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What to say to the bereaved

Sadly, I had a reminder recently of just how much our grief culture today remains unchanged from seventeen years ago, when I lost my daughter. A family member shared with me the difficulty they had in knowing what to say to an acquaintance who had a family member seriously ill with COVID (and in fact, died just a few days later).

Given our own bereavement and the isolation my family felt as a result, I was somewhat taken aback to learn that this encounter still felt extremely awkward for my loved one, despite everything we’ve gone through after the suicide of my daughter. It turns out that the bereaved can be just as tongue-tied when having an unexpected and/or unpleasant conversation with someone going through their own trauma and loss.

Which got me thinking that grief culture today hasn’t changed at all from when my family had our first experience with bereavement in 2005 (we’ve had several losses since then).  And, more specifically, how awkward and uncomfortable it is for everyone to talk about death and grief, no matter which side of the fence we’re on.

Grief culture hasn’t changed at all

I speak and write a lot about the ways in which we can and should change our cultural behaviour toward death and grief for two reasons:

  1. To better support the bereaved in their healing much sooner and more effectively.
  2. To allow the bereaved to create their own narrative around their loss and healing as they rebuild their life.

Changing how we think about death and bereavement would in fact, empower everyone to become more compassionate and sensitive toward the grieving because everyone is at risk of becoming THAT person nobody wants to be. Which is someone who has experienced a tragic loss or risks losing a loved one to death long before they expect it.

Death happens to us all sooner or later

It is so difficult to not only cope with a stressful and/or traumatic life event in the midst of it unfolding, but in dealing with the fallout. The grief process can last for years. But death will happen to everyone sooner or later and will be difficult depending on the relationship we had to the loved one who has died.

Part of the problem in trying to recover from loss is the cultural silence and awkwardness we have talking about death and grief. The safer we feel to share our stories of loss and at least some of the struggles we face, the easier it is to recover.

Despite the fact that nobody wants to talk about death and grief, it’s a reality for countless people every single day. And many of these are sudden and tragic deaths. So, how can we help each other?

The 5 best things to say to someone bereaved or facing loss

  1. Address the elephant in the room by immediately acknowledging their recent loss or critical situation their loved one is facing. From my experience and having talked with many people over the years, I’ve found that most bereaved individuals or people facing the potential loss of their loved one welcome the opportunity to share even a little bit of what they’ve gone through or may be going through.
  2. Ask them the name of their loved one who is ill or passed away and if appropriate, a few other details about them. How much and what you ask will be dependent on how well you know the person and the situation you are in (casual acquaintance versus good friend).
  3. Don’t say “I can’t imagine” because we can all imagine what it would be like to have to cope with a life-threatening situation of a loved one or actually lose them. What we can’t imagine is how we would cope. Instead, acknowledge how hard it must be for them to deal with. Because that’s the truth and it feels more authentic and inclusive.
  4. If you are close to the person, only offer assistance that you know for sure you can provide.
  5. Tell them the conversation feels a bit awkward for you and that you aren’t sure what to say. That you are just trying to be supportive for them without being overly intrusive.

While anyone reading this may not be comfortable with any of the above, but has a family member, friend, colleague or acquaintance experiencing recent or potential loss, consider for a moment that they are not people to be frightened of. Rather, they are people who need your compassion and empathy. Which is easier to demonstrate when you remember that it could be you in the exact same boat one day.

Showing a little warmth, such as giving the bereaved a genuine hug and sharing a few kind words with them that aren’t laced with sympathy, can go a long way to helping them heal. As they say, you learn from experience. We will all lose someone (or in the case of those already bereaved, someone else), some day. I’ve lost several loved ones. Which makes loss and grief a normal part of being human.


Vonne Solis

Vonne Solis is an author, grief advocate, healing practitioner and bereaved parent serving the bereavement community, with a special interest in helping newly bereaved parents and those who have lost a loved one to suicide.