How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies

People die every day, but learning the right thing to say when death happens to someone you know is not an everyday skill.

Death isn’t the only devastating loss we humans experience, but it’s among the hardest to handle. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been greatly blessed by the people in my life, and I know many who’ve experienced far more losses than I. But I’ve lost my own share to the Reaper: my grandparents, my mother, a cousin, a nephew, a brother-in-law, my father-in-law. My husband.

When I became a widow, I began noting the broad range of “right” ways others offered condolences. Some were perfect, as if Shakespeare and Freud stood on the comforters’ shoulders, whispering expertise in their ears. Their consoling compassion flowed as naturally as their breath.

Other friends’ imperfect offerings were just as welcome, even delivered with stammering hesitation or stumbled wording. I saw (and heard) that they were anxious enough for my well-being to overcome their own discomfort, and I loved them for their awkward attempts. [See posts filed under “What to Say.”]

I even appreciated the efforts of those whose comfortless condolences fell flat. I assumed they meant well, no matter how poorly they delivered. They tried, and their ineffective cracks at compassion showed they cared, no matter how clueless they were to how their words sounded.

I also encountered undeniably “wrong” things to say to someone grieving a devastating loss. A few of them belonged to the “meant well” group, but others were so selfishly stated that not even Pollyanna could find anything “glad” about them. [See posts filed under “Don’t Say This.”]

As I’ve met with other widows and widowers and with bereaved families whose losses varied from my own, I found my experiences weren’t unique. Wonderful, caring friends, relatives, and coworkers want to uplift their friends and colleagues in their losses. Neighbors act to show kindnesses that reach beyond tangible, outward gestures, touching the troubled souls of those nearby, easing the burdens of the bereaved.

And a few well-meaning folks, perhaps like you, could use concrete advice as to what to say and do — and what NOT to say and do — for a person you know who has lost a loved one.

Please share your thoughts on this topic. Thanks!

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