How to Talk to Someone Who Is Losing a Loved One

Published on 12/15/2021

I lost my dad three years ago. Using the word ‘loss’ feels like describing a mountain as a molehill. I didn’t ‘lose’ him; I wasn’t careless and forgot where I put him. He passed away, and nothing in the world could have prepared me for that moment. My world changed that day, and it will never be the same again. Things become okay, I learned how to breathe in this world without him, but things won’t be the same.

My friends weren’t very experienced in loss. They did their best and were a great support system, but there was this unsaid uncertainty, as no one really knew what to do. They didn’t know what to say to me, because all they could think was how grateful they are not to be me right now, to still have their parents waiting for them.

An acquaintance had lost her mother two years earlier, so she knew. She reached out to me, and there was this mutual understanding, that whilst no one else could ever comprehend what we were going through, we both were united in it, even for a moment.

Since then, it feels like I’m supposedly the voice for people who lost their parents too young. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’m a writer and that I never stop talking. Now, whenever someone knows a person going through loss, they turn to me. Several times I have been asked what they can say, what they can do, and I become the agony aunt for orphans.

So I decided to approach the topic once and for all. I could remind you that everyone is unique, and not everyone will want the same thing, but isn’t that always the case with advice articles? Instead, here are some things to consider when talking to someone who is losing a loved one or already grieving.

1. There is nothing you can really say

An article dedicated to talking to people who have lost someone, and the first thing I say is that there’s nothing to say. Seems a bit redundant? I see why you’d think that, but hear me out.

There is nothing you can really say to someone who is grieving that will change things. You won’t be able to remove their pain or loss. You won’t be able to make everything better because the only thing that could is to have that person back.

Why do I tell you this? To remove that pressure. There is nothing you can say, and so there is no point desperately searching for the right words. There are no right words. All you can do is show that you care. All you can do is try to ease their pain a tiny bit, to give them a second of comfort. All you can do is be there.

Don’t stress about finding the right thing to say and just say something. There is nothing you can say to someone going through grief, so say anything.

2. Don’t let them relativise it

Many people have the instinct to relativise what they’re going through. For example, a friend of mine lost her grandmother last year, and when I reached out, she immediately tried to relativise her loss in the eyes of my own. She said that it wasn’t as bad as losing a parent, that she shouldn’t be as sad as I was, as if I’d judge her grief for mirroring my own.

Never relativise your pain. You are feeling this way, and that is valid. Tell them this much. They are allowed to feel sad or angry or any way that they feel. When they try to relativise it or apologise for experiencing such emotions, stop them in their tracks. Tell them that they never have to feel sorry for grieving; you are always here to hear it. Remove the guilt from their shoulders so they can focus on the emotions that matter. Give them permission to feel however they feel.

3. Be a presence

As I said, there’s nothing that you can actually say, but there are things that you can do. When you’re experiencing loss, it feels like the world is slipping out from under your fingers. Be their anchor. Be the person that makes the world stop tilting for just a minute. Show them that no matter how it feels, you’re not going anywhere; you’re here.

You’re here with a small message every day. You’re here to check-in, to distract them, to make them smile, to listen, to talk. Send them a song that made you think of them, send them a cute photo to make their day, send them updates, just be there for them.

Daphne, my sister, said that one of her friends got her small gifts during this time and that it made such a difference. It wasn’t about the gift itself but rather what it signified. Someone took a moment to think about her, to show her that they thought about her—a tiny moment of joy in the darkness.

4. Ask them what they need

What better way to know than to simply ask? Often, the best thing that you can do is just ask them what they need, in general, and also per situation. Ask them if they want to discuss it or if they want to be distracted. I apply this to most difficult situations; I ask my friends if they want a distraction or to talk about it. If they choose distraction, I say that’s fine and that when they’re ready, I’m here, and then I do my best to distract them, even if it feels frivolous. If they want to talk, then I listen and ask questions, I support them.

Ask them what they need from you. Ask them what you can do for them, as you might be surprised at the answer. There is so much going on when a person passes and an incredible amount to be arranged. Perhaps you can help them tick some small item off the list, remove some task that is weighing up their mind but doesn’t involve them specifically. See what you can do for them, and clarify that you are more than happy to do it.

5. Bring it up

This may sound counterproductive, and again, it depends on the person and moment, but sometimes it can be such a relief to have someone else bring up my dad. I ran from my grief initially, and because of that, people might mistake me for being ‘past’ it or think that I don’t want to talk about him. But I do. I want to talk about him even though it is so hard - and just writing this brings tears to my eyes - because I want him to remain a part of my life.

I feel like every step forward is a step further from him. I’m scared of a time when the people closest to me are people who never met him. I’m scared for a future partner who doesn’t know his voice when I tell a story about him. I want to feel like he is still a part of my life, and talking about him helps me do that.

My oldest sister, Manouk, expressed that she was worried people were sick of her mentioning it, so she would actively try not to bring him up and bottle her emotions. But whenever someone else would bring him up or ask how she was feeling in relation to him, it gave her a free pass to express herself openly.

In the right moments, and this never means when alcohol or other people are involved, see if they feel the same, see if they want to talk about it. It’s easy to feel like you can’t bring up your grief because you’re ruining the mood or forcing it on others, so the best thing you can do is to open your arms to their pain, to help them to carry this load.

Don’t be afraid to mention that person because their name is not a dirty word, their loss is not a shameful secret, they’re a part of them even now.

6. Tell them not to reply

I’m giving you the biggest grief hack here, the one I always employ without question.

When my dad passed, someone reached out and wrote me a lovely and long message. At the end of it, they told me not to worry about replying. This sounds like a trivial detail, but I will never forget how freeing that single sentence was. It removed this responsibility to respond and be considerate and acknowledge them. It removed the reciprocation required for a message of condolences when there shouldn’t be one.

You reach out to let them know you care, not to hear them be grateful for your sympathy. But when you’re the person receiving all of these messages, you feel obligated to reply, it’s human nature to feel like we should be so grateful.

Whenever I message someone to offer my condolences, I always include that sentence; I always remind them that they don’t have to reply. Often they will, and that’s fine, as long as they knew it was optional, it could wait. And when they don’t answer, I don’t take it personally; I am just glad they did what they needed and didn’t feel obligated.

Supporting someone going through loss is so difficult, but if you do one thing, it is to remove their need to be grateful. They just lost someone so important to them; they shouldn’t have to be thankful that other people message them. They should be allowed just to be sad and angry and lonely and confused.

As you care for that grieving person, take a minute to check in with yourself, to have someone support you as well. It is a difficult time for anyone involved, no matter how remotely, but this is an opportunity to show someone that they are not alone. This is a chance to be the friend they need most. They will never forget what you did for them, and you will forever be one of the brighter parts of a dark time.

Read about how Hamilton helped me with my grief or the things no one tells you about grieving.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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