Monday, May 14, 2012


I don’t know about you, but I almost always feel at a loss for words when a friend loses someone close to them, probably because death makes me uncomfortable and I’m stupidly thinking about saying the right thing instead of my bereft friend’s feelings.  Having recently been on the receiving end of condolences, I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one who feels awkward about this. Often, well-intentioned people will interrogate you, perhaps thinking this shows concern: What happened, when, how, why etc., can I help?  The worst is the hurried gloss over the death and the long story about their own experience (I've done this myself), intending, I think, to show empathy but this is of absolutely no interest to a grief-stricken person.

The last thing a grief-stricken person wants is to answer questions or make decisions. The only thing they need is to be comforted and taken care of.  Letting them know you’re aware of their suffering and concerned for their welfare is about the most helpful thing you can do. Make them a cup of tea or a stiff drink or both. A comforting presence is thebest thing you can give a grieving friend. But if you can’t be there, a phone call is the next best thing.  And a short sincere note is always better than a printed card.  

The only words you need are: I’m sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences. The ghastly finality of death does require a certain formality, so “condolences” is a good, respectful word to use.  If you want to keep talking, be sure not to
mention yourself or your losses, don’t give advice.  Mentioning yourself and comparing your loss to theirs makes it like a grief competition.  This is the hardest bit to get right. 

You should acknowledge the  grief: You must feel terrible. Would you like to talk about it?  They won’t really be listening to any flowery words from you, anyway. Grief is a very big emotion and deserves a lot of respect. Put yourself aside and honor the berieved's profound and life-altering feelings. If they want to talk, all you need to do is listen attentively until they stop.

Shared silence with a light touch, an embrace, a held hand is probably worth more than words in these circumstances.

Suffering a loss is hard.  Comforting a grief-stricken person is easy.


Stephanie B. @B4Steph said...

Well said. If I had been maintaining a blog when my mother died I could have written these exact words. I'll never forget the person who said to me, "You should be glad you had her as long as you did." Comforting a grief stricken person is easy. You are so right. And I'm sorry for your loss.

Nora Lumiere said...

Thank you.
Some things are so much easier than we expect and require far fewer words.