What TO Say When People Are Grieving

August 5, 2016

Katherine and her mom, Genie Cooke
Katherine and her mom, Genie Cooke

The night before my mother’s memorial service, our extended family and close friends gathered at my parents’ house for dinner. People spilled from the kitchen into the family room and out onto the porch. It was December in Florida and the weather was sublime.

A group from the church had brought dinner and everything needed to serve it, and they stood ready to meet any need, from a napkin to a dinner roll or a drink refill. Though I fussed around for a bit and tried to be helpful, I finally realized that they weren’t going to let me lift a finger, and so I turned my attention toward the gathered crowd.

Standing in Mom’s kitchen, I saw my family—three generations gathered from North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, California and Wyoming. Everyone was eating and talking and enjoying being together. It was a beautiful scene. And I started to cry.

Seeing this, one of the people there came up and hugged me. “She should be here for this,” I said, giving voice to my overwhelming feelings at the time. “She is here,” was the response.

I know this person meant well, and I know the words were intended to bring comfort, but in that moment, they were exactly what I didn’t need to hear. Because they weren’t true. She wasn’t, in fact, there, and that was the problem. My whole family was gathered for dinner and my mom wasn’t there, and she wasn’t ever going to be there again. I was beginning to absorb that truth, and it hurt.

It is a seemingly universal truth that people don’t know what to say to people in pain. Much has been written about it, and still we all struggle when we see someone we care about going through something difficult. We want to be helpful, we want to provide comfort, but the fear of saying the wrong thing or adding to someone’s pain can paralyze us.

I have had countless conversations with people who worry about saying the wrong thing, and I’ve run across several articles that include lists of things one should not say to a person who is grieving.

In this social media age, the “listicle” has become a common means for getting information across to large groups. From “10 organization hacks that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE” to “8 foods you should NEVER feed your children,” these pseudo-articles scream from our screens to let us know exactly how many ways we are messing up every day. While these lists can be helpful, I think they can also be a bit too focused on the negative, adding to the inherent anxiety we feel around many of the issues we face in life.

I respond more positively to, well, positivity, and so I offer not 10, not 8, but 3 simple things TO say to someone who is in pain.

  1. “I am sorry.” Yes, just that. Though it may feel simple or even inadequate, this little phrase says a great deal. It conveys sympathy and empathy, and it is enough. Really, it is enough. But if you feel the need to say more, try this:
  2. “Do you want to talk about it?” The thing with people is that we are all different, and most of us are even a little bit different depending upon the day. People who are hurting may want to talk one day, and not want to talk the next. The only real way to know is to ask. And it is okay to ask. Just make sure you are ready to listen if they say yes, and respect them if they say no.
  3. “I hear you.” This one can be expressed verbally or physically (through presence, eye contact and body language). Truly hearing someone without trying to talk them out of their feelings or share your own experience is a gift that cannot be measured. It is not possible to talk someone out of grief or sorrow. But it is possible to provide space for a person to express how they feel and know that they are heard and accepted where they are, and that can bring deep healing.

Supporting someone who is grieving is not simple, but it need not be complicated. Keeping in mind the importance of true acceptance and genuine listening will help anyone to be a positive support to someone in pain.

As I move through this year following my mother’s death, I am overwhelmed by the power of the support I have received. I do not remember many words that have been said to me, but I do remember the people who have shown up and told me that they think about me, that they pray for my family, that they love us. No one has uttered the magical sentence that has made it all better because that sentence doesn’t exist. But in being present, in listening when I want to talk and in honoring my desire not to talk, countless people have shown me grace beyond measure, and for that I will forever be grateful.

– Katherine Cooke Kerr