Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things a person can experience. Grief isn’t linear, and everyone experiences it differently, but emotional support from loved ones is extremely important to someone who is grieving. Although death is inevitable, there's no real way to prepare for the loss of someone you care about. Grieving is even more difficult when it's unforeseen or unexpected, like an accident or sudden illness.
Everyone has their own grieving process, but support from family, friends, and community are vital to recovering from and accepting a loss. If you know someone who recently lost a loved one, there are plenty of ways to help them. This guide will show you how to support and comfort someone who’s grieving, including appropriate actions and words to console a person going through a difficult time.
Ways to Cheer Someone Up After a Loss
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to alleviate someone else’s grief. However, there are certain ways to express sympathy and approaches you can take that help significantly during those times.
A lot of these tips might seem like common sense, but aren’t always as obvious. What’s more, some things you think are appropriate might cause more harm than good. We’ll tell you the dos and don'ts of helping someone who’s grieving.
Empathy is the ability to emotionally connect with others. An empathetic person can sense, recognize, share, and understand someone else’s emotions, whether it’s happiness, sadness, or being upset. In other words, they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand their needs and how they operate. Empathy comes with developing abilities like active listening, understanding, tolerance, and solidarity.
Showing empathy is key to helping a person who has lost a loved one. Trying to understand what they’re going through will help them feel like they’re not alone. Understanding their emotions will help you recognize their true needs.
Understand the grieving process
Everybody grieves differently. There are phases that are expected and identifiable with every loss. Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identifies five stages of grief, which can take place with different levels of intensity. Every person and their grieving process is unique. Sometimes the stages occur in order, and other times a stage is skipped or doesn’t occur at all. The five stages of grief are:
Denial is a sense of incredulity or believing that something isn’t real. This can happen due to emotional vulnerability and/or shock. It’s a very common reaction when a person loses a loved one.
Someone in the denial phase might say things like “I still can’t believe it happened,” or “it’s like living in a nightmare.” They may also try to appear composed or act like nothing has changed.
Sometimes denial can present itself in more subtle ways. For example, instead of denying a recent death, someone may minimize the significance of the loss.
Rage or being upset tends to follow denial. During this phase, many blame the loss on someone else or even themselves, leading to feelings of powerlessness and frustration.
During the bargaining phase, the grieving person starts to come to terms with the loss. Before they accept the loss, they get their hopes up that they could somehow bring the person back and think about what they might do. These thoughts tend to be directed toward things that could’ve been done to prevent the pain and the loss.
Keep in mind: Sometimes this phase takes place before the loss occurs, especially in cases of terminal illness. A person may think they can go back to how things were before, or they might look for ways to prevent the situation.
Although the term is the same, in this context depression doesn’t refer to mental illness, but rather the stage of sadness or sorrow.
During this stage, the reality of the loss starts to register with the person. They begin understanding what the loss means at the emotional level. This can manifest in different ways, such as nostalgia, melancholy, a desire to isolate from others, or a lack of motivation. Many people cry. This is normal and to be expected.
Finally, the grieving person reaches the acceptance phase, when their mind and body reach a state of calm. They understand that death is a normal part of life. This doesn’t mean they forget what happened. Instead, they can now continue living with the memory of their loved one despite the pain of the loss.
Listen to the other person
Being present and listening is one of the most powerful ways to help a grieving person. Listening means giving them the opportunity to express their pain, anger, or any other emotion that they’re experiencing. Articulating their feelings is important for processing grief. Visiting the person, asking how they’re doing, and taking interest in what they’re saying is an excellent way to show genuine support.
Sometimes people don’t want to talk, and that’s okay too. You don’t have to force anyone to talk about something if they don’t want to. This means:
- Accept what the person says and does without judgment. If they cry or are upset, don’t try to calm them down. Just be with them and support them in silence.
- Avoid giving your opinions about how the grieving person is feeling. The best thing to do is not share an opinion about what they’re feeling or how they should or shouldn’t feel at that time. We all deal with grief in our own way.
- Let the person talk when they’re ready. It’s very important not to force someone to discuss something. Give them space to talk about whatever they need at that time.
- Listen quietly. Sometimes the grieving person just needs to vent. Avoid giving any explanation about life and death.
- Don’t assume anything. Grief is different for everyone, and each unique process should be respected. Instead of assuming how someone feels, you can ask “how do you feel today?”
Offer help beyond words
The most valuable thing you can do for someone who’s lost a loved one is be with them throughout the grieving process. In addition to listening and being present, there are specific ways that you can provide help.
Daily activities can be difficult for people who are grieving. For example, you can help with grocery shopping, running errands, household chores, or transportation. Just remember that they might not always accept your offer. If they decline, don’t take it personally, they’re not rejecting you. Some people don’t like to receive help or just prefer to do things themselves.
