It can be hard to know what to say to someone who’s experienced loss. That’s why it’s no surprise that friends, neighbors, colleagues, and community members often avoid the ill and bereaved for fear they’ll say the wrong thing.


Individuals facing loss need to feel they’re not alone and that’s why it is so important to make personal contact. I’d like to say it doesn’t matter what you say, but it does. If you say the wrong thing and offend those ill or bereaved, the negative feelings may last a long time. Instead, let’s discuss some things you can say that will comfort and not offend. 


Not too long ago I was faced with a very painful experience. A community member approached me after a service and gave me a hug. She said, “I don’t know what to say but this must be very hard for you.” It was exactly the right thing to say. She was showing empathy, acknowledging that even though she had never faced my experience, she understood that it was very difficult. Empathetic statements demonstrate that if you were in someone’s shoes and undergoing a similar experience, you would have a sense of how it might feel. That’s why statements made with empathy are usually the most comforting.


But many people offer a different sentiment. If you say to someone facing loss, “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you,” you are implying that you’ve never had to go through a life experience so difficult and you immediately set yourself apart from those ill or bereaved. While you may think you are being caring, you are instead communicating that someone is now in a category that not only you are not in but you can’t even imagine how awful it could be.


So what do you say when you meet someone who is ill or bereaved? You break your silence and acknowledge the loss. No matter how or why someone is bereaved, communicate that you are so sorry for their loss. Depending on the relationship, you can give them a hug, take their hand, or touch their arm. Once you’ve made contact, you’ll be able to greet them in the future and it won’t be so awkward. If someone is sick and/or in treatment and you are concerned about acknowledging what you’ve heard, it is always appropriate to say, “It is so good to see you,” and leave it up to them to share if they choose to do so.


I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to connect with someone facing tough times. It’s exactly what you’d want if you were in their shoes.


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 / Tania_Cataldo

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