The INSIDER Summary:
• Keep the focus on the person who’s grieving: don’t talk about yourself.
• Be specific. Offer to do a particular errand or share a meaningful memory.
• Don’t tell them how strong they are or try to look on the bright side.
Death brings up a lot of complicated emotions. When someone experiences a loss, it can be difficult to figure out an appropriate way to respond.
Dr. Michelle Friedman specialises in helping communities and individuals navigate tragedy and loss. An Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Director of Pastoral Counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, she instructs hospital chaplains and clergy in the delicate art of supporting people during their most vulnerable, painful moments.
“I think people get so agitated and anxious about saying the right thing, or they’re so nervous themselves about their own ambivalence, or their own mortality, that they can’t quiet themselves and just be there for the other person, which is really what it’s about,” she told INSIDER.
Dr. Friedman shared her expert advice about what not to say when someone is mourning the death of a loved one, as well as how to respond in a way that’s both meaningful and helpful.
“When my [fill in the blank] died…”
Common ground is a good conversation starter under happier circumstances, but someone who’s grieving their own loss doesn’t need to hear about yours.
“It’s not about you, it’s about that person,” said Friedman. “Be still, be a listener.”
If you didn’t know the person who died and don’t have much to say, keep the focus on them by saying, “I didn’t really know your [fill in the blank]. Tell me about them.” And don’t be afraid to use their name if you know it.
“Can I do anything?”
It may be well-intentioned, but a general offer of help is too vague to be useful.
“A person who’s newly grieving doesn’t have a checklist,” she said.
Offering a specific action or favour is more helpful.
If you know someone well enough to offer your help, you probably also know if their toddler needs to be occupied at the park or if they’d appreciate a ready-made dinner.
“You’re so strong.”
“People really hate that,” she said.
Again, specificity is key. If their loved one was ill, commenting on a specific strength or something you observed is more meaningful, like “I saw you with your [fill in the blank] as they became more impaired, and your tenderness was moving.”
“At least you still have…”
The aftermath of someone’s death is not the time to look on the bright side.
“Counting blessings at a time of loss — people want to smack you across the face,” said Friedman.
Especially when a death is tragic or unnatural, it’s better to recognise the depth of the loss.
“Say, ‘This is a tragedy and I’m so sorry for you in your time of grief,'” she said. “It’s a very caring thing to do to acknowledge the tragic component of an unnatural death.”
“They’re in a better place.”
Their beliefs about death and the afterlife are their business. In this case, it’s better to be vague.
“If you knew that so-and-so’s person was a very religious person and you say, ‘I hope their faith comforted them’ …
that’s completely fine,” she said. “But making some kind of religious statement is really out of bounds.”
Just be there.
“Showing up is the most important thing,” said Friedman. “Show up in person, and if you miss it, show up in print, in a phone call, in a text, in something. Be there. It’s never too late.“
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