Even those with the best intentions might say something inappropriate to the bereaved. Hurtful sentiments can damage relationships; so many individuals stay away, fearing they’ll say the wrong thing.

So what can you do? Stick to the basics when speaking with the bereaved. Communicate in some way your sadness at their loss and if you have some knowledge of the deceased, mention a quality you admired. For example: “I was so sad to hear of Jill’s death. Her wonderful nature always gave me a lift.”

Statements that get you into trouble are often your interpretation of the loss. Here are some areas you might want to avoid:

1. Comments that minimize the loss, such as: “You must be relieved that this is over” or “It’s for the best that she didn’t linger.”

2. Inappropriate statements, such as: “This is a blessing in disguise.”

3. Any suggestion there is something good in the experience, such as: “Look on the bright side” or “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

4. Comparisons of your pain and your experience to the person who is grieving, such as: “You must feel as dreadful as I did when I got my divorce.”

5. Any reference that you know how they feel; it’s impossible to know how another person is feeling, even if you have experienced a similar loss.

 

Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle StoreClick here to order.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons / misteraitch

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Tags: supporting the bereaved, sympathy and support, what not to say to the bereaved, what to say when someone dies

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Comment by T.B. Mendez on January 2, 2013 at 2:25pm

My husband and I just lost his sister on Christmas Day, (sudden massive heart attack). We are still in shock...I think, from having lost many people in my life, the best thing anyone can say is "I'm sorry", (and a hug is nice). What annoys me is the ones who think they have the answers as to why things happen or go into a lengthy religious sermon. I know they mean well but I would prefer it if they just listened.

Comment by B. M. on July 6, 2012 at 12:28am

I'm so sorry that I keep asking questions, but I'm interested in this and keep learning more as I have finished reading all of the posts... so here is another one- someone I met said they lost their dad when they were a child, many years ago, so my instant response was "Oh, I'm sorry", or "I'm sorry you had to go through that".  He said, "Oh, it's okay", and mentioned that people always tell him "I'm sorry"-he wasn't offended, but responded like it was a puzzling thing to say or wasn't necessary, so I'm wondering what a good response for those kinds of losses... something someone has lived with for many years of their life... not close to the surface.  Nothing?  I can't think of an alternative to something involving "I'm sorry"...

I've also noticed it's very easy when someone is going through anything difficult to compare it to something you've been through... I've done this too, and it was meant to show that I could recognize the intense hurt that person must have been suffering, but it seems best not to compare at all... and in fact, leave yourself out of it for the most part.  When listening to someone in general, the most successful people seem to respond by paraphrasing, or showing they understand what the person is expressing, and I've also felt the most "heard" by those who ask questions, though in tough situations this could be a fine line.  If we don't understand what they are going through, or if they want to talk about it, how about asking about what they are feeling, with respect and caution (and probably after asking if they are okay talking about it?)... Is that too naive to do?  To ask things as simple as "What is it like to lose someone so close to you?  Are there things that make it easier?  What was your loved one like?" ?  

I know that the strong reactions to insulting comments often merit frustration and anger, for example wanting revenge or karma for the person that said it, but very likely the "punishment" for insensitivity is living life without the joys that come with sensitivity and awareness to others, and connections of love and respect- I'm struck with the feeling that wishing ill-will or a loss on those who have hurt us with thoughtlessness sort of perpetuates the hurt that has been done to us..  the same sentiment we hoped someone would not express toward us.  Although... letting all the anger out in a healthy way.. maybe in a mean, terrible letter that write for ourselves and then burn and let go of... maybe that's not a bad idea before trying to look at that person if not with understanding than at least without mal-intention?  

