What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say (And What To Do After)

What to Say

Searching for words of comfort to offer a grieving person is often harder than one would expect. If you ask anyone who has grieved before, odds are they will probably tell you that the default condolences are actually some of the most robotic sounding and least comforting words to hear during times of pain and struggle. Why do we say “I’m sorry” to a person who is experiencing loss? It’s not your fault. The Dougy Center, another center serving grieving children and families, did a unique survey amongst the children and teens from their program, asking them how it felt to be told “I’m sorry” over and over again. Overall, they said it just wasn’t helpful, often creating an awkward pause in the conversation. You can find out more about that project here. Depending on your relationship with the person and the tone of the conversation, “I’m sorry,” may have an appropriate place. If you can’t bring yourself to say anything else, try “I’m so sorry to hear this.” Do your best to read what the grieving person needs to hear. Other genuine, more thoughtful options include:

  • “I’m so sad to hear that”
  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “I’m here for you”
  • “Do you want to talk about it more?”
  • “Can I give you a hug? / Sending you hugs”
  • “Let me know what you need from me”
  • “I know you’ll miss them”
  • “That sucks”
  • or simply, “I love you”

If still nothing feels right, be authentic; it’s okay to admit that you don’t know what to say. Sharing news that a loved one has died can be an exhausting task for the griever. Compassionate responses provide more validation and sincerity than any default or minimizing response. Although it may be uncomfortable for you, try your best to remain calm, offer a sincere listening ear, and display your most heartfelt reaction and care.

What to Do After

Once initial condolences have been shared, you can make a real difference to the griever if you offer concrete support. Most grievers won’t know how to ask for help, or what they even exactly need. For grieving adults, offering to help drive the kids on Tuesdays and Fridays, or offering to help make and stay for dinners on Thursdays can be really helpful and uplifting. For grieving children and teens, offering to take them to a special space or take part in a favorite activity is a great distraction and opportunity to strengthen a relationship.

Sending cards or messages of acknowledgment on special days like anniversaries, birthdays, or other significant dates can provide a source of comfort to children and families, reminding them that they are not alone in remembering and missing their special person and that they are thought of.

Keeping in mind that a grieving caregiver usually accompanies a grieving child or teen is important. Other caregivers can play an important role here during these times since usually, they can be more emotionally available to the grieving child or teen. If you are in a position to help, utilizing this role may help the grieving child or teen in your life share more freely about their feelings, lifting a weight that they were avoiding unleashing onto their grieving caregiver.

You could offer to take them to a place that was special to them and their lost loved one, encourage them to write their special person a note and send it off via balloon or paper boat, or create an age-appropriate activity that helps them sort through and recognize their overwhelming feelings. For all caregivers looking to help navigate the healing process for both themselves and the children/teens in their lives, the National Alliance for Grieving Children has created a family-friendly workbook for all ages that you can access here. Of course, only offer what you can and continue taking care of yourself.

Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.