What to Say to a Grieving Friend

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.)

  1. Emily says...

    Jo and friends, I revisited this *incredibly valuable* post today because one of my colleagues just lost his father to COVID-19 and I wanted to try to leave something meaningful on his [virtual] card from the team. I always find new nuggets of wisdom in the post and the comments and today was not an exception. I hate to suggest this but maybe CoJ would consider making another grieving post given the horrible new reality we’re living in. For those of us who haven’t been local to outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola, or who weren’t directly affected by H1N1, this feels like a new kind of bereavement in a way.
    Remote hugs to everyone. And thank you so much again Joanna, for cultivating such a lovely and useful resource all these years.

  2. Julie Snow says...

    My husband went to work one Friday morning and never came home. The police arrived at our home just as I had finished giving our three small ( 4 yrs and almost 3yr old twins ) daughters their lunch.
    He had been due to attend a meeting,stood up at his desk then collapsed. He was declared dead on arrival at hospital from an undiagnosed heart world fell apart and I stumbled through the first weeks in a fog of desolation and disbelief.
    I heard all the platitudes, cliches trotted out by people desperate to help but with no idea of what to say. I saw the people I knew cross the road to avoid me because they had no idea of what to say..
    And the people who talked of anything but my husband because they had no idea what to say.
    To all those people out there,unsure and scared of saying the wrong thing to someone…..just look them in the eye and say ” I’m so sorry. ”
    Mention the name of the one who has died,not to speak their name is like denying their existence.
    And don’t be afraid to offer help,after my beautiful husband died,a neighbour came round,walked out with my washing hamper and returned two days later with everything washed and ironed.
    The local WI sent someone round with a cake that I always purchased from their market stall, a lovely old Polish lady who spoke no english,posted a card through the door with a drawing of a crying face and a coin for each of the girls sellotaped to it..
    Don’t be afraid of the grieving, give their hand a squeeze and tell them that you have no words. They won’t forget your touch and your honesty.

  3. Cher says...

    I lost my Dad very suddenly 10 years ago, while I was away on holiday. I couldn’t get a flight back, but arranged via telephone for my Dad to be cremated which is what he wanted. On the evening of visitation a woman my Dad & I knew said to me in a very snappy tone…”He wasn’t happy”, suggesting he wasn’t happy in his retirement home. He certainly was! I was so shocked, I couldn’t believe my ears. A good friend of mine jumped in & said..”He most certainly WAS happy; & was going on outings!” The person who made the comment to me had an edge in her voice when she attending visitation when my Mom died. After her statement about my Dad I refused to speak to her whenever I saw her.
    It’s true that people need to be careful when making a comment to someone who is grieving. Their pain is deep as it is without someone adding to it., or making them feel guilty about something they shouldn’t feel guilty about especially when a person is in a retirement residence & needs to be taken care of, but can’t live on their own.
    Saying “I’m sorry” goes a long way, as does a big hug. Do not ask “what happened” when attending a visitation. The grieving person doesn’t need to explain what happened. The person I mentioned earlier asked me at my Mom’s visitation…”what happened”., & I simply replied with..’It doesn’t matter what happened. “What’s important now is that she has the peace she so richly deserves”., then I walked away.
    This article is very helpful. I hope others find it the same.

  4. Jane Lowery says...

    I lost my dad when I was in my twenties. I thought I would die from the brutal pain of grief. You are so spot on with the what to say and what not to say. The platitudes were nauseating and so very NOT helpful. But I just learned here the point about forgiveness. But at the time, I didn’t care if they felt awkward or not. That is how physically sick grief made me. I didn’t care how they felt. Their families were intact. Mine had just been severed. It took years for me to be able to talk about him without crying. Thank you so much for writing this. I learned from it as well!

  5. I wanted to thank you for explaining what you can say to someone who is grieving. It’s good to know it’s encouraged to say the name of the person they lost. It seems like a good way of acknowledging that they are not forgotten.

  6. This was a great post. I lost my mom too soon a few months ago (in my late 20s) and the grief itself has been so painful, and on top of it the way people have approached (or ignored) it has been difficult too. Blanket, obvious statements in cards were infuriating, and broad questions just make me shut down, but specific ones help me process and open up. The options listed here were great.

