What Are The Magical Words?

By guest author and Hello Grief community member Samantha Halle

As the months and years since my Dad’s death have begun to add up, so have the number of people who have asked me what to say or do for their friend who recently lost a loved one. Unfortunately, I still don’t know any magical words.

All I know are my experiences. And remembering back to the weeks following my Dad’s death, there were several well intended comments and gestures, but no perfect one. This is not because all the people around me said or did the wrong thing. It’s because I was angry after my Dad died.  I was angry that he was gone, jealous that my friends still had their “perfect” lives, and annoyed with those who I felt were pretending to understand.

If your grieving friend reacts negatively to a genuine, well-meaning comment, don’t take it personally. And don’t give up on them. When grief and the emotions that come with grief dominate your thoughts, your logic is clouded and you say and do things you normally would not.

With that in mind, I still don’t know if I have the best “advice” for those who want to help grieving friends in their lives. Instead, I can give you a view into my mindset immediately following my Dad’s death and hope that it helps you understand where your grieving friend may be.

“How are you?”
Because my Dad’s death initially consumed my thoughts, in my mind, “How are you?” really meant, “How are you now that your Dad is dead?”  This was especially the case when someone asked in a patronizing way… “How aaaaaarrrrrrrrreeeeee you?” There were countless occasions when I had to restrain myself from screaming “How do you think I am?!”

Also, I felt pressured knowing that most people wanted me to respond in a positive way. People wanted to know that I was doing OK—that I was good even.

It was as if they needed the reassurance that I was OK so they too could feel OK about the fact that their lives had not stopped in the same way mine had. So, instead of hearing how I actually felt, most people heard a lie. The people who asked “How are you holding up?” typically received the more honest answer because I felt as if they had already accepted that my response might be negative or pessimistic, yet were ready to hear it.

The important thing to keep in mind when asking “How are you?” is that your tone can greatly convey if you are genuinely seeking an honest answer. Only ask if you really mean it and are ready for a range of responses. Be ready to hear “I’m not OK.” Be ready for tears. Also, be ready for “I’m doing fine.” And accept whatever answer you get without question.

“I understand…”  ”I know how you feel…”
Just don’t say these. My automatic thought in response? No, you don’t.

Even if you’ve had your own loss, don’t say you understand. Every loss is different, and everyone’s grief is different. Immediately following my Dad’s death, I felt as if nobody could possibly understand the pain I was feeling, and I grew resentful towards those that claimed they did.

Instead, say something along the lines of “I get that feeling, and it really sucks.” Since you can’t understand everything about your friend’s situation, identifying with a single feeling or aspect of the situation is more helpful that the blanket phrase of “I understand.”

Also, if you’ve had a loss, share your story. While I wasn’t able to believe that you could understand how I felt in that moment, it helped so much to hear that someone else knew how awful it was and that I was not alone.

“I’m sorry”
“I’m sorry” was the single most uttered phrase I heard in the months following my Dad’s death. Because “I’m sorry” is typically said as an apology, I felt as if I needed to respond with a “thank you” or “it’s OK.”

Whenever someone told me they were sorry I felt awkward because they had not done anything to merit an apology. To me, “I’m sorry” doesn’t feel like a complete sentence. What exactly are you sorry for?… Are you sorry for bringing up my Dad, or are you sorry that my loss happened?

The most helpful way a friend finished this sentence was “I’m really sorry that you’re having to go through this.” She acknowledged how hard it was for me, and it felt great to know that someone, who had never had a loss, recognized that it wasn’t easy.

Give me an outlet
After my Dad died, my fifth grade class seemed to become a fatherless class overnight. Everyone was not only afraid to talk about my Dad, but also afraid to bring up their own. I wanted to tell people I wasn’t going to break if fathers were mentioned; to not treat me as if I had a ‘Fragile’ sign taped to my forehead.

Things already felt strange for me (my Dad had just died!), and it was even weirder knowing that people were censoring what they said around me. I wanted to be able to bring up my Dad in conversation and not have everyone fall silent, and I didn’t want people to stop talking about their lives because of me.

Instead, I loved when people presented me with an opportunity to talk about my Dad. My favorite thing was, and still is, when people share their memories of him. Although it can be bittersweet at times, sharing memories not only helps me remember my Dad and learn new things about him, but it also gives me the chance to talk about him.

“He’s in a better place…”
Don’t feel as if you always need to be positive when talking to a grieving person. I didn’t always want to hear about how it would get better, nor did I want to hear about the silver-lining, or light at the end of the tunnel.

I had  many people tell me that God has a plan, my Dad was in a better place, he was still with me, etc. My thoughts were simple – I don’t care whose plan it is, I don’t like this plan, and it would be better if my Dad were still with me… here, on Earth, physically.

