Menu

How to Speak to Someone About an Unspeakable Loss

“It’s not about saying the right things. It’s about doing the right things.” ~Unknown

Years ago, my family and I moved to a bucolic little town in New Zealand, where we were immediately swept up into a group of ex-pats and locals. We felt deeply connected to this community by the time I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in the local hospital.

When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. Twenty-four hours later, he died.

In the days and weeks that followed, I wandered in my own fog of grief as I went about the necessary tasks of ordinary life: shopping for food, taking our other kids to school, doing the usual mounds of laundry.

Meanwhile, my new friends kept their distance. I saw them take great care to avoid me: to cross the street, switch supermarket aisles, literally do an about-face when they saw me coming.

Invitations stopped coming. The phone went silent. My grief was marked by a deeper isolation than I’d ever known.

Later, many of these people apologized. They told me they were terribly sad and distressed about what had happened, but hadn’t known what to say. My loss was so enormous that words seemed inadequate, even pitiful.

They said nothing, out of fear that they would say the wrong thing.

This sort of experience repeats itself in many different forms: a friend gets dumped by the love of her life, a colleague is given notice at a job he’s held for two decades, 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 initially feel shock. Our heart rate increases, our thoughts either speed up or slow down, and we may experience nausea or dizziness.

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

If we address our own anxiety 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 stress. A walk in the woods, some meditation or yoga, or talking to a trusted friend can help.

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

2. Now focus on the other person.

Remember that the isolation they feel is almost as 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.

Our friends and other loved ones need our comfort, support, and involvement during times of sorrow.

Although there isn’t a right thing to say, there are some things to never say. They include the current favorite, “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.

“I’m 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.”

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, while others seem numb. Still others turn to gallows humor. Your job is not to correct them but to give them space to be the way they need to be.

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.

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.

Today, as I recall the loss of my own infant son, I think about the one person who did truly comfort me. She arrived at my house with a bottle of fine brandy and said, “This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry this has happened.”

Then we sat on the lawn and she poured me a drink as she listened to every horrible detail.

As I look back now, I still feel how much her gesture helped me cope through those early days of pain. She didn’t try to fix me or try to make sense of what happened. She didn’t even try to comfort me. The comfort she gave came through her being in it with me.

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.

About Linda Carroll

Linda Carroll—MS, is a writer, psychotherapist and a love/life coach specializing in relationship issues of all kinds for both singles and couples, assisting people in their life transitions. Sign up for a free 15 minute coaching session or her free newsletter at www.lindaacarroll.com.You can order her book Love Cycles; The Five Essential Stages of Wholehearted Love on amazon.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • Kathy E.

    Wonderful, well-written advice. Thank you.

  • Justin Schaefer

    This is an interesting post, and an important one because we all experience things like this at various times in life, and they can often be awkward, negative bewildering times. I think there is a critical element missing though. I think that yes, indeed the midst important first step is to gain an understanding of, and cope with your own emotions. If you can’t help yourself, well then you simply haven’t got anything to give to anyone else. But, then I can’t help but to think that perhaps the best way to help in this situation is to subtly refocus each persons energy on the positive things. Not in a way so as to diminish anyone’s feelings, after all their feelings are ever present and serve a very important purpose. Rather, I mean to draw out the positive aspects of the departed person, and to draw out the positive aspects of the effected people’s relationships with that person. Bring a smile to the effected persons face by reminding them of why they loved that person so, and help that person’s energy to remain. I always want to remember people in the happiest light possible, and I think that this has been the best way to do that.

  • Emma

    My older brother recently died (March 2016), he was only 39 and it has obviously devastated my family. I have learnt through this experience though, that just having someone acknowledge the death is enough for me to know they care. Saying “I’m sorry for your loss” is all anybody needs to say. I know it must hard and very awkward for the outsider to comfort a bereaved person and I don’t expect them to sit and talk to me about it, but just an acknowledgement makes all the difference. From now on, I will always make a point of speaking somebody who has been bereaved because I know from first hand experience how comforting it is just to know people are thinking about you.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your baby son. I am glad that you had a good friend to talk to who would really listen and comfort you. It really helps to talk and cry, talk and cry. My mum and dad scattered my brothers ashes today, so the crying has begun again, but it’s all part of the healing process and it can’t be ignored.

  • Rinna

    Fantastic article! My mom, who I have — had — a very complex relationship, gave me only a few really wonderful pieces of advice over the years. The one that stuck with me was when we were at a funeral and practically every well-wisher was telling the family “I know how you feel.” Before we got to the front of the line, mom leaned down and said “NEVER say you know how someone is feeling, you don’t, and their feelings are special to them. When you say you know how they feel, you are taking their right to their feelings away.”

    My mom’s experiences were influenced by the loss of her first daughter at two months of age, it damaged her so much and was the primary cause of her battle with alcohol which she lost before new years 2015. At one point she opened up to me about the loss of her first baby, what stuck with her was the thoughtless comments by the “devout” religion we were part of them, people telling her “Why cry? You’ll see her in paradise.”