    I’ve also learned what I will give to grieving people in the future:
    – A plant (instead of flowers). Flowers die and can be a reminder of death, but a plant is a reminder of hope. It also forces you to be aware of something outside yourself and gives you a tiny but manageable project. The little tree a friend gave me at the time is 5 months strong!
    – A gift card for something like postmates or grub hub. Everyone will send food, the fridge fills up, and most people don’t know what you like/want/need. Even though it was generous, my father and I ended up giving away over half of the food that was sent to us. But then one night, 2 months later, I was alone and depressed and the thought of cooking or shopping was unbearable – and I remembered that grub hub credit! It was perfect.
    – A really nice bottle of champagne. There’s nothing better.

  7. This really helps the grieving person know what to say and not to say. It is so important. We all have grief in our lives from time to time. I have had several friends recently who experienced grief. This article really validated my comments and ways to lift them up in a healthy way. Thank you.

  8. Tanki Sentsho says...

    This is a wonderful piece. I recently lost my father and the first two months were heavy. I wondered if I`d ever feel okay. Oh! What a perfect way to put it “the bag got lighter and lighter. I can`t ever put it down but…” I remember it was on the 29th of July when all of that fog just disappeared. My sanity welcoming me in its arms again. I could finally see that even when I could not say my prayers out loud God was listening. All of the attention had gone to mom. No one offered me a hug nor asked how I was feeling. It was painful but God came an comforted me. Am in awe of His love. I am not mad at those who could not. It is okay, I understand. I too just started learning how to comfort someone through my painful and strengthening experience. I am now in a better position to hold someone`s hand, say the right words and breathe comfort.

  9. This is a wonderful list! When my boyfriend’s mom passed away unexpectedly, I remember that our family was gifted a few gift cards for restaurants. While fresh/frozen meals were incredibly helpful, the gift cards encouraged us to get out of the house (when we were ready) and didn’t take up room in the fridge. Just a small thing I remember that would be handy for friends who are grieving.

  10. Betsy Hook says...

    I love this list so much! I think we need to work on rewriting how we handle grief in American culture, as so much of it increases the burden on the grievers and lessens it on those around them. I have experienced an incredible amount of loss in recent years and I think this list nails a lot of the things people said to me that left me feeling cold. The only items I’d add are ‘You are so strong. I couldn’t do what you’re doing.’ as it made me feel like people thought I wasn’t that upset when all I was trying to do was make it through the day. The other is not to talk to them about religion in general unless you know their beliefs already. There is no time I felt less like hearing other people’s advice about god than when I was grieving and life was going great for them. Thank you for writing this post. I have shared it far and wide because I hope everyone will read it and learn how to help friends dealing with grief!

  11. Patricia says...

    Just want people to remember to not rush a person. Everyone experiences death and grief differently and no one should be shamed for still feeling it years later. I lost my father and I have been very blessed with amazing friends who will shoot me a text on days they know meant a lot to us. Who sat with me at my brothers wedding allowing me to cry why I watched him dance with my mother both knowing something was missing. Be there for the person no matter who they lost, often times sitting with them in silence when they are feeling it helps.

  12. Letty says...

    I finished your book Mr. O’Malley. Thank you for having the insight to express that people grieve and mourn for a reason-love and there truly is no timetable. I lost my beloved husband to cancer. He had cancer twice and was expected to die from the 1st one (small cell lung cancer). Long story but he survived. Then almost 11 years later another form of lung cancer was diagnosed. After a month of radiation and chemo he stopped treatment. I saw the changes, pain, confusion and lack of energy from strong pain medications, again. This time to his passing. People do not know the indescribable stress and fear, the midnight rushes to the hospital, the feeling your legs will buckle underneath you when the doctor calls with the latest scan reports. Sigh.
    My husband died at home the place he built himself for us. People think I should move. I don’t want to. Because of him I have our lovely place in the country which was our dream.
    People do get frustrated with me though because I still grieve after 2-1/2 yrs. He’s been gone longer I miss him more but they can’t understand. My own family feel like I am not positive enough. Without words I feel it.
    So thank you, a stranger I have never met for helping me understand myself and my feelings. To all of you out there that lost loved ones I am so very sorry and I know how you feel. Be well.