Comment by B. M. on July 5, 2012 at 11:39pm

Sometimes, I think about the people in my life who have lost a loved one... say my friend's mother for instance.  If it's close to her birthday, a holiday, or something I have been through reminds me of how hard her loss must have been, sometimes I'll write to let her know I was thinking about her and her mom or to let her know I know that her process probably continues, and even though it's been years that I'm still thinking of her... similarly, a couple people I knew lost someone close to them in the battles over seas, so on the 4th of July, memorial day, etc., sometimes I'll post a note to say that I'm thinking of their loved one...  those who have experienced this, how do you feel about this, and what are things you would like to hear after time has passed?  Is it okay to be direct about their grief?  For instance, (forgive me for another example), a different loss may remind me of another person's experience, and I'll want I want to drop a line saying something like "This recent loss reminded me of how difficult losing someone is, and reminded me of how hard that must have been and probably still is for you. I wanted to let you know I was thinking about you; how have you and your family been doing over the holidays?"  Is something like this okay?  

Thanks so much for the input.  

Comment by D A on June 24, 2012 at 10:41pm

I am in shock at how insensitive people can be, after reading all of the preceding comments.  Mine might be relatively minor and I am blessed to have only received the one irksome comment, but here goes -- I lost my father after a long bout with cancer when I was in my early twenties.  I have a cousin about my age whom I was around throughout our upbringing -- she was raised mostly by her mother, since her parents divorced when she was a toddler.  My mom related to me shortly after getting off the phone with this cousin's mother (who's also my cousin since her mother and my mother were first cousins) that said same-aged cousin of mine said that I should be grateful that I actually got to know my father.  At the time I was in deep shock and mourning so I couldn't react, but now I'm, like, hello, you bitch?  Your dad's still alive.  You could always patch up the relationship between you two.  I can't reanimate my dad no matter how hard I try.  Even now it hurts me thinking about what she said and it's really soured what was already a rather tenuous relationship I had with said cousin, to where I don't even really consider her a family member anymore.  OTOH, some much younger cousins on my dad's side of the family were a lot more tactful and sweet to my mom and me (I'm an only child) and I love and cherish them even more for that.

Comment by Sue Martin on December 31, 2011 at 1:10pm

Very shortly after my husband of 33 years passed in March 2011, several people close to me made comments about how I was young and would find someone else. Really?

One of the things that many people have said during my grief is "How are you doing?". I don't think they really want me to answer that truthfully! I try to remember when others are grieving to say, "How is today going for you?" or "Is today a better day?". Those questions are much easier to answer and I think it conveys caring to the grieving person.

Comment by Tracey Hatlee on August 24, 2011 at 6:09am
At the conclusion of my father's funeral, my then mother-in-law gave me a big hug and said, "It was such a lovely service ... and you cried at all the right times."
Comment by Clint on July 4, 2011 at 2:50pm

After reading these statements following a death, I felt I had to write. Nearly 15 years ago when my father died, one stupid question someone asked was : "Why isn't his casket open?" Apparently this fool didn't stop and think that my father did not want to be viewed.

        Worse yet, this distant aunt said to me: "Maybe NOW you'll get married and have a FAMILY!" Stunned, and trying to let the remark roll off, I replied: "Perhaps." "PERHAPS?", she countered. I walked away to talk to someone else. I will never forget her look of condemnation.

         Several months later this aunt died in a car accident. Maybe there is karma after all. The bottom line when talking to the bereaved is simple:  Say , "I'm so sorry." Then shut up.

Comment by Susan Milne on May 30, 2011 at 12:26am

I went to my ex boyfriend's funeral three weeks ago.  We had broken up five years ago but I kept in touch with his mother.  I managed to go to the funeral.  A neighbor asked me if his wife was pretty.

I was speechless.

 

Comment by Victoria Corbett on May 13, 2011 at 8:24am
I am an only child.  I lost my my mom in 2001 and my dad in 2004.  A shirt-tail relative said to me, "So you're all alone now, right?  What a shame."  ARE YOU KIDDING ME???  Granted, I have a great husband and an awesome daughter, I am not all alone, but what if I was?  Why would someone say that?  Classless.
Comment by Sandra Ogrodnick on March 12, 2011 at 6:33pm
My aunt told me at my husband's funeral that I am young and I will find someone else.  Holy Crap. I am 42 and I could have slapped her.

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