Knowing what to say to a close friend who’s just lost a parent can leave us tongue-tied. It’s heart-wrenching to witness their pain, especially when the loss is permanent and the person they lost is so significant. When offering support, it’s not uncommon to say things like: “I’m sorry for your loss, but at least she/he lived a meaningful life” or “It will be okay. Time heals all wounds.”
However, comforting friends by putting a positive spin on grief doesn’t always convey empathy and understanding. But finding the perfect sentiment can be tricky: Everyone mourns differently, which means there isn’t one perfect response. And if we haven't experienced something similar, it can cause us to feel unsure about how to help. At times, fear of saying the wrong thing may lead us to do nothing, which can make our grieving friend feel even worse.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one standard “Grief Etiquette 101” manual, but if you don’t want to sound like a generic Hallmark sympathy card or risk being presumptuous about what your friend's emotional needs are—here’s a script that may help.
Avoid Saying: “Let me know how I can support you” or “Tell me what you need."
Why: Asking how you can support a bereaved friend may overwhelm them. During a tragic time, these abstract questions may feel burdensome, because they require your friend to ask for a specific type of help. Grief throws people emotionally off-kilter. When people are trying to cope with the shock, anxiety, and sadness that loss brings, many may not know what they need because nothing will make them feel better.
Try this instead: Everyone needs help with daily household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and running errands—these seemingly small things can be hard to do for a grieving person. With that in mind, offer concrete support by saying, “I’d like to drop off some food today. Is it okay if I come by for a few minutes?” or “I’d like to run any errands you might have so that you don’t have to deal with the hassle. Would that be okay?"
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Avoid Saying: "I know it's tough, but your mom/dad would want you to be strong. They wouldn't want you to feel sad.”
Why: Advising your friend to “stay strong” may convey that grieving is a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, death is the type of tragedy that can rock one’s sense of safety in the world. As a result, bereaved friends often feel anxious. Let them have their feelings.
Try this instead: Your friend may need you to be more flexible and understanding than usual while they're feeling vulnerable and riding the unexpected roller coaster of grief. Show compassion by saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’m here for whatever you need” or “I know you’re feeling overwhelmed and sad. It’s okay to cry with me.”
Avoid Asking: “How are you doing?”
Why: This is someone you're close with, not a casual acquaintance, so you know they feel like trash. Unfortunately, questions that invite one-word answers rarely foster intimacy or encourage honesty. Instead, this overused phrase may cue your friend to say they're “fine,” when, in fact, their world has crumbled.
Try this instead: “I’ve been thinking of you and I got you flowers to help brighten your day.” or “I’m so sorry that you’re hurting right now. I wish you weren’t going through this.”
Avoid Saying: “You probably don’t want to talk about…”
Why: Assuming that it’s taboo to mention your friend’s deceased parent may be inaccurate. This one is contingent upon time and place, but recalling memories of our lost loved ones by sharing photos and stories can be comforting. Depending on how your friend is feeling, talking about their parent may foster healing.
Try this instead: When your friend is ready, invite him or her to share recollections. You might begin with, “What’s one of the most meaningful memories you have of your mom/dad?” If you had the honor of knowing their parent, you could reminisce about your favorite memories, too.
Avoid Saying: “Everything happens for a reason.”
Why: This woo-woo, vaguely spiritual mantra may be intended to offer a condolence, but for bereaved individuals, it can sound like BS. Death is complicated and even in cases where a parent had a terminal or prolonged illness, losing them is devastating. There's no rhyme or reason for it.
Try this instead: Rather than trying to make meaning out of your friend’s loss, let them know that all of their feelings, thoughts, and questions are welcome. “I can imagine it’s hard to understand why this happened. If you ever want to talk about how you feel, I'm around," can be an empathic way to respond.
Some last notes about comforting someone who’s grieving: While many of us know about the "five stages of grief," mourning is not linear, which means healing takes time. Be patient with your friend’s process and don’t assume that the passage of time will end their pain.
Also, death anniversaries can be excruciating. Know that the first one especially may be extremely hard for your friend, so maybe acknowledge his or her loss by sending a card, flowers, or a heartfelt email or text message. And keep in mind, bereaved individuals never “get over” their loved one’s death. They merely learn how to cope with their absence.
Juli Fraga is a San Francisco-based psychologist.