Responding to grief

'What do I say?'


When faced with someone who has recently lost a loved one through death, it can be difficult to know how to respond or what to say. The person may be a colleague, a friend, an acquaintance or a relative. We bear witness to their pain but how can we provide comfort in the face of such devastation?

It may be surprising to learn that we may actually cause more distress to the bereaved by not really thinking about the impact of our response. We may mean well, however, a clumsy, well-meant comment, may cause more upset. 

It may be distressing for the person who has suffered a loss to have to deal with people around them who do not know how to respond to their grief. 

Unhelpful comments

General unhelpful responses which are reported by bereaved people include the following:

  • "Pull yourself together"
  • "Isn't it time you moved on by now?"
  • "What is the matter?"
  • "It has been X months and you should be over it by now"
  • "Why have you got all those photos everywhere?"
  • "I understand how you are feeling"
  • "Why are you upsetting yourself"
  • Never mind, you can always have another one" (baby,  pet etc)
  • "Why are you hanging on to all that stuff?"
  • "Why are you still crying after all this time?"
  • "Of course there is no life after death,  don't be stupid!"
  • "The funeral is over now, you have to say goodbye"
  • "You are being selfish, you need to think of others"

One of the worst and most unhelpful responses, which occurs more often than you may imagine, is when a person crosses the road to avoid the bereaved. They may not be doing this because they are cruel or don't care, they may choose avoidance because they truly do not know what to say. A person may genuinely feel fearful of saying something that triggers painful emotions and therefore causes more upset.

Unfortunately, this avoidance may feel like a rejection to the bereaved, they may feel confused and upset at a time when they are feeling vulnerable and in need of comfort and support. 

A reason for avoidance may sometimes be because the person does not want to remind the person in mourning of the death and grief associated with it. However, they are constantly already feeling all the pain of grief and can not be any more upset than they already feel in facing their loss. If they don't want people to speak of it then they will most probably do the avoiding. Yes, they may weep when we offer our condolences but, paradoxically, they may find comfort in a kind word and an acknowledgement of their loss and the death of their loved one. This generally feels much better than being ignored, which hurts and may cause feelings of loneliness and alienation.  

What are helpful ways to respond to someone who is recently bereaved?

Here are a few tips which may be helpful:

  • "I am sorry for your loss"
  • "I really don't know what to say, I am sorry, is there anything I can do for you?"
  • "How are you coping right now?"
  • " How are you feeling?" ( never assume how someone is feeling, they may surprise you!)
  • "Would it help to talk?"
  • "How can I help?"
  • " I cannot imagine what you are going through"
  • "So, you think you are receiving signs from the afterlife? That sounds interesting, what are you experiencing?" (You don't have to believe in an afterlife to be able to listen to other's beliefs  and experiences.)

We may offer support, both physically and emotionally. We can provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. We can offer practical help such as cooking a meal, helping with household chores and shopping if they don't feel up to it. It may be helpful to ask the person what kind of support would be helpful. 

Because grief and mourning are individually experienced in different ways it can be difficult to preempt what a person needs or wants as support. Ask them if they would like you to phone regularly or if they would prefer peace, quiet and time alone for a while.  Maybe a suggestion that they may contact you anytime when required is enough to comfort them.  

Remember that we can never understand or know what someone else is experiencing even though we may have gone through a similar situation. We do not know what someone thinks or feels unless they tell us. We may assume, but we may be terribly wrong. So, just ask!

Sometimes words are not needed, a kind look, a hug, the offer of tea and company, an accompaniment on a visit to a grave or a comforting touch may all help. 

So, remember, next time you see a bereaved person, don't try to avoid them. Please say hello and acknowledge their loss. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST4
Written by Amanda Parfitt, Msc Counselling Psychology. Reg.MBACP (accred)
Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST4

Amanda Parfitt.
Psychotherapist and Bereavement Counsellor.

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