Grief and loss are inevitable parts of a full and meaningful life, but what do you say to someone going through this? Psychologist Kash Thomson answers your questions.
Q: What do you say to a person in grief? Do clichés like “sorry for your loss” offend or help? Jane, 49
Kash: It’s okay to say ‘I’m sorry for your loss” as this is accepted etiquette. Other phrases which might help include:
• I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
• I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
• You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
• I am always just a phone call away.
• We all need help at times like this, I am here for you.
• I am usually up early or late, if you need anything.
• More formally, people may say ‘my deepest condolences to you and your family’.
In combination, a call to a friend may sound like this:
“Hello [Mary],I wanted to call you to say I care [pause and allow sharing]. I’m so sorry to hear this news, can I visit you or did you feel up to talking now [pause and allow sharing]. I can call back later if that’s okay. Is there anything I can do for you? [pause and allow sharing]. Do you mind if I call you or visit tomorrow?”
Phrases to avoid:
• Be strong, keep your chin up
• I know how you feel
• You can always have another one
• It was just his time
• Everything happens for a reason
• She or he is in a better place
• It’s time to get on with life
Q: Should I avoid mentioning the deceased person? My friend lost a child and we try and avoid child-related subjects. Rohan, 32
Kash: Professionals recommend just being yourself when discussing topics that relate to the deceased and to use their name openly.
Q: Should I call up on the anniversary of a death or does that bring back memories? Amelia, 48
Kash: The memories are likely to be present already. It’s always helpful to be around and supportive in the days up to and during the anniversary period.
Q: I have a colleague whose husband died 12 years ago but it is the first thing she mentions when she meets people; it is like this has defined her. Should I point it out? Karen, 38
Kash: As a concerned colleague or friend it can be helpful to point out this behaviour, but use the opportunity to ask them if they feel they have accepted the loss and moved on. If someone is talking about the loss very frequently AND experiencing regular distress then professional help is recommended.
Q: I have a neighbour whose husband passed away and left her with three children. When I see her I don’t know whether to ask how she is coping or just avoid the topic. Carla, 41
Kash: Talking casually is great for a sense of normality, however every once in a while it’s great to ask the more serious question about how they are going. It is helpful, as you may be the only one who has asked in a while.
Things to avoid:
• Rushing the person to cope and ‘cheer up’.
• Blocking their expression of grief by changing topics or distractions.
• Judging or criticising their way of responding and coping.
Kash Thomson is a Psychologist & Organisational Consultant at YES Psychology & Consulting.