  13. Jane says...

    I think Western, middle class ‘culture’ has a lot to answer for. No longer do we experience death as a normal part of life. So many cultural customs are outsourced – we’ve lost a great many traditions and rites and as such we aren’t prepared for the inevitable fact of death in all our lives at some point. When my baby son died at birth, I found out how ill prepared we as an evolved, enlightened community really were. No one knew how to console me, my husband and our young daughter let alone acknowledge the loss. As a result of their denial and reluctance to allow me to grieve, close friends that I sorely needed fell by the wayside. I also found myself constantly sparing the feelings of others – when they proved incapable of expressing sympathy, I would jump in and rescue them from the awkward situation. For me personally, all I wanted was to have my son’s presence acknowledged. I think there is a special stigma associated with stillbirth despite it being relatively common in the West: I was the ‘unlucky one’ and pregnant friends avoided me like the plague. My advice – be honest, look the bereaved in the eyes and say “I’m sorry. It sucks”. I appreciated the sometimes clumsy efforts of people offering condolences more than the glib, meaningless platitudes which can do more harm than good.

    • Kris says...

      I had a similar experience, Jane. The exhaustion of facilitating other people’s emotions still gets me. So does the way people assume losing a baby is like losing someone older; they don’t realise that this is the loss of a whole life, devoid of memories that eventually have the power to console, but filled with a constant reminder of how life should have been different.

  14. Amy says...

    I lost my Dad on Good Friday this year after a long battle with ALS. My first baby and his first grandchild was born just two days earlier and the thing we found most unhelpful was people saying “at least”. “At least he got to meet his first grandchild”, “at least he’s no longer in pain”, “at least you got to say goodbye”. Because while we are so grateful that my darling Dad met my little boy, it will never be enough. He won’t meet any of my future children or the children of my siblings. My mum will grow old without him. We will miss him every day for the rest of our lives. The words “at least” make us feel ungrateful for the time we had with him when really there’s never enough time when you love someone so much.

    • Tracy says...

      Well said Amy! You have articulated what so many feel in the face of great loss and the grief that follows- for a life time, we never “move on” forget, even with time- that particular relationship, love. pain and loss lives within us every single day for as long as we breathe. Lots of secondary losses that follow, but releasing those that have no empathy, tolerance or understanding is not a bad thing ~ it’s good for one’s soul and preservation from further harm and judgement. Live and grieve on your own terms.

  15. I couldn’t agree with this post more if i tried. Having lost my mum last year, I wish more of my friends could have read this. P xx

  16. Caitlin says...

    When I was mourning the death of a childhood friend a couple years ago I stumbled on this quote that has always stuck with me (and from one of my favorite authors, John Green):
    “So often we try to make other people feel better by telling them that it will get better (which it will) or that there are worse things in the world (which there are). But that’s not what I actually needed.
    What I actually needed was for someone to tell me that it hurt because it mattered. I have found this very useful to think about over the years, and I find that it is a lot easier and more bearable to be sad when you aren’t constantly berating yourself for being sad.”

    I think it applies to a wider scope of feelings than just grief, but I found it incredibly profound and extremely helpful.

  17. Martha Patterson says...

    I lost my sister two years ago to cancer, after a brief fight. I was touched at how many friends reached out to me, most having barely or not knowing my sister at all. One friend said, “Tell me about your sister.” Just being present, bringing a meal, checking in…meant so much. The author Kelly Corrigan wrote an essay on this topic, and she said the best thing anyone said to her when she was grieving, particularly someone gone at a young age, was, “I know.”

    • Marie says...

      ” I know” …is very beautiful.
      Thank you for this share. Martha.

  18. Monica Rabin says...

    A friend of mine just lost her father, and this post helped me think about my outreach to her differently. Thank you for helping me make a simple text message mean a little more.

  19. M says...

    My dad passed away very suddenly 6 weeks ago. He was a dear, unique person and I always talked about him. I feel selfish saying it, but I’ve felt so abandoned and disappointed by the way many friends and family have responded (or failed to). I did receive many “I’m sorry to hear”s and “Let me know if we can do anythings”s–sentiments that feel just as weak and empty as your post says–yet I’d reply, genuinely hoping they’d continue to talk about my dad with me. And nearly no one has! If they don’t suddenly become entirely unreachable, they seem to think that talking about anything at all will suffice. Diversion from grief is not full erasure, it’s a thin veil through which a shadow can still be cast. Conversations about workplace dilemmas and the movie you last saw don’t fill the space that a father leaves behind. Maybe they think bringing him up will be too painful, and I say for who? If they’re thinking about him, what makes them think that I am not?

