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What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving (and how to listen)

When someone we care for is grieving a death or a new diagnosis, it can be hard to know what to say or do. You don’t want to say the wrong thing nor do you want to ignore what they are going through. You may even feel powerless knowing you cannot bring their loved one back nor heal them of an illness. But perhaps, instead of focusing on “saying the right thing”, you can create a safe space where your loved one can share their feelings and be heard. Here we offer 4 ways to better support your grieving loved one.

1. Understand that Grief is a Process

Grief is a process where an individual can experience a range of emotions, including shock, relief, sadness, anger, guilt, regret, hope, and acceptance. These emotions can come simultaneously, in no particular order, and with no particular time frame.  Most people will not “move on” from grief, they will likely carry it with them as they find a path forward. It is critical to understand this as you support someone who is grieving.

 

2. Become a Better Listener

Let your grieving loved one know that you are there to listen if they want to talk. Consider asking them something as simple as “Do you feel like talking?” When they are ready to talk, sit down and listen.

When the name of the deceased loved one comes up, don’t change the subject. Instead, listen and give them space to share stories about their loved one and the memories they created together. You may even offer some of your own memories with the deceased loved one. Consider “My favorite memory was…”. Knowing that others are thinking about your deceased loved one can provide great comfort.

Similarly, an individual who has been diagnosed with a new illness will grieve the loss of their prior health and lifestyle. They may worry about how the illness and treatments may change their life. Instead of changing the subject when they mention their new diagnosis, listen, and give them space to share their worries.

 

3. Try These Responses

Create a safe space for your grieving loved one by offering empathy, putting yourself in their shoes and understanding why they may be feeling this way. Then respond by validating their emotions and experiences. Here are some responses to try out that more effectively communicate your genuine desire to provide support.

Instead ofTry
“You must be feeling…”

“How are you feeling today?”

“What is this like for you?”

“It’s part of a bigger plan.”

“What’s your sense about what happened?”

“How are you dealing with this?”

“I know how you feel.”“My Dad died too, but I know this is different for everyone.”
“You’re so strong.”“Seems like everyone is relying on you. How is that going?”
“Don’t feel that way.”“Sounds like you have a lot of regrets about…What are they?
“It’s time to move on.”“It’s okay to feel those things.”
Changing the subject when you feel powerless“I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”

 

4. Be Open to Sitting in Silence

If the grieving loved one does not feel like talking, that is okay, don’t press them to talk. Sometimes companionship is exactly what is needed so that they don’t feel completely isolated and alone under the weight of grief.

Bottom Line

If you are supporting a grieving loved one, focus on creating a safe space where they can share their emotions and feelings. Offer empathy and validation to more effectively communicate that you care for this person and the loss they are experiencing. Try out the empathic responses above, and then listen for what comes next.

Carrying Grief and Finding a Way Forward

Grief comes in many forms from the loss of a loved one to the loss of one’s own future in the setting of a new diagnosis.  If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of grief and want support in finding a way forward, come work with us!

 

Ashwini Bapat, M.D. is a palliative care doctor, coach, and co-Founder of EpioneMD. She completed her Internal Medicine residency and Hospice & Palliative Medicine fellowship at Yale-New Haven Hospital and then worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is inspired and awed by human resilience and the mysteries intrinsic to life and death.

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