Others told me to be strong, but there was already enough pressure on me to be strong. Both self-imposed and circumstantial. Telling me to stay strong, or be strong, only made it worse.

I really just wanted someone to sit with me and say:

“You know what, you’re right, it sucks and I hate that you have to go through this, but I’m here for you…and I’ll still be here for you when you want to cry or when you’re angry. If you need to yell about it to feel better, I’m here.  If you want to vent, I’m here.  And, if you need a laugh, I’m here.  I may not understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen, and I’ll still be here days or years from now.”

Even with that in mind, there are no perfect words.

Just… say something…
Many people think that not saying anything will be better than accidentally saying the wrong thing, but the truth is, the worst thing is to say or do nothing. Years later, I honestly don’t remember who said the “wrong” thing. I remember those who were there for me despite not always knowing what to say.

In reality, when you mean well, it’s hard to say the completely wrong thing. Don’t over think it, If you’re truly genuine, your support will shine through, and just being there will help your friend.

39 Comments:

  1. Stephanie Boarman said on April 21, 2010 at 10:27 am ... #

    Very well said.

  2. Andrew Dooley said on April 21, 2010 at 10:47 am ... #

    Great article, Sam. I could definitely relate to a lot of what you said. It’s nice to know that people care and I try to keep in mind that people mean well, but sometimes there are things that you just don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.

  3. Sarah Hodges said on April 21, 2010 at 10:48 am ... #

    I agree…VERY well said. I especially like, and relate to “Give me an outlet” My dad died when I was 13. I am now 27, and I just recently over the past 2 years have felt the freedom to talk about, and celebrate my dad; plus hear my family members tell stories about who my dad was…That has been the most healing thing. I am thankful for this website, and for Comfort Camp Zone. I can only imagine how it transforms lives of people who are trying to understand how to grieve the loss of their loved one. I only hope to volunteer one day SOON! Thanks for always sharing…

  4. stacey said on April 21, 2010 at 10:54 am ... #

    it is so true and i cried thru the whole thing.i just lost my husbad very suddenly and im just going thru the motions.
    thank u
    stacey

  5. Claire Forsyth said on April 21, 2010 at 9:23 pm ... #

    Thanks so much for sharing your insights. This is so helpful for those of us who want very much to be supportive of others in their time of need. I particularly feel reassured by your suggestion that saying anything, even the wrong thing, is better than nothing. I’ll keep that in my heart as I reach out.

  6. Amy said on April 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm ... #

    Great article, Sam. I could definitely relate to a lot of what you said. It’s nice to know that people care and I try to keep in mind that people mean well, but sometimes there are things that you just don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.

  7. maggie nick said on April 26, 2010 at 9:49 am ... #

    sam, what a powerful and beautifully written article. so articulate. you are so amazing! :)

  8. Claudia Aguilar St. Hilaire said on April 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm ... #

    sam, this is perfect. I lost my mom 6 months ago and i still cry everyday, people just dont get it you dont bounce right back. thank you for your well said thoughts, I think this might help my husband better communicate with me.

  9. ANGELA ZYLKA said on April 29, 2010 at 12:17 am ... #

    Thank you so much for your accurate assessment!
    My husband died suddenly & unexpectedly in 2003,leaving me w/3 high school children.
    I still remember a person, after church,asking me how I was doing & I started to cry…she absolutely,freaked out & seemed annoyed that I could make her uncomfortable.She said well I didn’t want to make you cry…& made a swift exit.
    Perhaps if she would have just let me be sad for a moment, I would have recovered & thanked her.But, instead,I felt even more wretched![wondering why she had asked,if she did not want an honest answer]
    It was really awkward & we have never spoken since.So many people said & did very wonderful things for our family…I find it curious that this one incident is so vivid in my mind.It very possible she was projecting my pain into her own
    life…& the thought of her being in my situation was overwhelming.Thank you.

  10. Kendra said on May 4, 2010 at 3:19 pm ... #

    When my dad died I constantly heard “I’m sorry” and I kept thinking why are they apologizing to me? It wasn’t their fault he died. I hated hearing I’m sorry and I still do whenever someone asks me about my dad and I have to say “He passed away when I was six.” “Oh…I’m sorry.”
    Sorry that you have/had to go through this/that is definitely a better way to put it.

  11. Kerrie said on June 9, 2010 at 1:13 pm ... #

    Sam, your article hits home completely. I lost my Mom unexpectedly 6 months ago & heard so many things. To add a few things for what NOT to say: if it was a death that possibly might have been caused by hospital negligence, absolutely positively DO NOT tell the grieving person that someone clearly made a mistake and this never should have happened. All I want to say to these people is “Gee, thanks. Now, how about you jump in your little time machine and go back and fix the mistake so my Mom is still here? That would be great! Oh, wait..what?? You don’t have a time machine? Oh, okay. So you can’t change what I’m now dealing with.” Ugh. And please stop telling me that my Mom will be with me on my wedding day…because sure, she might be there in my heart, but she surely isn’t going to show up in the pictures, so NO, it’s NOT going to be the same.

