Tips on What to Say, Write When Someone’s Loved One Dies

Awareness & Research

A recent episode of ABC’s ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ started me thinking about what to say when someone’s loved one dies.

It’s something families who lose someone to mesothelioma are forced to deal with every day.

Here’s how the episode began:

There’s a thing we say when someone dies. We say it to the…family. We say, “I’m sorry for your loss. It’s a pat little phrase, and an empty one. It doesn’t begin to cover what’s actually happening to them. It lets us empathize without forcing us to feel their devastation ourselves. It protects us. From feeling that pain. That dark, sinking, relentless pain…the kind that can eat you alive.

What to Say When Someone Dies

Personally, I think the words “I’m sorry for your loss” are a good choice of what to say when someone dies. It indicates you are acknowledging their pain and that you feel for them. In fact, this phrase made the list of ‘The 8 Best Things You Can Say to Someone Who Is Grieving,’ written by Christy Heitger-Ewing and published a few months ago in The Huffington Post.

I also like another item on Heitger-Ewing’s list: “Say nothing.”

“I’m suggesting that you not be afraid to close your mouth and open your heart,” Heitger-Ewing writes. “Hold their hand. Offer them a tissue. Make a pot of coffee. Ask if they’d like to go for a walk. Whatever you do, let them lead the conversation. Often the biggest gift you can give a grieving person is permission to speak freely.”

This is good advice. I know when I have lost people close to me, often the greatest gift is someone to just sit with you or grab a cup of coffee with you.

Also on the list (along with my thoughts):

  • “I feel your pain.” (Do not say, “I know exactly how you feel.”)
  • “How about a hug?” (Or just give them a hug.)
  • “I’m here for you.” (And then be there.)
  • “I’ll bring you some lasagna next Tuesday.” (Or offer another specific way of helping.)
  • “Would you like to talk about your loved one?”(People often want to talk about their loved one, but just need to be prompted.)
  • “How are you doing?” (Make sure you take time to listen to the response.)
Couple supporting each other
Support Group for Patients & Families
Free online support group helps patients and families cope with the emotional effects of mesothelioma.
Sign Up Now

What Not to Say When a Loved One Dies

When a friend of mine was forced to say goodbye to her dad, who died from lung cancer, I recall another friend asking me for ideas of what we could do for the grieving friend.

The second friend confided in me that the only loss she had gone through was losing her cat. I surely hope she never mentioned that to the girl who lost her dad.

The Huffington Post also posted a blog titled: “The 8 Worst Things You Can Say to Someone Who is Grieving.”

This list is perhaps even more important than the first list I’ve included. When someone has died, you do not want your words to add to the pain their loved ones are feeling.

On the list (along with my thoughts):

  • “Cheer up. Your (loved one who died) wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
  • “When you love deeply, you grieve deeply,” Heitger-Ewing writes. “Grievers need to be sad in order to get to the other side of grief.”
  • “Focus on all the blessings in your life.” (They are usually incapable of doing this.)
  • “She’s/he’s in a better place.” (The pain is still very real.)
  • “It’s been awhile since he/she died. It’s time you get over it.” (Never, ever say this.)
  • “Cherish all of the wonderful memories. They will bring you peace.” (Not particularly helpful.)
  • “Pull yourself together because you need to be there for your kids.” (Instead, you should offer to help with the kids.)
  • “So, how ’bout them Broncos?”

“Though it may seem like you’re doing the griever a favor by keeping conversations at a superficial level, what grievers need is someone who is willing to let them be real,” she writes. “This isn’t to say that you must never discuss sports or the weather. Just try to keep in mind that real healing comes from some of the heavier conversations.”

  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”

I would encourage you to do just that. Stop and think about how you would feel if you were faced with the griever’s circumstances. Consider their feelings. Contemplate their pain. Imagine their struggle. Doing so will spark empathy in you. And empathy is the best thing you can offer someone who is hurting because when you empathize, the right words come more freely.

Here’s another part of the episode that I thought was also helpful:

We can’t get too close. If we felt even a little of the love and the joy and the hopes that (they) are saying goodbye to…we’d never be able to function. So we say, “We’re sorry for your loss.” And we hope it offers something. Some little bit of support. Some bit of peace. Some bit of closure. Something good. Some little piece of beauty in the midst of someplace dark. An unexpected gift…Just when it’s needed most.