Grief Support: Knowing What to Say and What to Avoid

By Steven Moeller


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 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.

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 than asking them to make a decision about how you can help. Even if they 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.

If this grieving situation relates to a death, you might now ask them if there are things that they 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.


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 don’t need to be fixed. Grievers need to be listened to with dignity and respect never criticizing, analyzing, fixing or judging them. Grief is a process that takes the time it takes. Grievers need you after the funeral. Stay connected. Be available. Be a“heart with ears” and simply listen.