What to Say to a Grieving Friend

Patrick O’Malley, a Texas-based grief therapist who lost his infant son, wrote a beautiful, beautiful Modern Love essay a couple years ago. This month, he came out with the book Getting Grief Right about how each person’s grief experience is different — and everyone’s story is worth telling. As I was devouring the book, one part that stood out was a list of what to say (and NOT say) when consoling a friend. Here’s his sage advice…

What NOT to say

O’Malley points out that these sayings imply that there is timetable for grief:
“Time heals all wounds”
“You have to move on”
“Grief happens in stages”
“I hope you find closure”

These next phrases, he points out, are by-products of a culture that rewards positivity:
“He wouldn’t want you to be sad”
“It’s important to stay busy and productive”
“This will make you stronger”
“You have your whole life ahead of you”
“At least you’re young enough to have another child/remarry”

And these religious thoughts might imply that a faithful person should not mourn:
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”
“God has a plan”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“He/she is in a better place”
“It was her/his time to go”

Also, ‘my thoughts and prayers are with you’ and ‘Let me know if there is anything I can do’ are two phrases that are said so often that the words have lost meaning, says O’Malley: “Comedian George Carlin imagined a bereaved person replying, ‘Yeah, you can come over this weekend and paint my garage.'”

What to do and say

Here are some of O’Malley’s wonderful ideas of ways to help:
– Simply say, “I’m very sorry.”
– Bring a meal on the two-month anniversary of a death.
– Send an email to say you were thinking about the grieving person or the one they lost.
– When you are with the bereaved person, say the name of the one they lost. Grieving people love hearing it from the lips of someone else.
– Don’t assume there is a timeline to grief. An email a year after a loss could be more meaningful than one a week later.
– Remember the bereaved on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries or any day that you know has special meaning.
– Offer to visit, but always let the choice be that of the bereaved person. Offer, “I completely understand if the timing is not good.”
– Be curious about the grieving person’s relationship to the one they lost. Try one of the following —
“I don’t know how you and Suzy met. Can you tell me?”
“I know the two of you loved to travel. What was your favorite trip?”
“What do you miss most about him?”
“How are you doing today?”
“We’ve never really talked about the day it happened. I’d like to hear about it, if you’re able.”
“I am sorry I did not get to meet your dad. I would love for you to tell me something about him.”

– Bring up your own memories.
– Offer to listen to a grieving person’s story. A bereaved person might be looking for a safe set of ears, a place for the story to land.
– Above all, make sure they know that the one they lost has not been forgotten.

Asking questions about the person who died would be a wonderful gesture. And I also appreciate that O’Malley points out that you don’t have to feel like something’s wrong with you if you aren’t “over it” within a period of time — or if you’re laughing and feeling joy sooner than you expected. My friend Gemma, who lost her father three years ago, says that grief felt like carrying a huge bag of bricks: “At first, I thought, ‘I’m not strong enough to carry this much grief; it will kill me.’ But as time passed, the bag got lighter and lighter. I can’t ever put the bag down, it is with me forever, but now I’m strong enough to carry it. And I can carry other people’s bags, too.”

Is there anything you’d add to these lists? Sending a hug to anyone who is missing someone today. xoxo

P.S. Thoughts on grief, and how to write a condolence note.

(Photo by Elif; illustration by Christopher David Ryan. Excerpted from Getting Grief Right, by Patrick O’Malley and written with Tim Madigan. Published by Sounds True, July 2017. Reprinted with permission.)