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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Comment by Niki on August 4, 2009 at 1:12pm
When a dear friend, and my grandmother passed away, I'll always remember one thing someone said that was so encouraging. It was worded something like "The world won't be the same with out Wilda, but now it's up to you to carry on the memories of the beautiful life she lived. She's in God's memory, let her remain in yours, never forget" In my grief I had a mission to carry on stories, and to speak about all the precious moments I spent with her.
Comment by Mary W on July 26, 2009 at 3:06am
Another thing you may want to think about while you're co-worker is out is to make sure her return is an easy one. In my case my boss made sure my work was done while I was out. One of the women I used to work with heard me talking when I came in. She asked if it was me and I said yes. She came over and gave me a hug and I started crying. She said nothing but it was the best thing she could have done. I was so lucky to have worked with so many people who supported me during that trying time. So many people asked what they could do for me. I was not the one to ask because I didn't know myself. My life was just turned upside down and I had no way to put it right. However, when one of my sister's-in-law asked me that same question I told her too I didn't know but if she thought of something to just do it. Alot of times to get answers to these types of questions is to ask another who has been there.
Comment by aline1 on July 24, 2009 at 1:01pm
Hey thanks for your comment Mary W, they were encouraging. I just want to show support and be mindful of what to do during this difficult time for my coworker and what you said did help. I pray that you continue to be strengthened and encouraged by people around you as well.
Comment by Mary W on July 24, 2009 at 12:29pm
So many books have been written for dummies. How about one entitled "what NOT to say?" to person dealing with grief. The best thing to say to a person who has lost a loved one would be you're in my thoughts and prayers and then give them a big hug. They are going to need it. And if they don't want to let go don't. My husband passed away over 2 years ago and I don't think I will ever "get over it". So easy for someone to say this when they have never encountered something such as this in their lives. Whether it would be a child, spouse, parent or a sibling, each one is grieved differently. To me to talk to a grief counselor is a waste of time. Unless that person has personally lost someone as a spouse I believe they cannot understand what I am feeling. Alot of drug counselors are former drug users. They've been there. They know the ups and downs. I believe the same is true for something such as this. I was able to find a widows/ers' website that I can say has given me alot of insight how to deal with my grief. But of course, this is only my opinion.
Comment by Sue on July 24, 2009 at 12:21pm
I lost my 24 year old son suddenly last summer. The people that hugged me and cried with me and shared memories I will be always grateful to. But the ones who said the following:"He's at peace now"(my son was already at peace in life, he died in a tragic accident),"You still have another child"(my love for my son in no way diminishes my love for my daughter),"It was meant to be",WHAAT???, those I will never forget.
Comment by aline1 on July 24, 2009 at 9:35am
Hi, I want to know what to say to a co-worker who just lost their spouse and wants to return to work soon. She always stated, "he's all I got", or "I have no family", and you guys will need to help me through this. Can you give me advice on how and what is appropriate in this situation.
Comment by Robbie Miller Kaplan on July 24, 2009 at 7:55am
If you haven’t already called your friend Terri, I’d start there. Share what you’ve shared with us – that you care so much but you’re so far away and unsure how you can best support her. One of the most helpful things you might do from afar is to listen. You might suggest a weekly phone date; for example, you’ll call every Wednesday evening at 8:00. You can ask her how she’s doing and then listen. She’ll need someone to confide in, someone who will listen to her story as she tells it over and over again until she begins to make some sense of her loss. You don’t have to say much, just enough to keep the conversation going. During your talks, you can inquire what else would be helpful. She’ll receive notes and calls in the days following the death so she might enjoy a visit from you in the weeks or months after the funeral when things have quieted down and she’d appreciate your companionship.
Comment by Lola on July 23, 2009 at 3:07pm
I am so sorry to everyone who has lost someone, It is sad and tragic no matter how old they were, If they were ill or if it was sudden. To each survivor left behind the pain is as deep and real no matter what the circumstances of the way their loved one passed. For anyone to minimize a loss, or to try and one up ( oh yeah....well my friend died from...whatever..) a grieving loved one is ridiculous...I know it happens but it is still ridiculous. But I also want to say, I have expierenced a loss, My Dad passed away pretty young, so I had to navigate my whole grief thing and I did not dwell on the stupid things people said to me,(He passed away suddenly) I heard alot of the" at least he didn't suffer"," at least he didn't have to get old".... I have to say I gave them the benefit of the doubt, I looked at the fact that they showed up to pay their respect and I am sure in my life I have not had the perfect words to say or I have probably said things that could be considered negative or insensitive. I choose not to focus on those" off the cuff "remarks that those people who said them probably don't even remember or know that they offended. If you dwell on the negative remarks you are not focusing on the important things, All the memories and the blessed moments you shared with your loved one, that a few curt words cannot take away. I have to say my anger does get the best of me when I hear my friends complain about their aging parents or if they dare discuss a petty arguement they are having with a loved one..(the conversation usually goes..." I can't stand it when my Dad does ..blah blah blah...and my response is" at least he is still here." end of conversation.) Life is way to short to be petty and to mull over every word that someone has said to you...when it is a stressful time for everyone..(remember they are grieving, too.) So give people a break and give yourself a break....no one grieves the same way , as it shows with all the comments above. There is no right or wrong way just your way and what ever works for you is exactly what you should do. But bottom line, focus on your feelings and needs not on words people say during a difficult time...and truely no matter what they say, how sensitive they are...does it really ease or change the pain? It didn't for me.
Comment by terri trelfa on July 23, 2009 at 9:06am
My good friend just lost her 42 year old daughter..her only child , to a massive heart attck. She is in NY, I am in ND. What can I say or do to help her thru this very terrible time? Any advice will be appreciated, thank you.
Comment by Mike'sSis on July 22, 2009 at 1:56pm
I really think people get extremely nervous when they finally do get to talk to you, and they just try to think of something that sounds helpful. Of course, you always have those people who open their mouths and spew out garbabe. When my wonderful brother died at 29 in a motorcycle accident, my aunt actually told my mother "you only lost a son -- I lost my grandchildren." Her grandchildren moved out of state. Nice. My maternal grandmother said to my mother "It hurts me the most, he was my grandson. You have no idea how I'm hurting." This from a woman who didn't bother to drive one state over to meet him until he was 17. Unreal. I was in such shock that if someone said something inappropriate to me, I don't remember it. I was in overdrive taking care of all the details, because my parents were emotionally unable to. The one thing that really upset me is how, once the funeral was over, a lot of people felt I should just be over it. One amazing person said to me "No one expects you to be OK. If you need some time alone or someone to talk to, just let us know."

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