    I don’t mean to pout but this post is so timely! Reading through the comments has felt quite therapeutic. Thank you so much.

    • Marie says...


      I am very sorry.

      I have been there with not talking with me about “that stuff”. I even had friends who were afraid to meet him in order not to see me down. Maybe find some people, even who will be fine to listen. It is important for you and for your father. I remembered one phrase I heard from a priest on the funeral: crying and grieving for somebody is an expression of love. Love remembered. (I think there was a situation Jesus said about somebody who was grieving his loved-one: do you see how much he loved him ?)
      I had experienced two people who helped me with the grieving: a therapist (it was an accident that somebody died, I wanted to help with the romantic relationship). I had not the chance to meet this therapist so often, I even thought there was not much happening in the therapy, but after the time of death of my loved-one family member, I brought it up…and I felt so ashamed. He asked me how she was (the one died), what I liked about her. I was crying a lot. Couple of hours after. I was crying on my whole way going from the therapist- a long way. Something has moved in me. Before, I thought that I will not survive this death….it was too much.
      Some other situation, another death, the only person that helped who helped me was an ex boyfriend. He just asked about the funeral -how it was (when everybody else had hidden from me). He spoke about funerals when he was a child. It was also very helpful for me.
      I am very thankful for this. One might not need too many people, but someone who will listen to your heart and share your love remembered for your passed father. You are not selfish when you remember love and want to share it !

      Did you love your father a lot ?


  20. katie says...

    I’m preparing for my father to pass away, and while I’ve been totally stressed and overwhelmed, I’ve felt a lot of anxiety in talking about it much to my best friends and all the around me. I was afraid that if I did, they’d be overwhelmed (like I already am) or think I’m whiny or not respond how I needed them to. But after talking to a therapist, I realized how much I needed my people in this process… and reached out. And you know, what? Every. Damn. Time. they rise to the occasion in their own ways, and instead of making me feel more anxious/pathetic/sad, they make me feel more connected with them, and make me feel heard.

    Your post is good advice, but also… be forgiving. It’s hard for everyone to know what to say, especially if they’re emotional about it. They love you and want to be there for you, and fundamentally that’s all that matters.

    • John says...

      Katie, you’re point on forgiveness is spot on. They love you and want to be there for you, and fundamentally that’s all that matters. We are all a work in progress.

  21. Cecilia says...

    This editorial comes to me at a perfect time. I lost my Mom last month to breast cancer and, while I appreciate everyone’s sentiments, I’ve found that a genuine and simple “I’m so sorry” speaks so much more to the core, heart and soul.

    Joanna, thank you for listening to your readers. I wrote to you a month ago about grieving/losing a Mom. The comments alone from fellow mourners are incredibly helpful, and I cannot wait to get Mr. O’Malley’s book. Thank you for writing this piece. It’s a wonderful addition to your growing archive on this topic, and it is so very helpful to many of us.
    Much love,

  22. Letty says...

    If I lived near Ft Worth I would be speeding to see Mr . (Dr.) O’Malley! I bought your book online and by chapter 3, I felt empowered. Thank you for your insight & sharing yours & your patients experiences. I will be reading more again today. I just got the book yesterday. I really need this help

  23. Zena says...

    This advice is spot on. I miscarried at 3 months a few weeks ago and now I’m back at work one of the hardest things to deal with has been how the majority of my colleagues won’t mention my pregnancy or loss even though I’m desperate to hold on to and share those memories to stop them slipping away further. Many people just assume that you don’t want to talk about it or they don’t know what to say, which is understandable. I just wished someone had said something as simple as “I’m sorry for your loss.”

    • Mai says...

      Zena, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sending you a very big tight hug and all the love that you need.

    • Mary Ann says...

      Zena, That is a very big and sad loss. I’m so sorry. I know…sending you love.

  24. keri says...

    having experienced loss from the recent London bridge attack this article couldn’t have come at a better time. its been nearly 2 months and just knowing what to say to those around besides “I’m sorry” and “how are you doing” is helpful.

    • Louise Webster says...


      Couldn’t read and run from this comment. Can’t imagine what you are going through but hope you are finding a way through this awful time. I agree some of the comments in this article are so true and I want to share it far and wide! So difficult to know what to say, I wish as a culture we were more comfortable with emotions.