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What to say when you don’t know what to say

Many people find it very difficult to phone or approach someone who has recently been bereaved, and often put it off contacting them. In this week’s guest blog, bereavement expert Judy Carole provides advice on having conversations with the recently bereaved.

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who has been bereaved and it’s common to try to avoid the situation. Some people will go to considerable lengths to do so and may take a different route to avoid a face to face meeting with someone who they know is grieving. As time passes it becomes more and more awkward until they feel it is too late and then they are uncomfortable because they haven’t called. Sometimes due to this embarrassment the whole relationship breaks down whether it is in a home or work environment.

The excuse we give is that we feel that it is better not to say anything rather than saying ‘the wrong thing’ but this makes the person bereaved feel alone and isolated at a time when they need the most support from their colleagues.

We may be afraid that they will ask questions or make remarks that are ‘unanswerable’ such as

  • “Why did this happen to me?”
  • “It’s not fair. He was so young!”

  • “What did I do to deserve this?”

There is no need to feel that you should have the answers. The questions are rhetorical and the questioner is almost certainly not expecting an answer. What they are perhaps looking for is someone to listen, not someone to provide answers. It is far more empathetic to say that you wish you had some answers or just agree that life is unfair than find platitudes than heal no one.

Sometimes the most sincere statement of all is simply to say “I heard about X and I don’t know what to say”’. Or even simply, “I really don’t know what to say.” It is easy to relate to a straightforward statement like this. It shows that you care enough to want to say something. It allows the person you are addressing to follow up in the way they choose. Or you could say any of the following;

  • “I wish I knew the answers”
  • “I wish I knew how to help you”
  • “I wish I knew what to say”
  • “I am very sorry to hear about X”
  • “I am so sorry. This must be a very difficult/painful time for you”

There are some things it is better not to say. For example do not say (even if you think it) “It was for the best.”

Another thing to avoid saying is:“It’s terrible to be so incapacitated. I’m sure he wouldn’t want to live like that.”

Even if the person who has died has suffered from a severe physical or mental incapacity or perhaps they have had dementia and their life didn’t seem worthwhile to those looking on it does not mean that the bereaved family do not feel sad at the death. None of us can judge the worth of another person’s life and none of us can understand the true depth of another person’s grief.

Try not to say:

  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “He/she has had a good innings.”
  • “You will get over it.”
  • “At least he/she didn’t suffer.”

If you do not know someone very well and you feel awkward about phoning them you can always write to them. Most people who have been bereaved are very glad to receive any token of sympathy. Sometimes the sheer number of cards and letters received are a great comfort.

If you are writing a card or a letter then try to say something personal. People who have been bereaved usually really want to hear and see the name of the person who has died. It is helpful to write a couple of sentences such as, ‘X was so kind, he always found time to help others when they needed support’ or ‘X had such a great sense of humour.’ Even simple statements such as, ‘I will always remember X.’ are very comforting.

Judy Carole is the Director and founder of End of Life Management Ltd (ELM),an umbrella organisation for all non-medical end of life care.

T: 07919 072111
Twitter: @judyatELM

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