When someone dies, it can be hard to know what to say to those who were close to them. While each bereaved person’s experience will be different, these tips will give you ideas for how to help them feel heard and supported.
Things that can be helpful
Say how sorry you are
When someone is grieving, it’s important to acknowledge what has happened and express your sympathy. This can be as brief as saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’, or ‘I heard about your dad, I’m so sorry’.
Share a memory
If you knew the person who has died, you could also share a memory or say what they meant to you. You might say something like, ‘I remember your mum’s brilliant speech at your wedding’, or ‘I’ll miss your grandad's wonderful sense of humour’.
Offer them space to talk
Many bereaved people say it helps to be able to speak freely about how they’re feeling. Saying ‘How are you doing?’ gives them a chance to talk about it if they want to.
If you know the person quite well, you could ask them directly, ‘Would you like to talk about it?’. Let them know you’re happy to listen to any feelings they want to share.
Tell them however they feel is OK
People who are grieving can experience a huge range of emotions, including shock, sadness, pain, anger, guilt, anxiety and numbness. Their feelings will be unique to them and their relationship with the person who has died.
If they do talk to you about their grief, be open to whatever emotions they are experiencing. Let them know that however they feel is OK – there is no ‘right’ way to grieve.
Recognise how hard it is for them
When someone is going through a bereavement, you may want to take their pain away.
Although this isn’t possible, acknowledging it by saying, ‘I’m sorry I can’t make things better’, ‘I’m sorry it’s so hard for you’, or ‘I’m sorry things are so tough right now’ can help them feel heard and supported.
Ask if there is anything they need
You may want to help but not know how. Ask the bereaved person if there is anything they need, and let them know you’re ready to support them. If they seem unsure, you could suggest specific things, such as cooking them a meal or doing their shopping.
Tell them you’re thinking of them
Sending someone who is grieving a message to say you’re thinking of them will show them they don’t have to cope alone. You may not be able to change what they are going through, but knowing you care could give them some comfort.
Sometimes you don’t need to say anything
When you are with a bereaved person, take your cue from them in terms of how much they want to talk. It may be that just spending time quietly alongside someone can help them cope with their grief.
Things to avoid saying
Don’t make assumptions about how they feel
You may have experienced a loss in the past and feel you understand what someone is going through, but everyone experiences grief differently. Give the bereaved person the space to tell you how they are feeling, and avoid saying things like, ‘You must be feeling...’ or ‘I know exactly how you feel’.
Avoid trying to fix things
It can be tempting to try and make someone who is grieving feel better. That’s why, if someone has died after a long illness, people might say things like, ‘It was for the best’, or ‘She’s at peace now’. When someone dies in old age, they may say, ‘At least he had a long life’.
Statements like these aren’t always helpful. The bereaved person might not feel the same way or may not find it comforting, and they could resent being told what to think.
Don’t tell them they will ‘heal’, ‘move on’ or ‘get over it’
When someone is first bereaved, they may not be able to imagine a future without the person who has died. They might worry about their memories fading, and find the idea of ‘moving on’ or ‘getting over it’ very upsetting. People often say ‘time is a healer’, but bereavement isn’t about healing so much as finding ways to live with grief.
Avoid setting expectations around how long grief will last
Most people find ways to cope with their grief and feel better over time. But setting a specific timeframe (for example, by saying something like, ‘It took my uncle two years to recover after my aunt died’) can make them feel they are failing if things don’t improve. In reality, the grieving process is different for everyone and it can take years.
Be careful talking about religious ideas
After someone dies, people sometimes say things like, ‘He’s in a better place now’, or ‘It was God’s will’. But a bereaved person may not believe in God, or may not agree. If they do believe, they may even feel God has taken their loved one, and be angry. When it comes to religion, be guided by things the bereaved person says and only mention it if it feels appropriate.
Visit our dedicated section on coping with grief and bereavement.