1. Acknowledge the person’s death
When you are searching for what to say when someone dies, don’t be afraid to state what a terrible thing it is to have happened. Do it in a way that feels natural. You could begin with something like: “I am so sorry that (loved one) has died.”
2. Be empathetic
Regardless of how sad you’re feeling about this loss, or your own experiences of a loved one dying, you should never assume that someone feels the same. Saying, ‘I can’t imagine how it feels for you,’ acknowledges that their grief is unique, not that you don’t sympathize with them.
3. Be specific
Many people tend to shy away from asking questions after someone dies, but they can provide a way for a grieving person to express how they feel. However, it’s best to avoid generalizations like ‘How are you?’ Here are some questions that might be better: ‘How are you coping? What are your days like?’ ‘What are you doing for yourself?’ ‘How do you feel when you wake up?’ ‘Have you got enough support?’ ‘What do you need?’
4. Talk about the person who died
One of the main things people find difficult after someone dies is when no one talks about their loved one anymore. Sharing a memory and saying things like ‘they were so funny’, or ‘I remember this about her so clearly…’ can open up an opportunity for them to talk.
5. Express your own sadness
When someone dies, it can leave many people feeling shell-shocked and sad. It’s okay to share your own feelings of sadness, especially if you have been a primary caregiver or helped another family member care for this person. However, avoid implying to people closer to the loved one that your feelings are the same.
6. Accept anger
Don’t let fear of tears or anger hold you back from expressing words of sympathy. If a person is grieving after someone dies, don’t try to explain or fix something that’s been taken badly. Just say you are sorry for their loss and refer to some of the questions above.
7. Keep in touch
After a funeral, support can gradually–or suddenly–disappear, but the bereaved person is still grieving for their loved one. This can leave people feeling very isolated. Asking them ‘what’s life like now?’ and ‘how are you coping?’ can be really helpful. Also, depending on your relationship with the person, just be there for them so you can share their grief in your own ways.
8. Break your fear of upsetting someone
People can back off from talking to people after someone has died, because they don’t want to ‘remind’ the person of their grief. The person who has been bereaved already is upset and, as long as you try to be empathetic and sensitive, it is better to say something rather than keep your distance.
9. Remember, there’s no time-limit on grief
Composure after someone has died doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s ‘doing well’ or coping. It is important to ask them if they feel they are coping. Asking them lets them have an opportunity to tell you about things they might be struggling with. Accept if they don’t want to talk about it.
10. Take risks
Sometimes it is hard for a bereaved person to say what they need after someone dies. It can be easier for them to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ than ‘please talk about it,’ even if that’s actually what they want. It’s better to say something and trust them to tell you if they don’t want to talk about things.
Phrases to avoid
- “I know just how you feel—my grandmother died recently.”
Even if you have lost a loved one and experienced grief, everyone’s grief is unique to them and it is impossible to guess exactly how they are feeling. Try to avoid comparing their situation to any losses in your life, unless they ask you about your experiences.
- “Time heals all wounds.”
This comment might be well meaning, but for many people, grief never goes away. In many cases, grief can’t be healed.
- “They are in a better place now,” or “God has a plan.”
Even if you know that your grieving friend is a person of faith, it might be better to avoid comments that suggest their loved one was meant to die. This could make them feel that they aren’t supposed to be grieving.
- “Just let me know if you need any help.”
Many bereaved people struggle to ask for help, because they don’t want to be a burden or they aren’t sure exactly what they need. Try to make offers of help specific, such as, “I’m going grocery shopping, do you need anything?”
- “You need to move on.”
Grief doesn’t have a time limit. As mentioned, some people will love and miss their loved one forever. If the person who lost a loved one is you, let yourself grieve because it is important.
We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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