Don’t stay away, but don’t say the wrong thing

Don't stay away, but don't say the wrong thing (Image via Flickr Creative Commons / Kelvin KevinIt’s something I’ll never forget. I was an adult student who recently returned to classes after the death of my newborn son. I was walking across campus and saw a classmate; he saw me too and before we could greet each other, he altered his path and avoided me. Decades later, I understand why he did it, but even so, the memory still stings.


Loss is very isolating and when you avoid someone experiencing loss, you isolate them even further. I’ve learned that most people are basically kind and don’t intentionally want to hurt others; so why do they avoid people?

  • We don’t know what to say and it’s just less stressful to stay away.
  • We are afraid we’ll say the wrong thing.
  • People experiencing the full range of life’s losses remind us how fragile our own lives are.
  • We are afraid this particular loss can happen to us.
  • It’s uncomfortable to be around people experiencing such intense emotions.


People who have experienced loss have shared that grief is painful but that pain isn’t the worst thing to happen; friends, loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors who ignore the loss compound the pain.


So what can we do?

  • Remember that there isn’t one magic “right thing” to say to someone experiencing loss that will make the loss less painful or easier to bear.
  • Acknowledge the loss. Often, sharing your most basic feelings is the best thing to say. For example, “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “I’m so sorry you’ve had such a difficult time.”
  • Do be careful in what you say because saying the wrong thing can exacerbate the loss.
  • What pitfalls to avoid? Comparing a loss to yours or someone else; every loss is unique. Telling someone what to do, such as “Be strong for your wife.” Or, trying to find something good in it, such as “At least they caught it early.”


Comforting others doesn’t come naturally to everyone but comforting is a skill; and like all skills, we become better with practice. So practice by getting involved. Step up and make contact with anyone you know facing loss. They’ll feel better and so will you.   


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 e-book and print for "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage" and 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 Store. Click here to order.


Image via Flickr Creative Commons / Kelvin Kevin

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