What To Say To Someone Who’s Grieving
Our society doesn’t prepare us for grief. We don’t learn how to be there for other people. We don’t talk about difficult or painful things. We share highlight reels of our lives while hiding the dark parts. Because we don’t always know what to do about our own feelings, we certainly don’t learn what to say to someone who’s grieving.
As I’m sure you are aware, a couple months ago I got news about my complete placenta previa with this second pregnancy. Eight weeks after that, I got the additional news that I now had placenta accreta which could lead to massive blood loss and a statistically high chance of a hysterectomy following a mandatory c-section delivery five weeks early. I was, and am, scared. I’m mourning the loss of a birth experience that I was actually invested in this time around. I’m mourning the possible chance of not being able to decide my own fertility after this pregnancy. It’s a lot. And I’ve shared about it on the internet with whoever is interested.
Because of that, I’ve received a lot of messages. A majority of those messages have been extremely supportive and I’ve been blown away by the ability of people who know how to respond with empathy and compassion — something that I didn’t understand how to do until much later in life and after a lot of self-improvement work. Amid those messages, however, have been a sprinkling of statements that have left me annoyed, unseen, unheard, and ultimately with a level of shame that no one going through a difficult time deserves.
I get it 100%. A person experiencing grief makes us uncomfortable. We want to fix it. We want it to go away. We want people to be happy and we feel uncomfortable sitting with someone in their sadness. We feel helpless. It gets under our skin and we jump to any action that we feel will alleviate OUR discomfort, often with little regard to the grieving person’s.
If we aren’t supposed to fix it, then what are we supposed to do? I put together some of the things that have helped me the most, along with several things that actually impede or minimize the grieving process for another person. What to say to someone who’s grieving is actually much simpler than you may think, and I hope this helps those who may not be sure exactly what to do.
Let them know you see them
It’s actually much simpler to support a grieving person than you may think. Rather than trying to come up with a solution to fix it, you really only need to let them know that you see and hear them.
- I’m so sorry you’re going through this
- That sounds so hard
- You are in my thoughts and I am here for you
Validate their feelings. Just be there to listen if they want to talk. Hard times are called hard times for a reason. Let them know that it’s an awful situation and however they feel is entirely appropriate. Grief comes in waves, so also let them know that whenever they feel things is entirely ok.
Don’t know what to say to someone who’s grieving? Say nothing. Just sit with them.
(Want to teach this to your children? Get this book which I read to Miles and he loves).
Don’t tell them how to feel
Statements like “Be strong” and “Be positive” are well-intentioned, but often minimize a person’s feelings. Some days I AM strong and some days I AM positive, but on days that I’m not, hearing those words makes me feel worse because I feel like I’m not doing things correctly. I am much more capable of being strong and positive AFTER I’ve had time to process what’s going on.
Don’t start a sentence with “at least”
If you go to start your sentence with “at least,” you’re doing it wrong. When I got my accreta news, some of the sentiments I got were:
- “At least you’ll have two kids when some people can’t have any.”
- “At least you can pick the birthday!”
- “At least you get extra ultrasounds!”
- “At least you’ll get one of each in case you can’t have any more.”
I was aware of all of these things; they weren’t new ideas that were just brought to my attention. In fact, these exact ideas are things I would have normally used to try and skip the emotional part of my diagnosis because big emotions make me uncomfortable.
These kind of statements invalidate a person’s feelings because they’re essentially saying “things could be worse, so you have no right to feel the way you’re feeling.” They also are good examples of comparative suffering, which is basically evaluating your pain in relation to someone else’s. It’s like saying “how can I be upset right now when people have it so much worse in the world?” If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can read this quick article. If you’re more of a podcast person, please listen to this one by Brene Brown.
Keep the focus on the person and their feelings
It’s not always helpful to share your own stories of grief while someone is acutely experiencing their own. It causes the grieving person to expend more energy reacting to your grief than going through theirs. It’s understandable to want to share about your experience, especially if you’ve been in the same situation, but you need to approach with caution.
Let them know that you’ve experienced a similar situation and leave it at that. Tell them you’re happy to talk about it with them, but leave that option up to them so that they can come to you 1) if they even want to and 2) when they’re in a good emotional place.
Offer specific actions
“I’m here if you need anything” is a very common response, and often a well-intentioned one. Some of us aren’t quite sure what to say to someone who’s grieving, but are willing to be there for whatever they may need. Other times, someone experiencing grief can make others uncomfortable, so the sentiment can be used to offer support, but also escape the conversation.
If you’re really willing to help, suggest specific actions or simply just do them. Bring over food. Send a gift card for their favorite coffee place. Do laundry. Watch their kids for an afternoon. These things speak much louder than what might just be empty words.
Keep checking in
Grief affects everyone differently. There are different timelines, different extremes, and just different experiences. Just because you may have gotten through a tough situation quickly doesn’t mean that someone else will. Continue to check in with that person. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they want to talk about what happened. Let them know that you are thinking about them.
As humans, we don’t want to be alone. Just let people know you care.
Some other resources to check out that may be helpful:
- This post by my friend Emily who had to make the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy in the second trimester after learning that her child wouldn’t survive outside the womb after birth.
- What I’ve Learned About Grieving After Seven Years
- This short video by Brene Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy.
- How Do You Help A Grieving Friend by Megan Devine (her whole Instagram account is also about dealing with grief).
Do you know what to say to someone who’s grieving? I’d love to hear any other suggestions in the comments below.