  12. Debbie said on July 1, 2010 at 1:36 pm ... #

    I can relate to everything I just read. My husband died 7 months ago and my 3 children and I all grieve differently. You are absolutely correct about the people who say nothing. I can’t remember anyone who said the wrong thing, but I remember each person that knew of my husband’s death but never once have offered any condolences.

  13. katherine said on August 3, 2010 at 1:09 am ... #

    The day after my dad died, I remember one woman I knew vaguely approaching me and saying very candidly, “I don’t know what to say to you, so is it ok if I just give you a hug?” That was wonderful. I do, however, remember people hurting my more by saying the wrong things, which were mostly along the lines of downplaying my feelings and equating my father’s death to a break up, or trying to joke about it. If you’re not sure what to say, its ok to admit that!

  14. Dan PLoss said on September 24, 2010 at 3:23 pm ... #

    I know that feeling my dad died less than 4 weeks ago

  15. Missy Hanks said on May 29, 2011 at 11:19 am ... #

    I’m so glad you posted this. My friends husband got sick, had to be put on, then taken off a respirator and died suddenly on 5/24/11. He was hospitalized for less than 2 weeks. My friend had to make a decision since they didn’t have a living will. They have 2 kids, one is a 21 year old severely handicapped daughter and a 19 year old daughter. They were one of the closest families I know. I stayed at the hospital with them from dawn to dusk everyday and just was there doing whatever I could just being with them. My friend doesn’t think she is strong, but she really is one of the strongest, kindest, busiest people I know. All I could tell her is that I have no idea what she is going thru or how she feels, but I love her and am there for her when she needs me.

  16. Debra said on August 17, 2011 at 10:45 pm ... #

    I lost my child who who was three months old and many years after, I lost my beloved father. Only you know your pain, because it never goes away, it lives with you forever. Life goes on an you carry on but the pain is always there, even when you think of the most precious times.

  17. Caroline said on August 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm ... #

    Very well said. Good job!

  18. Geraldine Linnane said on January 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm ... #

    You summed up in a very articulate and inspirational way, how we all feel. Thank you so much. You are a lovely person!

  19. Lauren said on January 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm ... #

    Absolute perfection. Sums up my feelings after the unexpected death of my father exactly. Thank you for writing this, & God bless!

  20. Janet Macy said on January 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm ... #

    Excellent article. You summed up our thoughts that occur when folks say something to us.

    My son has now been gone for 25 years. When folks find out my son died they immediately say “I’m sorry”. What am I supposed to respond? “OH – it’s OK?”

    I finally realized that anyone could say anything and I would hear it wrong because I was in shock, denial, and my attitude was all messed up. So – I decided (after awhile) to just give everyone a break.

    Heaven knows I wouldn’t have known what to say to someone else if that had happened to them.

    You are so right. It has to do with the tone of voice. So important.

    Thanks for this article.

  21. Megan said on February 25, 2012 at 7:40 pm ... #

    Nicely written article. I lost my fiance four months ago. I know it was probably irrational but I deleted all the friends from my Facebook page who didn’t say anything to acknowledge my loss. I’d rather hear the wrong thing from well meaning folks than nothing at all.

  22. jean said on May 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm ... #

    I would be grateful for any words. It is an awkward time to be sure. Sometime people just don’t know what to say, but the sentiment is there. Give them that.

  23. Katrina said on August 15, 2012 at 10:38 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Sometimes the wrong things are said almost out of reflex because that’s what we hear people say. While I had been genuinely concerned, I might have hurt others by not understanding how the words are taken. After reading this, I’d definitely be more mindful. The last thing I want to do is make others feel worse when I offer my support.

  24. sonny ross said on November 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm ... #

    the very best advise

  25. sonny ross said on November 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm ... #

    there are no magic words! the very best thing you can possibly do for a grieving party is to say nothing. just sit with them in silence and support with your presence. read the scripture in Job 2:11-13 where Jobs friends come to console him, but he is unconsolable. he has lost his children and all he had worked for. they sit with him for seven days in silence.

