Why is it so hard to know what to say?

My dad was very sick in the summer of 2003 — he was waiting for a kidney and pancreas transplant and was not healthy enough for the surgery. He had a serious hospitalization in November and never really recovered. He died in February of 2004. I was 20 years old.

At the time, I was desperate for a peer to relate to, but felt that my situation was so unique that there couldn’t possibly be other students going through a similar experience (there were!). Since then, many friends, and my husband, have lost parents. It’s not an unusual experience for a young(ish) person.

My dad. He died at 54 after living for 25 years with unexplained autoimmune related illnesses.

As others lost parents, I began to fancy myself as a sage on the matter. But, even though I know what it’s like to feel deep loss, and how comforting it can be to connect to someone who can relate, each and every time a friend needed me, I would dread making the call. With the phone in my hand ready to dial, I would feel butterflies and get sweaty. I didn’t know what to say. I was panicked because I felt like I should know what to say; after all, I had been there. Now, after the recent death of my sister, I’ve come to a freeing realization.

There is nothing you can say to make them feel better.

Maybe that thought makes your stomach sink — but it’s true. There are no words to relieve the pain of grief, and it’s no one’s job to remove the pain of grief. But what is incredibly important is for your friend/family member to know that you are there — to listen, to sit around silently, to run an errand, to hug, to watch mindless TV, to complain to. Follow their lead and do what they want to do. It is in our nature to try to right a wrong. Don’t. Death, whether expected or unexpected, is a wrong that cannot be fixed.

Right…uh…so what should I say?

While it’s true that you can’t say something to make them feel better, you can definitely avoid some phrases that are almost guaranteed to make them feel worse. A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything that you’d find on a traditional sympathy/empathy card. In the early days of grief, steer away from these fan favorites (even if you truly believe them):

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • S/he is in a better place
  • God will only give you what you can handle
  • May your memories give you comfort
  • He/She will always be with you
  • He/She is watching over you/your guardian angel

Some of these statements assume you know the spiritual leanings of the bereaved, and unless you are 110% sure of their beliefs in the afterlife, it’s best to avoid the subject.

It’s true that memories will eventually provide comfort for most, but many memories will likely be painful for most people until a significant amount of time has passed.

This type of card is pretty tone deaf: it glorifies memories in a time when many memories are sore, and it proclaims a happier future. Maybe brighter days are ahead…maybe they’re not. (We hope the former, but no one knows, and people resent being told their future by greeting cards.)

Can’t, Shan’t, Won’t — what DO I say?

In one of my grief groups, a mother shared a story of a sympathy card that touched her like no other. The first line read, “No! No! No!” This woman was relieved to find someone who was willing to share the anguish that they felt at the loss of this woman’s child. So many cards lean towards formality and stiffness. Don’t be afraid to share your real emotions, especially if the bereaved is a friend or family member (basically anyone closer than an acquaintance).

If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s ok to say so. I recently approached someone who had lost a child and in my babbling I realized that I was having a hard time matching my words to my sentiment. My speech was awkward. I stopped myself and told her, “I’m sorry if this is coming out awkward. I’m just trying to let you know how sorry I am.” She touched my arm. She knew I felt so sad, and that seemed to be enough. Her daughter died in a tragic accident, there really aren’t eloquent words to match what had happened, and sometimes confessing that you don’t have the words is really the best thing to say.

The sentiment in this Emily McDowell Studio card perfectly describes what so many of us are feeling when we try to comfort a loved one.

When crafting your card or calling your friend, keep these points in mind:

  • Be sincere and share how you’re feeling without overshadowing their grief
  • Don’t make the card about you, but it’s ok to let them know you are sad by the death or you’re hurt because of their pain
  • Share a fond memory if you have one — especially if it’s a memory the receiver is unaware of
  • If you want to offer help, be specific. If you can make a commitment, do it.
  • Avoid ‘call me if you need me’ — this puts the burden of action on the person you are trying to help. Instead say, ‘I will bring you dinner next week’, or ‘I can watch the kids for you on Friday morning’ and follow up on your offer

To further explore these ideas, check out Lucy Kalanithi’s recommendations for condolence cards. Lucy’s husband Paul wrote When Breath becomes Air.

Another great resource is Megan Devine, the author of It’s OK You’re Not OK. This video is a great intro to some of the points mentioned above and further expands on uses of language and helpful support.

Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying anything at all. It’s better to say something awkward then to be silent. They will remember your silence, and even if you say something unhelpful, it will be clear that you care.




Navigating sibling & parent loss and trying to change the way people support each other in grief. Founder at www.hereforyou.co

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Kellyn Shoecraft

Kellyn Shoecraft

Navigating sibling & parent loss and trying to change the way people support each other in grief. Founder at www.hereforyou.co

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