How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

It’s not about saying the right things. It’s about doing the right things.

Most of us have been in a situation where a tragedy or something painful has happened to a friend or relative. Often we say nothing, out of fear of saying the wrong thing, feeling helpless or overwhelmed ourselves.

This kind of experience can repeat itself in many different forms: a friend is divorced, a colleague is given notice at a job held for two decades, a cherished pet dies, or a loved one receives the dreaded news that she has inoperable cancer.

What can you say?

While it’s not an easy question to answer, one thing is certain: It’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Here are five ways to respond helpfully to people who have suffered an enormous loss.

1. Manage your own feelings first.

When we learn that disaster has befallen a loved one, we sometimes initially feel shock. Our heart rate increases, our thoughts either speed up or slow down, and we may experience a fight, flight or freeze response.

The anxiety we feel is real and personal. Our instinct often, is to ignore it, find ways to numb it or minimize it. That’s a mistake.

If we address our own feelings first, we’ll be in a much stronger position to respond well to the person most directly affected. Do the things you know how to do to manage your own stress: Walk, meditate, journal, or talk to a trusted friend.

Make sure your own body and emotions are regulated before you turn to the person in grief.

The isolation felt is almost as (or more) painful as the shock and the sadness of the loss itself. If you avoid them because you don’t know what to say, this avoidance serves only your needs.

Some people need immediate contact with others, while some people need to have time and space.  Ask them what they need and respect what they say.

“Would it be helpful if I took you to lunch?  “Do you prefer to have some space and phone calls to let you know I’m here when you’re ready” . . . 

Although there isn’t a right thing to say, there are some things to never say. They include the “Everything happens for a reason,” or “I know just how you feel.”  How do you know there’s a reason, and what difference would it make to a grieving person, anyway? And you don’t know how they feel—only they do.

3. Admit that you don’t know what to say.

That’s a good start. Try something simple that breaks the ice and starts a conversation, or at least sends a message to the other person that they’re not alone.

Im so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could say the perfect thing, but I know there’s nothing to fix it. I just wanted you to know I care and am here with you.”

“This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry this has happened.”

“I have are no words of comfort, just know I’m here to listen or simply be with you.”

or simply put your arms around them and say nothing.

4. Listen.

If the person is willing to talk, listen. It’s the single most vital thing you can do.

Listen to their story without interrupting. Don’t turn the conversation back to you with statements like, “I know what you’re going through—my dog died last year.”

Don’t tell them what they will, or should, feel. Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

We all have different styles of managing shock and distress. Some people are angry, others seem numb, some turn to humor. Your job is not to correct them but to give them space to be the way they need to be.

Simply acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s like for them.

5. Rather than saying, ”Let me know if I can do anything,” offer to do something practical and specific.

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful. Offer to shop for groceries, run errands, drive the kids somewhere, or to cook a meal or two. Ask if you can call tomorrow, or if they want to be left alone for a few days. You might say “I would like to (insert task such as bring you dinner tomorrow), is that OK?”

When Survey Monkey’s CEO Dave Goldberg died suddenly, his wife, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote the following:

“When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, “My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?” When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

Taking on an ordinary task is often most helpful.

Don’t try to “fix it” or try to make sense of what happened. You don’t have to try to comfort 

“You can’t fix what happened, but you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel quite so alone. That requires only intention, a willingness to feel awkward, and an open, listening heart. It’s the one gift that can make a difference.”

Your presence, not the words, is the most important thing.