“I’m here for you to lean on. I have an open heart and time to listen.”
It’s hard to know what people going through a loss really need, and even harder to know what to say to someone who lost a loved one. But according to the American Psychological Association, research shows most people can recover from loss if they have social support –so how can you give that to them? “I work with people in trauma, and grieving is a process that takes time,” says psychologist Dr Deborah Serani, award-winning author of Depression in Later Life. “The goal when talking to someone who has experienced an enormous loss is to express your heartfelt concerns in a way that doesn’t minimise, invalidate, or cause an emotional blunder.” Simply letting the grieving person know you’re there for them is most helpful. “Phrases like, ‘I’m here for you’ help grieving individuals feel comforted instead of directed,” Dr Serani says.
Knowing how to help in the days immediately after someone dies is difficult – but these approaches might help.
“I’ll drop by next week with a casserole.”
Although “Let me know if you need anything,” seems like a helpful phrase, in reality, it places the onus on the bereaved person to find something for you do (plus, this story will prove why you should stop saying “let me know if you need anything”). Instead, pick a task and just tell them you’re going to do it. “Sometimes the smallest things mean the most,” says Joan E. Markwell, author of Softening the Grief, who lost her own daughter to cancer. Coming by to do laundry or other housework, stopping at the store to pick up groceries, or performing other mundane tasks that the bereaved person might not feel up to can help relieve some of their day-to-day burdens. Instead of figuring out what to say to someone who lost a loved one, figure out what to do for them.
“I know it’s hard to be strong right now.”
Among the things you should never say to a widow is, “You’re so strong.” Although it’s meant to be encouraging, it can feel like anything but. Instead, when trying to figure out what to say to someone who lost a loved one, try this. “We are exhausted from trying to look strong when we feel weak as kittens,” Markwell says. “Our damaged foundations of strength must be rebuilt on a piece at a time.” Instead, acknowledge that it’s difficult to be strong and that it’s OK not to be right now. “This takes the pressure off to act and be something we don’t feel at this time,” Markwell says.