What to say when you don’t know what to say

The unthinkable happened recently to a friend of mine.  His wonderful 32 year old daughter died of a stroke from a previously undiagnosed congenital disorder.  It reminded me of something my good friend Bert Fife wrote in her book, “The Free Bird Flies, Choosing Life After Loss” about what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one.  Bert wrote her book after she lost her son Philip at age 21 in a car accident, to share with others who are struggling with their own grief.  Sadly, we lost her as well in September of 2011 but her words still apply so I will share them with you.

From “The Free Bird Flies” in Bert’s words:

“Words and gestures that may be helpful:

2. “Your family is in my prayers.” If the bereaved is a spiritual person, telling them that you will pray is helpful and soothing to hear.1. “I have such fond memories of your loved one.” The most helpful thing for me was when people said, “I have such fond memories of Phillip. I will miss his smile.” Any story shared by someone who knew him and remembered an event or special time was the most helpful. Generally, these things made me aware that he made a difference while he was here. It was important for me to know that his life mattered which somehow gave me a small sense of comfort.

3. Try not to make it about your story.  One obviously annoyed woman called a few days after the funeral to let me know that she stood in line quite some time. She then asked, “Where were you when I got to the front of the line to see you?” Her self-righteous tone rendered her unable to consider what it took for me to stand in front of my son’s casket. Please do not require an explanation. Just know it has nothing to do with you.

4. “I will deliver food within the next few weeks.” You might choose to say something definitive that contributes to the well being of the family without creating one more thing to decide. Although eating is not a priority, there will be a need for food for weeks after everyone has returned to their lives.

5.  “Please know that we care.”

6.  Send an email or written note.

7.  Consider making the requested memorable charitable donation.


Things Not to Say.

1.  “You have to be strong.”  One mother hugged me and said these words into my ear.  I wanted to knock her down and ask if that was strong enough.  How strong is enough?  The pain is so intense that to be told I must be anything is incomprehensible.

2.  “What can I do for you?”  Unfortunately, this question was most disturbing to me.  I wanted my son back in front of me so I could touch him.  I would ask if they could do that for me.  Of course, no one could so we both stood there feeling helpless.  I have no idea what to do about anything at this time and certainly can’t verbalize with any clarity what I may need.

3.  “I know how you feel.”  At this moment, it is difficult for the grieving person to hear that statement with appreciation.  The pain is so intense it is incomprehensible that it can be shared.

4.  “At least you have other children.”  If the loss is a child and there are remaining children please do not say these words.  While I am grateful for those children, along with them, I must continue to live in a physical world without the one that’s gone.”

Watching my friend Bert go through her grieving process made me feel helpless and inadequate.  It helped to learn that there really wasn’t anything I could say or do to take her pain away, and instead, the small words and gestures she wrote about above added up to comfort over time and helped her begin to heal.  She also went on to write in her book that even if you said something inappropriate at a time of grief (and we all have), that you are forgiven.

If you’ve been in a grief situation, what did others do that helped you?  Reaching out to others even when it’s uncomfortable is truly Love Applied.



  1. Donna Sedevie says:

    Thanks for this very important information. These are always challenging situations that I am never prepared for. You have shared very practical advice from someone who knows and I am grateful.

    • melinda! says:

      You’re welcome, Donna. It’s a situation that always feels awkward to me, and somehow, “I’m so sorry for your loss” feels inadequate. But it’s not. I thought Bert really did a great job with her suggestions.

  2. lucindad says:

    I found a hidden gift during our family’s of grief. I learned to let down, show emotion, and let others help , instead of trying to soldier on alone and keeping to myself. The strength and love from others was such an incredible gift.

    • melinda! says:

      You make a good point that there are gifts inside of the grieving process. And what a beautiful realization it is to know how much you are loved and cared for:-) Not to mention that us strong independent women can relax and let someone else take care of us from time to time:-)

  3. Reblogged this on preneedfuneralplan and commented:
    Great thoughts! It’s always good to think ahead on these types of things.

  4. Great thoughts! It’s always good to think ahead on these types of things.

    • melinda! says:

      It really is! It’s a topic that many people try to avoid…only life will never let us avoid it:-)

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