Keep in mind: Be proactive. It’s better to reach out to the person instead of waiting for them to call you to ask for help. Grief can often weaken willpower, so an active approach is best.
Others ways to show support
Physical contact. Sometimes physical contact can be more powerful than verbal support. With a genuine hug, the grieving person can feel both physical and emotional comfort. Just remember to only hug when the person accepts physical contact.
Share experiences. Another way to support a grieving person is to share memories of how you managed other losses. This can be soothing and beneficial for the other person. Just remember that whoever suffered the loss is the most important person at this time. Only share your own memories if the subject comes up naturally.
Recommend support groups. Sometimes it’s helpful to process grief with another person going through the same thing. There are many support groups dedicated to helping grieving people. These communities allow others to learn, support, and cope in a safe space.
Continue offering support over time. Recovery can take a long time. It’s a good idea to continue checking in, offer support, or visit, even after the funeral.
Giving condolences shows support and respect for a person who’s lost a loved one. It’s not always easy to find the right words; it requires a certain degree of sensitivity and etiquette.
If you’re having trouble finding the right things to say, below are a few examples. These are the most common phrases when giving polite and respectful condolences:
- My condolences for you and your family.
- My deepest condolences.
- I’m so sorry for your loss.
- They’ll always be in our thoughts and hearts.
- I love you and you’re important to me. I can help you with whatever you need.
- I’m here for you during this difficult time.
- I’ll always remember them.
- They were exceptional. It was an honor to have known them.
- Nobody can ever fill the void left by their passing.
- I’m here for you.
- Nothing hurts as much as losing a loved one.
- Although this is the circle of life, that doesn’t make it any less painful.
If you and the grieving person are religious, some of the following words might console them:
- You’ll be in my prayers.
- Death isn’t final.
- May our prayers reach our loved one who left us too soon.
- May their soul rest in peace.
- You're in my prayers, and I wish you the best.
- May God give you peace during this difficult time.
- I know this is a hard time. Remember that this is just the end of their physical life and the beginning of their eternal life.
- They’ll always be in our memory. May they rest in peace.
- I’m sure that God welcomed them with open arms for everything they did on Earth.
- Nothing and nobody prepares us for a similar loss. But take solace that now they’re in heaven in the arms of our Lord.
If you're close with the person who lost a loved one, go beyond giving generic, polite condolences. You can give them a sincere message from the heart. A few ways that you can do this are:
- I’d like to be able to help you, even if I don’t know how.
- I’d like to help lessen your grief in some way.
- I don’t know what to say.
- I can’t possibly imagine what you’re feeling right now, but I’m here if you want to talk.
Keep in mind: Using these types of phrases demonstrates a genuine desire to help the grieving person. There are no words that will take the pain away completely. Staying with them in silence or asking how you can help are ways of respecting the grieving person’s time and needs.
Phrases to Avoid When Giving Condolences
- Avoid cliches. Empty words are insincere and don’t offer much consolation. A few examples of cliches to avoid are:
- This too will pass.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- It could’ve been worse.
- They’re in a better place now. (This may be appropriate for someone religious, but it always depends on the situation).
- Refrain from words of encouragement. When someone is grieving, it’s healthy and normal for them to feel sad, upset, and hopeless. These emotions are necessary in order to go through the grief process. That’s why it’s best to avoid words of encouragement. It could make the grieving person feel like you don’t understand them or that you’re making their pain worse. It could cause them to distance themselves from you or even cut you out of their lives. A few examples of phrases to avoid are:
- Cheer up. Remember that you still have kids, a job, and a home.
- Focus on the good memories.
- Don’t be sad. Look at everything you have. You can still be happy.
- Be strong now.
- Life goes on.
- Their memory is what counts.
- Don’t use phrases that could be interpreted as minimizing the loss. Avoid trivializing the loss at all costs. Although death is inevitable, experiencing a loss is still an extremely painful event. The person who lost a loved one needs to move through the grieving process. Therefore, refrain from saying things like:
- It’s the circle of life.
- We’re nothing.
- We’re here today, tomorrow is uncertain.
- It’ll happen to all of us one day.
- Avoid giving advice. Just because something worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for others. That’s why it’s important to avoid giving advice, unless the person specifically asks for it. Even if you’ve been through something similar, everyone has different ways to cope. Nobody likes to be told that they’re doing it wrong.
A Shoulder to Cry On
We understand how hard it can be to lose a loved one. There aren’t any words or magic elixirs that can relieve the pain entirely, but we can take small steps to make ourselves and the ones we love feel a bit of comfort in the meantime. We hope this guide will help you find the words to console and support someone who is grieving.