  26. Peter said on January 15, 2013 at 5:51 am ... #

    Thank you

  27. Tracy said on February 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm ... #

    Sam, an absolutely perfect article- Thank you for posting this!…I could relate to everything that you wrote and all of great suggestions you mentioned. Just being there too listen, too cry, a hand to hold, a nod, or just silence between people is so powerful and in a way healing to the person’s mind, body & soul when grieving a loss of a loved one…such a void and a life changing event in the one’s who are left behind to mourn. If you can imagine…I received TEXT messages from a few very close friends, asking how my dad was doing with Pancreatic Cancer, and how I was???? Even after his passing; still some text messages of “I’m sorry” and “How are you?” PLEASE people do not text, email or do anyhting else so impersonal when some one is so distraught with grief! Needless to say those couple of people are no longer in my life. Your address book does change with grief & loss. New people pas through the proverbial “open window”, when the door is shut…..

  28. samarah said on February 28, 2013 at 5:34 am ... #

    thank you so much Dr Deva for your help that i am able to see and speak with my late husband Thomas again after many years of leaving this world so happy to see and speak with him again and i also thank this site for helping me to locate you lakshmantemple@gmail.com i will always be grateful to you because i never believe that i will ever see my husband again.

  29. Liz said on March 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm ... #

    This article was pin-point on.
    One thing I must say though, usually when someone says “I’m sorry,” they’re not apologizing, it’s just shorter than saying, “I feel sorrow (for you.)”

  30. Anonymous said on April 10, 2013 at 8:49 am ... #

    This article is the most helpful I’ve found. My boyfriend’s father just died yesterday. I’ve said ome wrong things, but now I realize when I was thinking I was saying the worst things, they were probably the best things. I am angry. I never had a great relationship with my family. My boyfriend’s family are from another country and I often watched videos of he and his family when he went home. I felt so comforted by watching them. I loved that somewhere out there, was a good family surrounded in love. I was supposed to finally meet them this summer. I don’t want this pain for him. I don’t want this pain for any of his family. That is the truth that I say, it seems to help.

  31. Joel said on May 7, 2013 at 8:15 pm ... #

    Thanks so much for writing this.

    “I’m sorry for your loss” is what everyone seems to say on facebook when an acquaintance posts about a death. It sounds so artificial, like a form letter to me, and for those who do believe in an afterlife and God’s plan, that the loved one is still with you, etc., it seems like a denial of their beliefs. (“Hey, I haven’t lost anything, Grandma is just with Jesus!”)

    Now I will try to remember your “I’m sorry you have to go through this” and will reach out privately to offer an ear whenever they may need it in the future.

    Thanks again for writing about this difficult subject.

  32. Lisa said on June 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm ... #

    I know what you mean about “I’m sorry;” that was the single most frequent thing people told me, and I grappled with how I should respond. .

    I’d urge anyone to remember what it is to feel compassion, and to express empathy and/or sympathy to a friend who is going through a hard time; the full sentence would be, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” or something similar. And it’s not condescending. It’s genuine regret that another person has to go through something so difficult. That said, after some light research online, “thank you,” did avail its self as the most appropriate answer. And aren’t you thankful? Thankful for their conven?

  33. Helen said on July 8, 2013 at 6:47 am ... #

    Great help thanks for sharing

  34. Kevin said on September 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm ... #

    thanks for writting ! It is so helpful to me to understand what my friend is feeling now..

  35. Benihana said on September 16, 2013 at 12:16 am ... #

    Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and feelings. I am at a bit of a loss of what to say myself, and did not want to add burden to a grieving friend. Your words certainly do help guide me to being a better friend.

  36. Gerard said on November 25, 2013 at 7:17 am ... #

    I recall one of my best friends the night my father died walking beside me as we went to share the bad news with some relatives; he said absolutely nothing as we walked 2 km in the night.

    Now, 45 years since then, I can still recall the fury I felt towards him for his ‘ignorant’ silence at the time. I was hurting and in shock at the time, and I really needed him to acknowlegde the situation; to please say something!!

    Now, while I am suppose to know better, I cannot agree with the ’silennt’ ones. They are nothing more than social ignoramuses.

    Needless to say, that night of silence from my friend was the beginning of end of our friendship.

  37. Gerard said on November 25, 2013 at 7:41 am ... #

    …even a ‘I’m sorry’ would have been something; not perfect perhaps, but at least an acknowlegement. Walking beside me didn’t help in the least; it just emphasised his social ineptness. I don’t get why so many people here can’t appreciate “I’m sorry”. Maybe if said too many times, but I didn’t have that luxury. I needed just ONE…’I'm sorry’

  38. Monique said on March 3, 2014 at 11:19 am ... #

    It really is sickening when people say “God” has a plan, or he’s in a better place. It’s belony and it really gets to me. Making me want to yell at the person.

  39. Erica said on March 24, 2014 at 9:49 pm ... #

    Thank you so much. My friend recently lost her father, and I couldn’t even imagine what she is going through. Everything you stated made so much sense and helped my to understand what I can do to help her through this.

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