Things (not) to say when someone lost a loved one

When I knew my mom had only a couple days left to live I texted a few of my friends, letting them know things we’re going downhill. One of them replied:

“I hope she will be ok.”

It’s not easy to get me angry, but after this comment I got furious. She is not going to be ok, she is going to die! It felt rude and inconsiderate. However, he probably didn’t know what to say either.

It can be hard finding the right words to support someone who lost a parent, a partner, or another loved one. You might be afraid to say the wrong thing, reminding your grieving friend of the pain. I can assure you: there has never been anyone that made me think “oh, damn, I forgot my parents are dead”.

I would like to share some things you could say that have always helped me after I lost both my mom and dad. But first, let me give you some phrases you should probably avoid.

  • “It must be very hard for you” or “You must miss her/him”

This one is probably just as bad as “I know how you feel”, because that’s very unlikely. What if I’m actually doing ok this very moment? What if someone’s death was a relieve at the same time, because they weren’t in pain anymore?

I think of my parents every day, but on most days they feel as alive as I am. I can hear my mother talking to me and all I feel is gratefulness for having them as my parents. Hearing someone say “You must miss them” makes me feel like a terrible daughter. What if I don’t miss them right now? It wouldn’t be very diplomatic of me to say “Nah, not really”.

  • “If there is anything I can do, give me a call.”

I’ve heard this one a lot, from many people. It often ended up me feeling guilty because I will probably never give them a call. If there was something someone could do, it would already be happening. If I need anyone to talk to, I would do it with the people I feel most comfortable with, without an explicit invitation.

If there is anything you feel like you should be doing, do it, but don’t impose either. Stick to the role you had before the loss. It’s a great comfort to know which friends to rely on for specific reasons.

Better things to say to support someone

  • “I don’t know what to say”

Nobody really does because no words are ever enough to fill the hole a loved one leaves behind. Yet we want to support each other which mostly happens through conversations, text or other ways of communication that ask for words. “I don’t know what to say” shows honesty and vulnerability. Nobody expects you to have the right words ready when you hear someone passed away.

  • “I’m thinking of you”

Days like a death anniversary or another important date can be difficult for most people, especially when it’s the first one. It’s nice to know that on these days, I’m not the only one thinking about my parents. I always feel a great connection with my family on my parents’ birthdays, because I receive a great number of messages telling me they miss my mom or that they still can’t believe my dad is not with us anymore.

“I’m thinking of you” is nothing more than a way to show that you care. It doesn’t set expectations (“let me know if there is anything I can do for you”) and a simple reply like “thank you” is enough.

  • “I miss him/her”

People closest to the deceased are often considered to be grieving the most. Meaning that when I lost my mother, my dad, my brother, and I probably suffered the most. But my mom has two amazing sisters and had many dear friends who were also dealing with a loss. And it’s ok to share that.

Phrases like “It’s hard to believe that she is gone” were actually very helpful to me, because it often comes from the heart. It lacks any assumption that “it must be hard for you” has and it made me realize I was not alone.

  • Mention the good memories you have of them

I love hearing stories from people that have known my parents. These memories make them alive again, and it feels great to share these moments. It can be a song, a place you’re visiting or perhaps a picture. Because pictures often say more than a thousand words.

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