Words in the face of grief

What to say to grieving friends from Small Company Artworks What do you say when you don't know what to say? Short of mumbling inaudibly with a hopefully-earnest expression on my face, I struggle with what to say to the grief-stricken. How do you convey comfort with just words?

But because I sometimes sculpt sympathy gifts, I witness some of the thoughtful, caring things people say when they send my sculpture. I also recall some of the kind words from friends when I've needed them. And maybe because I'm tuned into it lately, I've also been seeing meaningful articles on grief and loss this year.*

All of these have helped me understand how I might be able to help when a friend is grieving. What I've learned to say:

In a sympathy card

I want the card to convey that I'm there for them should they want company, an ear, a shoulder, or a distraction. I struggle to find something more substantive than, "So sorry for your loss" without pretending I know exactly how they feel. 

  1. "I know that nothing can take away your pain, but please know I'm here for you."
  2. "You're surrounded by people who love you, and I'm one of them." 
  3. "Please don't bother to reply. Just know that I'm thinking about you."
  4. "Our family loved his wit and kindness. We will miss him very much."
  5. "Just knowing someone like her meant so much to me, and I deeply appreciate the magnitude of your loss."
  6. "I won't forget his goodness to me [that time when...], and I will miss him."
  7. "All of us will miss her smile, her generous spirit, and her knack for [that thing she did]."
  8. "Please accept this token as a reminder that you're loved, when you need it most."
  9. "I will always be here when you need a hug."

On the phone or face-to-face

Why is this so hard? It's something of a relief that the words I use matter less than giving my friend an opening to talk, if they feel like talking. When I asked one friend if he'd like to talk, he said, "No, it's okay" and then spent the next half hour telling me stories of his mom, who had just passed. Then he came in for a hug, unprompted. All I did was give him an opening (and hug back).

  1. "I'm so sorry. He always made me feel [so welcome at your house], and I loved [his sense of humor]. Will there be a service I can attend?"
  2. "How are you today?"
  3. "May I give you a hug?"
  4. "Would you like to talk about it?"
  5. "Would you like some company this afternoon?"
  6. "Could I take the kids to the park on Saturday?"
  7. "I've got a couple of hours this morning. Can I run any errands for you?"
  8. "I thought you might enjoy some cookies I made. May I leave them on your doorstep?"
  9. "I picked up an extra rotisserie chicken at the store. How are you set for dinner tonight?"
  10. "I'm headed to that place you like tonight. Do you feel like meeting me there?"
  11. "Yes, of course I'm happy to [do the favor]. It's a pleasure to do it for you."

At the funeral

Even more than other times, I don't know that what I say at a funeral matters. On three occasions, I've been able to grieve with friends at funerals, and they've all told me later how much their friends' presence mattered. I doubt they recall my muttered condolences, standing as they were in the interminable receiving line. They just remembered a roomful of people who cared enough to be there.

And that goes for the weeks after a loss, too. One friend whose father died told me later that the worst, for him, was the people who pretended nothing had happened. He met them in the days, weeks, and months after his father's funeral, and they went on as if he hadn't just lost one of the most important people in his life. He said he understood, of course, how awkward and scary grief is for observers. But for him, their saying anything would have been better than their saying nothing.

So even if I mumble or stumble or say completely the wrong thing, I'm going to say something. Then I'll follow their lead to talk more or shut up. I figure silent or talking, the thing is just to be there, by word, card, or deed.

How do you choose to be there for friends who are grieving?

*Two of the most powerful things I've read this year are Yahoo! COO Sheryl Sandberg's Facebook post on the loss of her husband, and Deirdre Sullivan's NPR story "Always Go To The Funeral." If you haven't already seen these posts, I can't recommend them enough.

Update March 2017: 

I recently came across the marvelous book by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell, There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. This is not an affiliate link, but a heartfelt recommendation to buy this book. Immediately.

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