How to avoid the wrong words at the worst time
When a friend or family member is grieving, we want to help. But we don’t always know what to say when someone dies – for fear of putting our foot in it. Following these simple tips will help you find the right words of support and avoid causing any unintentional upset at a painful time.
5 phrases to avoid when someone dies
- 'There is a reason for everything'
Don’t feel you have to rationalise or justify the death. It may be unexpected or feel unfair and utterly senseless to the people left behind.
- 'I know just how you feel'
Even if you have lost someone yourself, we all cope with losing someone differently, and can never fully understand how another grieving person is feeling.
- 'At least they lived a long life'
The death of an older person will still be painful. It’s hard to imagine how it feels to lose a partner after 60 years of marriage. Some say it’s like losing a limb.
- 'Are you over it yet?'
Everyone grieves in their own way and it can take years, so be patient. The loneliest time for the bereaved may be weeks or months after the death, as friends and family get back to their normal lives and the reality of their situation sinks in.
Sometimes saying nothing at all can be worse than saying the wrong thing. For the grieving person, it can feel like friends or family are ignoring them at precisely the time they need them most.
5 alternatives to say when someone dies
- 'I'm here for you'
The person may not want or need your help initially but appreciate it later. Don’t forget to check in regularly with a reminder that you’re there for them.
- 'I'm around most evenings if you’d like to chat'
It can be especially helpful to let people know when and where they can reach you if they want to talk.
- 'Is there anything I can help you with?'
Practical support can be just as meaningful as emotional support. After a death, there are so many things that need to be dealt with. Even helping with everyday tasks such as making a meal or picking up the bread and milk can make a difference. So offer - and keep offering.
- 'How are you doing?'
An open question gives the bereaved person a chance to talk about how they are really feeling. You can’t heal them but you can hear them. So ask - and make the time to listen.
- A simple 'I don’t know what to say' can keep lines of communication open. Sometimes there are no ‘right’ words but it’s important to keep talking - about anything and everything. It shows you’re there and that you care.
If you're still unsure how to start the conversation, try sending a card or letter, an email or even a text. Then, when you follow up with a phone call, you can start by asking if they received your message and take it from there.
And remember, if you’re stuck for words a hug can speak volumes too.
Dying matters has plenty of free resources to help you talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement. Similarly, the charity Cruse offers wide-ranging support to the bereaved and those who care about them.
If you found this article useful, you might like time to talk about death and funeral planning. You may also find how to write a eulogy and choosing poems and hymns for a funeral useful if you’re helping a loved one with funeral arrangements.