What do I say?

Have you ever found yourself at a loss for words or unsure of what to say to someone following a tragedy or other highly emotional event?

February was a tough month for me.  From hospital visits to sitting with our close friends as they were losing their son to cancer.  Over and over, I listened as friends struggled to know what to do – what to say?  It is in moments such as these that we feel truly helpless.

Although I typically focus on more humorous articles, given the tumultuous events of late, perhaps a conversation about the power of language might be helpful.

When someone you know has lost a loved one, it’s very difficult to know what to say. You can stammer and stumble around with the best of intentions. Others will avoid the person altogether fearing they will say the wrong thing and make it all worse somehow.

The loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult times in our lives. If you want to offer your sympathy, don’t be afraid to do so. Even if you don’t know the person very well, a few words can mean a lot.

There are a few encouraging words to say to help someone understand that you are truly sorry for the loss being experienced, and words you should probably try very hard to avoid.

I’m sorry for your loss” is one of the most commonly used phrases. It conveys your feelings, without being overly sentimental. Many people find this is the easiest thing to say to someone who is dealing with the loss of a loved one. Simply put, you are offering your sympathy while acknowledging the grief that someone is feeling.

“Is there anything you need?”
Few grieving people will ask for help because they are usually too overwhelmed to assess and prioritize their needs. Friends should offer to do something specific and remember to get permission before taking action.

Instead of making a vague offer, you might say:
“I’m going to the grocery store this afternoon and I’ll be glad to shop for you. When should I stop by for your list?”

“If you need to talk, call me” is an open door invitation to allow someone to unload the feelings off on you. Be sure you are able to listen, should they call or stop by. Many times a grieving person will not be able to talk about the pain for several days or even weeks. It’s nice for them to know you are available when the time comes.

Every person and situation is unique. If you want to share how you felt when you experienced a loss, that’s fine. But bite your tongue if you’re ever tempted to compare two people’s grief.

Avoid uttering these phrases altogether:

I know how you feel
Look on the bright side
It could have been much worse
Shouldn’t you be over this by now?
It’s probably for the best

Avoid trying to find a lesson in the event. Don’t say “The Lord has something more,” “It was God’s will”, “It was just his time”, or “The Lord must have needed him more that we did.”

Sadness is the normal, healthy response to the death of a loved one.  If silence and tears are all you can muster, then so be it – that is still preferable to staying away.

Whenever in doubt as to what to say or what impact your words may have on the bereaved, don’t say anything.  Use nonverbal language.  Holding hands, offering up a smile with eye contact can “speak” adequately about what you want to express.

Sometimes – and you will sense these times – no words are necessary other than, “May I give you a hug?” Your hug represents many unspoken words. Even better, your hug will be felt long after it has been given.