You’ve heard it before: It is important to make contact with the bereaved and acknowledge their loss. And yet many people stay away, fearing they will say the wrong thing – and, their fears are well-founded. The bereaved frequently share hurtful things friends and loved ones tell them while mourning their loss.

What not to say:

  • Don’t say anything that gives the impression that you have the answer to why things happen, often in a religious context. Even if you mean well, you will not comfort someone with “God has his plan,” “Your brother is in a better place,” or “Now you have your own angel.”
  • Don’t suggest the bereaved should be grateful – grateful that they had thirty years with their mother, grateful that their husband died quickly, or grateful that their grandmother is no longer in pain. No one is grateful when their loved one is dead. There may be a time in the future when they can reflect on their circumstances with gratitude, but they have a lot of grieving to do first.
  • Don’t suggest the deceased can be replaced. Whether a widow or widower is young or old they don’t want to hear that they have many years ahead and will find someone else.
  • Don’t ask a bereaved person who is feeling pretty miserable, "How are you doing?" Instead ask, “How are you today?”
  • Don’t say, "Life goes on." It's as if you are diminishing the loss. It’s true, whether we like it or not, life does go on without our loved one, but please don't brush someone’s grief aside.

What to say:

  • The very best thing you can say is, “I’m so sorry to hear your mom (dad, sister, or husband) died.” Do this with a hug or a light touch to the arm. Your acknowledgement of the loss and your comfort is what is needed.
  • If the bereaved is willing to talk, listen attentively.
  • Avoid asking questions on the cause of death, the funeral, or any other aspect of the death. Your role is to be attentive and take your cues from the bereaved.

If you stick to the basics you won’t have to avoid the bereaved. Just acknowledge the loss and listen. It’s that simple.


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 at a reduced price for e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "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.

Image via DSC2575 (photopin (license)

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Comment by Sara Murphy on March 17, 2016 at 2:07pm

So True.  I have had some of those comments said to me.  I hate when they say "well at least he's not suffering anymore" as if it helps my pain.  My husband wanted to end his suffering by getting well not by dying.   Right now it's "how are you doing" mostly by co-workers.  I don't wish to discuss how I'm doing so  I just say fine.   On the positive side, at least I know what not to say to people going forward.

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