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Lost For Words: What To Say During Times Of Grief

Lost For Words: What To Say During Times Of Grief

By Christine MacMillan, MSW, RSW    

Have you ever been ‘lost for words’ during a visitation or at a funeral service? Or worse yet, have you said something that you immediately wished you had not such as:

  • He/she is not suffering anymore…
  • They had a good life…
  • You can always have another baby…
  • Remember, you have other children…
  • Tears won’t bring him/her back…
  • I know how you feel…
  • At least you have your memories…… (Or any sentence beginning with ‘At least…”)
  • Any sentence beginning with “You should….”

Unfortunately, this list can be much longer and these words are said too often by someone trying show understanding and support.  

In reality, it has the opposite effect; it angers the bereaved person and leaves them feeling even misunderstood and isolated. In our death denying society, we say such things not to ease the pain for the bereaved person, but to ease our anxiety and discomfort with the reality of death. We try to avoid the fact that a death obliges us to face the heartache we will one day face about the death of someone we love or even, face our own mortality.

In actuality, there is nothing anyone can say to ‘take away the pain’ or ‘make it alright’. But that does not mean, we cannot offer support and compassion. Instead, you might want to try:

  • I am so sorry about the death of …
  • I cannot imagine what you are going through.
  • Is it alright if I call you later to see how you are?
  • Is there anything I can do? (And be prepared to do it)
  • I don’t know what to say.

The greatest gift you can offer a bereaved person is your presence, your genuine concern about their welfare, as well as your willingness to support their grief journey in any way you are able.

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Christine MacMillan is a social worker in private practice in Windsor, Canada and provides services to individuals suffering from depression and anxiety, workplace stress, adjustment to injury and illness, palliative care and end-of-life support. Christine has a special interest and training in dying, death and bereavement and works with family members in preparing them for the bereavement process during the end-of-life experience of a loved one. Christine has spoken on local radio shows and frequently presents workshops on stress, grief and bereavement.
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