What to Say in Times of Grief

Christopher Witt —  December 18, 2012

a candle burns for those who grieveThe recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut – the school shooting which took the lives of 20 children and 7 adults – all too painfully raises the question: What do you say in times of sorrow to those who grieve?

There is no easy answer.

Because it is so difficult to know what to say, we sometimes avoid saying anything at all. Unfortunately, our silence may only add to the grieving person’s sense of isolation. Or, worse, in an effort to lessen the person’s pain, we may say something thoughtless and insensitive, and compound their pain.

Here are my suggestions.

Do NOT say anything like, “I know what you’re going through.” You don’t know (you can’t know) what other people are feeling or thinking, even if you yourself have been through something similar.

Do NOT resort to platitudes, pious or otherwise. Saying “He’s in a better place now” or “There must be a reason for this” or “God has a plan for everything” may not reflect the beliefs of those who are grieving, and may offend the people you most want to console.

Do NOT try to take away or lessen people’s grief. Bereavement is a natural response to and a way of honoring loss. Denying or downplaying people’s need to grieve does them a dishonor.

DO express your sympathy. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is often sufficient.

DO show your affection. Gestures – a touch, a hand on the shoulder, a hug – are often the most effective.

DO listen. People in grief need to talk about what they have lost, but they often sense other people’s discomfort so they retreat into silence. Allowing them to talk and to tell stories and to reminisce — if and when and how they choose to do so — is a great kindness.

DO recognize people’s continuing grief. Some loses are so great that people never fully “get over” them. And there are times (holidays, anniversaries, special occasions) when memories and the attendant sorrow resurface. So express your sympathy again, show your affection again, and listen again.

Photo courtesy of Rosemary.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to What to Say in Times of Grief

  1. Real wisdom here. A great contribution. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this Chris
    Two points
    I remember a comment when my mother took her own life that floored me. A friend said”I bet you are worried that it could be genetic”. I wasn’t at all and I found the comment very insensitive. So I would add to this good list “please don’t double guess what the bereaved are thinking – just give them space to talk. ”
    It was a long time ago and the vast majority of people were very helpful.

    Only slightly off-subject.
    I recently was trying to think of something wonderfully profound to write on a friend’s blog who was terminally ill (such is the modern world). She died before I came up with the right words. Sometimes you just have to let go of crafting the right message and just say something simple like “I’m thinking of you”.