How to comfort those who grieve? What to say?

"Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles."
- Confucius, The Analects

When someone you love loses a loved one, your first instinct is to comfort. Follow that instinct. If you are sincere, your heartfelt words and expressions of love are always welcome. There are a few suggestions I would add. Here are my top 6.

  1. Refrain from comparing tragedies. Even if you have experienced a similar loss in your life, no one really understands the loss of each unique relationship we hold dear. It's always better to listen. Let those who are grieving tell you how they are feeling. You never want to minimize or assume you know what the person is experiencing. It certainly helps to have a network of people who have experienced loss and empathize. Just don't expect every person to experience death in the same way.
  2. Avoid philosophizing and religious platitudes. Of course some people have a faith that adds sustaining power in times of trial and heartache. I am one of those people. The stillbirth of our first son brought me closer to God than any other experience I had thus far. But let the grief stricken come to terms with their faith privately. Regardless of their religious belief or life philosophy, death's separation will still be painful. Faith does not take away suffering and may even cause additional pain when friends suggest that the deceased is in a better place. Remember again the opening thought. Sincerity is the key. Pay attention to those who grieve and let them lead your conversation.
  3. Listen Listen Listen. It may sound like your words are not needed as you look over my top three suggestions. Of course a sincere "I'm sorry", or even "I don’t know what to say" are appropriate. Sharing something you loved and admired about the deceased is also comforting. Keep in mind that nothing you can do or say will ever fix the problem. Be perceptive to the needs of those who grieve. Let them talk about the tragedy, things they love about the deceased, moments they'll miss, regrets. Don’t ask prying questions and don't feel awkward if all they need is someone to sit with them. Maybe they need a laugh, maybe they need a shoulder to cry on, maybe they need to stare at the walls in shock. Don’t offer suggestions, just let those who mourn grieve the way they need to grieve.
  4. Take care of practical matters. Serve where you see a need. It's sometimes difficult to see what type of service is necessary. You won’t be able to take away grief, but you can lighten the burden of everyday pressures. As you visit, you can clean a kitchen, take a child for the afternoon, walk the dog, start a load of laundry, bring a meal. Some people are uncomfortable with accepting a helping hand so again, this is a time to be sensitive and listen. It doesn't hurt to ask what they need, but often times they won’t know how to respond. When my friend and neighbor suddenly passed away, leaving her grief stricken husband and 3 young sons, some neighbor women offered to clean their home and do laundry every week for a number of months. It was greatly appreciated by the overwhelmed father.
  5. Allow the person the time to grieve and let them grieve in their own way. One of the most hurtful things someone said to me just a day after we lost our baby was "You need to quit dwelling on it" What I wanted to do was stare at the walls with my husband's arm around me and just feel the loss. We were in shock and the occasional visit from friends and neighbors was a beautiful thing but really we just wanted to sit in the quiet. I didn't want to read, or watch a movie, or go for a walk, or really do anything. Everyone is different. Some people may want people around to talk to while others want privacy. The important thing to remember is grieving is deeply personal and those who support and love the bereaved need to allow for individual differences.
  6. Don’t disappear. Especially after memorials and funerals are concluded, make sure to provide the same loving support in the weeks that follow. You don't need to bring a gift or a meal. Just a note or a call or a visit and an "I was thinking about you" will let them know you care.

"Those who journey to higher ground love the Lord with all their hearts. … They also love Heavenly Father's children, and their lives manifest that love. They care for their brothers and sisters. They nurture, serve, and sustain their spouses and children. In the spirit of love and kindness, they build up those around them. They give freely of their substance to others. They mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort."
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "Journey to Higher Ground," Ensign, Nov. 2005, 19.