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Grief Etiquette: Advice for the Well-Intentioned

So many are just at a loss about what to say to a grieving person, and this sensitivity is appreciated! But saying nothing is not a good plan because that feels to a grieving person like you don't care. So what should we say? And what should we avoid? If you care about such things, this is the page for you!

The grief of another is very difficult, and it is understandable – albeit unfortunate -- that we too often turn away from it and focus our attention on ourselves, and our own experiences. We do this when we tell the bereaved, "I know just how you feel" because the truth is that we don't – we only know how we felt in a similar situation. And when we are reflecting about how we felt – well, who is that about?

We turn away from the grief of another when we talk about our own losses, our own experiences, and our own feelings. Indeed, we not only turn away but we further burden them with sadness and tragedy at a time when they really do not need to hear about one more bad thing. Conveying empathy for another happens by staying present in the experiences of another, and not by escaping into ourselves, and our stories.

We also turn away from the grief of another when we offer platitudes – those common, often automatic, responses to loss, disease, death and other traumatic events. "At least she is not suffering anymore" and "she is in a better place", are examples of common platitudes that rarely have the intended effect of making another feel better. We often use platitudes when we do not know what to say – they just seem to spill right out of our mouths during difficult times. Unfortunately, rather than being helpful, platitudes come across as trite at best and are often very hurtful.

Expressing support for a grieving person is actually pretty straightforward – just say, "I am so sorry" or some version of that sentiment. Keep it simple and focused on the one who is grieving – and not about you. Share favorite memories of the one who died, or something you will always treasure or remember. Invite the bereaved person to share – talking about what has happened can be very helpful, and so many of us just never ask.

Always let the grieving person guide the conversation, and do not be afraid of silence or tears – silence allows space for feelings, and tears express an unspeakable sorrow. Maintain an attitude of compassion and respect for the grief for it is not a problem to be fixed but rather a living tribute to one who is gone. And remember that the best gift we give to the bereaved is our presence – there are no magic words to say, but there is something brave and sacred in keeping company with a broken heart.