10 Things You Should Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

“There was no good reason for this to happen.”

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A grief survey by Slate and editor Meghan O’Rouke, author of one of the gripping memoirs by women who overcame the impossibleThe Long Goodbye, found that sentiments expressing false comfort were hurtful. Never assume the bereaved believes in a higher power, or even if they do that invoking a “reason,” a “better place,” or “God’s plan” will be helpful. Instead, survey participants simply sought recognition and acknowledgment for their grief, without condition. “When talking to someone who’s grieving, acknowledge little can be done to make a grieving person feel better,” Dr. Serani says. “You can’t repair the loss.” Markwell agrees. “There is never a good enough reason for our loved ones to be taken from us,” she says. Expressing this can help the mourner feel validated.

“I know others who’ve lost loved ones and how much they grieved. That has made me aware of what a fight this is for you.”

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A guaranteed way of minimizing a person’s loss? Telling them they’re not the first person to lose someone. “We realize a zillion people lose loved ones, but I am the first who lost my child, parent, sibling, aunt, or grandparent,” Markwell says. “Telling us others have kept on going does not, in our minds, lessen the hurt.” Instead, she advises switching that phrase around to convey others’ experiences without comparison or judgment. “This lets us know how hard they struggled but eventually were able to move on,” Markwell says.

“Knowing it will take time for your pain and grief to soften, I stand beside you for the long haul.”

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One of the signs you have incredible empathy is avoiding platitudes like, “Time heals all wounds.” Recent research has shown that the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) don’t exist one by one but rather in different orders or even at once—so it’s not as if one just “gets over” grief by a specific time. “When talking to someone who’s grieving, focus on the right now and not the future, and don’t put a time limit on grief,” Dr. Serani says. Markwell describes grief as a wound that scabs over but never totally heals, so while you can express the hope that it will lessen, the most important thing is to reassure the bereaved of your ongoing support.

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