What to Say to a Grieving Friend


By Eva Shaw, Ph.D

A friend calls to tell you that there’s been a death. You don’t know what to say and you definitely don’t know what to do. You’re feeling sad and worse, you’re feeling bad.

Few people are good at expressing and coping with grief. These recommendations will help you to express your feelings in words and deeds. With these ideas come a few cautions, too.

Call or write a note

Be a grown up, even if you don’t feel like one, and as soon as you hear about the death, call or write a note. Forget about being eloquent. Simply say what is in your heart.

What to and not to say

“Time heals all wounds.” “You’ll have other children.” “He’s in a better place.” Before you express anything, put yourself in the survivor’s shoes. A simple “Please accept my sympathy” is always appropriate. Do not say, “I know just how you feel.” You cannot know how others feel when they grieve, even if you’ve been through a significant loss.

Listen and use the loved one’s name

Be ready to sit and listen even if the surviving family wants to talk about the death, including shocking details. “Why didn’t Pat stop smoking?” “Why didn’t she get help for her drinking?” Unless you truly are able to, don’t provide answers. Rather, if appropriate, ask questions in a gentle, quiet voice. If it’s comfortable, use the loved one’s name. Survivors yearn for their loved one’s presence and by using their name, you acknowledge this special person is still important.

Stay connected with the grieving

Stay connected with the survivors. Know that those who are grieving may not feel like chatting as they once did, but you can remain close. You might want to offer, “Would you mind if I call (or email) every afternoon?” If the survivor says, “No thanks,” give it a week or so and repeat it.

Find a concrete way to help

Be creative with ways to stay in touch. Don’t say, “Let me know when I can help.” Instead make suggestions for concrete ways to help. “Mind if I walk the dog for the next few weeks while you have your hands full?” Or, “I’m heading to the farmer’s market for strawberries. I’ll place a basket by your front door.”

Look for ways to say, “I remember.”

Trim a comic from the morning paper and pop it in the mail. Share a recipe, a cross-word puzzle or a silly joke. Cards, notes and photos, even if not acknowledged, may be just what the grieving person needs.

Share memories

Talk if you want to. Share memories and chat about the “good old days.” Perhaps share something that became a life-long joke. “Did you hear about the time Jack and I went fishing? He brought home trophy-sized trout. All I ‘caught’ were trophy-sized mosquito welts.”

A pat on the hand and a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” are always appropriate and appreciated.

Support through Dignity Memorial

At Dignity Memorial, we remain committed to our families long after the memorial service. This article is an excerpt of one of many available in our grief library, accessible to every family we serve. Find out more about this acclaimed resource or download your free copy of our Insider’s Guide at CARP.DignityMemorial.com. Contact us today to schedule a no-contact consultation and learn about the special savings and benefits available to CARP members and their families. Visit CARP.DignityMemorial.com or call 866-668-1841.