be using this as the basis for a new community education talk. I'm so proud you trained me!
Hi Stephen- I find your article to be very good at stating the needs of grievers. Let me know if you ever get down to Dallas.
God Bless,
Hi Steve, tank you for your excellent article. I did the training in London in 2009. I'm so grateful for your reminder which could not have come at a Bette time. Thank you.
I am so glad you can put this to use!
I am glad it came at a good time!
Not sure if I completely agree on asking questions of the griever. Nine times out of 10 the griever is usually asked "what happened" by everyone. It can be overwhelming and anxiety provoking.
JoLynn - You would be surprised how often people avoid that question in the first few days after a loss. More often than not, they have heard about the loss from someone else, before they actually see the griever, and think that to ask them about it would be upsetting. Our studies have found that, in those first few days, 95% of people do not ask them this questions, while 99% of the grievers want to alk about it! That is why we make this suggestion.

Hi Steve, in the Grief Recovery Method Handbook it mentioned a study of 141 comments, 19 helpful, the rest not helpful. Where can I access the list, in particular I’m interested in the 19 comments that were helpful? But if possible I would be interested in all the unhelpful comments as well. Thank you.

First off thank you for your article. As a mother that has lost a child and a nurse that deals with loss on a consistent basis I come across people struggling to find words to say after someone has lost someone. There are definitely points I agree with in this article but I do think what needs to be communicated is that grief and death are situational. The events surrounding a person's grief and how they deal with it is different for everyone. There is no one standard way of talking with someone who is grieving. For me personally the months following my sons death and admitted still to a point now I dreaded someone asking me how it happened. This for me gave me a feeling that what mattered about my sons life is how he passed. What I found I appreciated more at the time is a simple acknowledgement of his passong such as a "I'm so sorry for your loss" followed by someone asking me to tell them about my son, or if they knew him sharing a good memory of him. But as I stated before grief is situational and personal to each person. Some people may find solace in talking about how they lost their loved one. A person who lost an elderly person to something like cancer may want to share the experience more then someone who lost a child to an accident. For me the fact that someone started a conversation was the important take away. More often then not people tend to avoid people grieving because they think they will say the wrong thing, but most people that are grieving will tell you that there is no right or wrong thing to say. The fact that anything was said can go a long way to a person that is grieving.

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