What do you say to someone who's experiencing a loss? A how-to guide.
For folks who haven't experienced a significant loss (the death of a loved one, divorce, losing a job, a scary diagnosis), reaching out to someone who has can feel overwhelming.
What if I say the wrong thing?
What if I offend them?
Do I know this person well enough to acknowledge something so…personal?
More than likely, though, hesitation to reach out/complete avoidance of contact has more to do with a discomfort at the idea of being vulnerable with your own emotions. Being vulnerable is HARD, y'all.
And then, even for folks who have, themselves, experienced a significant loss, reaching out to someone else might bring up emotions you're trying to keep tightly packaged up inside you…and you're scared to let them out.
Ok, well. I can't help you navigate your own feelings. But good lord do I have experience on the receiving end of condolences and well-wishes! I can tell you some ideas of great things to say and things you might want to avoid, all in the hopes that you might use one of these ideas to connect with someone in need.
My two cents here is that you should always, always try to connect. Grievers need you.
Note 1: Any of these could be said in-person, on a phone call, in a text, a card, or an email.
Note 2: I recorded a Reel on Instagram to share some of these ideas. Check it out! And share!
Note 3: Clearly these are all my personal opinions. You might disagree with some of them. That's ok! Everyone's different.
Things to say/do:
When in doubt, try: "I'm so sorry for your loss."
It's short and sweet, authentic, and doesn't need a reply. A quick drive-by condolence.
Variations include: "I'm so sorry to hear the news," "I'm so sorry about what happened," and "I'm just so sorry."
Offer a specific way to help and make a plan to do it: "Hey I'd love to bring you dinner one night this week. What's your address and when's the best time for me to stop by?"
It takes the burden off the griever to ask for help, and it's hard for them to turn you down out of humility even though they really want to say yes when you go ahead and step right in with the game-plan.
Variations include: Sending over a DoorDash/Grubhub/Uber Eats gift card without asking if they need it (trust me, they need it), "What's your favorite kind of pizza? Great, I'm bringing you some," Buying groceries for a week and delivering them to their door.
An example: A guest on Griefcast (one of my favorite grief podcasts) shared that when his father died and he was out of town for the funeral, he was so touched to come back and find that his roommate cleaned his room for him and did his laundry. Just to do something to make his life easier.
If a death: Tell a story you remember about their loved one.
My favorite thing to this day is when I get unsolicited messages with stories about my dad or my mom. Learning a new story, or hearing an old one, brings me joy and helps me grieve all at the same time. I really love it.
A few days after my dad died, my best friend emailed me, my brother, and my dad's wife a very detailed list of her favorite memories of my father and it was incredibly touching. Meant so much to me.
Variations include: Sharing old photos of their loved one, asking around for other people to tell stories of the loved one and consolidating them into one email/letter/book.
Send flowers or a plant.
This really works for any kind of significant loss. Couple with a card that says "I'm so sorry for your loss," and you've got yourself some A+ condolences, right there.
A quick story: When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, people sent a lot of plants to our house. Like…a LOT. Spath plants/peace lilies adorned my house like a jungle really my entire childhood. Anyway, when my dad died, I gave my ex very specific directions that if anyone asked if they could/should send flowers to say "ABSOLUTELY NO SPATH PLANTS, PLEASE." I still got sent one and my ex took it upon himself to take care of it (I had asked him to throw it away) and keep it in his office out of my sight.
A note: It's nice when people send flowers to the funeral home so that there are flowers actually at the burial. Some people sent flowers to my home AND to the funeral home, and it meant the world.
If a death: Make a donation in honor of their loved one.
Sometimes obituaries will denote "In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to…xyz" – go for it, if that's the case, and don't send flowers
I loved it when someone would donate somewhere creative that I wouldn't have thought of in honor of my dad, but something that reflected on his relationship with them, and then they'd send the notice to me.
Add a parenthetical to any message you send or any voicemail you leave: "Don't worry about responding to this."
THIS. I don't know who first did this for me, but it was game-changing. It lifted the burden off of me as the griever from feeling like I needed to reply immediately, and usually I felt up to it later after days or weeks.
Every. single. time. now that I reach out to someone who is grieving, I include the parenthetical and write something along these lines: "(Please don't worry about responding to this note.) Hi friend. I'm so sorry for your loss...." etc.
Things to avoid saying/doing:
"Let me know if there is anything I can do to help!"
It was always gut wrenching when someone wrote or said this to me. (Sometimes I'd respond with a sarcastic "Resurrect my dad? Kthx.") Because there were infinite things I wanted and needed but I truly didn't even know how to process or start asking for help. I was already drained emotionally, so I had no desire to make myself more vulnerable by asking anyone for anything. I see this statement as really an empty condolence that doesn't help the griever, but makes the speaker feel good inside.
Alternative: See above regarding making a specific offer to help. Or really pick anything else to say/do above.
"Look on the bright side…they're in a better place now…you'll be fine soon enough…you got this!!!!" [Insert any kind of toxic positivity]
Oof. This is tied in terms of gut-wrenching-ness with the sentence above. Just after the loss, you don't got this. And someone telling you that you do? It feels like you're worthless/not good enough. Please, I'm begging you, don't say this.
Alternative: Make a donation, because that's something positive you can do, yourself. Or say any of the phrases/do any of the actions in the previous section.
"I know how you feel" [Tell your own long story of a similar loss]
Ok this one requires a bit of nuance, because sometimes connecting with someone else who has experienced the same loss as you can be incredibly helpful as a griever. But you have to do it pretty carefully. What is challenging is when someone shares a long, detailed story of loss…basically what you're doing is putting more emotional burden on the griever, who is already strapped emotionally. In the immediate days after the loss, you feel like absolutely no one can ever understand the particular grief you're experiencing. So when someone says something like "I know how you feel," your gut instinct is to yell back at them, "No you effing don’t, lady!" Because your loss is still so raw and personal.
Alternative: Pick any of the things in the previous section to say/do instead. OR, if you really do want to make a connection over grief, you could say something like, "If you ever want to talk in the future, I experienced a loss that I feel like might be a similar experience. No pressure." Use your best judgment here.
Only reach out right after the loss.
In the weeks and months after a loss, it can feel so eerily quiet…like everyone around you got back to normal, but you still have this gaping wound and absolutely no one cares anymore. It meant the world when folks would check in on me (and actually still do!) just to say hi and say they care, or share a quick memory of my dad.
Alternative: Send a text or call a few weeks and/or months after the loss/regularly check in! Can be as simple as "Hi, I was just thinking about you and wanted to see how you are doing." My favorites are when people text me "Hey I was just thinking about your daddy and thought I'd say hi <3" I have a friend who texts me every time she's near my dad's old office, and I love that.
If you know the person and they are religious and you connect in that way (i.e. you go to church/religious services together), please ignore this one and you do you!
But if you don't know the person well, receiving religious mementos or scripture can be very uncomfortable. I'm Jewish, and the times when folks – who I know meant well – reached out to me with scripture or religious imagery from faiths other than my own ...it made me feel really awkward.
Alternative: Pick something from the section above – like sending a plant!
Whew! I hope the ideas here are helpful. They've been in my brain for a long time, and it's amazing to see them out in the world for y'all to see.