    When my husband and I lost our second child 26 weeks in the pregnancy, we were pretty much alone, few people comforted us. My father said “well there must have been something wrong with it.” Other people avoided us. Only mom said “I can’t imagine what you are going through” and I felt it was one of the rare times that she did. Thanks for posting this article and reminding people that compassion really requires very few words.

  • Mimi Kate

    I love this article. It’s so spot on. We lost our 26 year old son 3 months ago. There were people who knew exactly what to do (BE THERE) and some who I didn’t hear from for several months except for a card…sorry for your loss. Some people said they wanted to “leave me alone”. Worst idea ever. When others finally contacted me they said they were sorry but they didn’t know what to say. During this time I found out who my true friends were and who I should let go. It’s still very painful as one I let go is a family member who I considered a sister. And “sorry for your loss”, though it’s all some can manage, can make you want to punch the person. I know they don’t know what to say but, especially if you know the person well, you expect a more honest comment. The gesture that helped the most were stories people told of my son and their relationship with him. Some were quite surprising. One said that he bought her a CD because of 1 song that she liked on it. This is the first I ever heard of that.
    I feel like the lesson I learned was how to help others through their grief. Unfortunately, I and my friends are coming to the age where loss will come more frequently. I am thankful for the experience of comfort these friends gave me and will return the comfort at any time or place that they need it.

  • upbeatred1

    My reproductive years ended with a miscarriage. i had a D&C in the hospital after the MD detected no heartbeat. There is no funeral for these babies. Mine was an early loss, so there really wasn’t much of a baby there in the first place. Of course I don’t know because you don’t get to see what the surgery removes. And then it is burned as medical waste, I imagine. Some funeral for my baby. There was just nothing. People at work said stupid things, and they didn’t mean to be hurtful but it was. On my first day back at work there was a party for my boss who was pregnant. She wanted me to be there (how callous!) but I said I could not possibly attend. My pregnancy happened because my significant other did not tell me that he wasn’t using protection that particular day. I had four other miscarriages earlier on in my life. This man had nothing to do with the earlier miscarriages, but his choice not to use protection was really unfair to me. His decision almost ruined my life. The miscarriage totally destroyed me. I was in therapy one evening and my therapist asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said no. And I got through it, but barely. My significant other tried to help me, but he couldn’t because he knew he had created this problem. So we began to unravel and he ended up starting to see someone before breaking up with me. Such a coward. It was so hard. My family offered me no support because I was pregnant and not married. And my family now wonders why we are not close. It took me six years before I could date again. People ask why don’t you have kids. I hate explaining this.

  • Renee Montero Kovach

    26 years ago I miscarried our second child. I was devastated. I didn’t know how to handle the guilt and the loss and the anger. A lot of people tried but said SUCH the wrong things (no it’s not the same as your abortion last year, and no, he WASN’T just a bunch of cells) but one person saved me. My cousin Tanya called and let me share all the details. I asked her if I was saying too much and through her tears she just assured me that she wanted to hear everything. By the time I finished with even the rough stuff, and I knew she was still there, I didn’t feel so alone. LISTEN. Best advice ever. And Tanya is my angel on earth!

  • Elizabeth C

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. Ten years ago my daughter was murdered at the age of 18. It was sudden and gruesome. There were “good friends” who did various horrible things to justify to themselves that it was okay to abandon me. These were people that I gave and gave to prior to my daughter’s murder. I thought that they would then give back…that’s not how I’ve found it to be. I did learn how to recognize strong and beautiful souls and that is a blessing.

    I had my daughter cremated and I wasn’t able to part with her ashes. So I turned the wooded area where she was killed into a garden. I was able to tend to the earth/flowers like I was still tending to her. One night I was out there in the middle of the night drinking copious amounts of wine and wishing for death. I apparently was crying/keening so loudly that someone who lived at least 300 to 400 hundred yards away came out and put a flashlight on me. He asked if he could help me in any way and I couldn’t even speak. Frankly, I was hoping he would just randomly kill me. He went back to his house and got his wife. She came out and sat with me and listened to me about all the details of my baby girl’s life and murder for hours.

    This stranger held me while I wailed. She LISTENED. She’s done many beautiful things since then. She’s never told me how to feel, what timetable my grief should be on, that there was a good reason for my daughter’s death like “she died so you could teach other teens about teen dating violence…” She was and is an angel on earth. She’s still a friend and I find myself in wonder about how amazing she is. I love her so much.The greatest gift, in my opinion, is listening because it is true that usually no words are deep enough to reach that kind of darkness. But with help, your outlook can improve.

  • Lisa.

    Your son sounds like an incredibly thoughtful, kind person. I can’t fully fathom what you must be going through right now. As a fellow mum of a son of similar age, I know the endless love of a mother, and know you’ll hold those special memories close.
    Wishing I could offer more from afar, across the internet, but I wanted to thank you for sharing here. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

  • Lisa.

    Elizabeth, your story is incredibly powerful. The loss of your daughter, and so horrifically… I’m sobbing just reading your story. Truly impossible to fully understand what you’ve had to endure, every parents’ worst nightmare. It seems so inadequate to say, but I’m so incredibly sorry for the terrible, terrible pain you’ve had to endure.

    Reading about that stranger’s actions has taken my breath away further still. What an amazing person to sit with you, hold space with you as you walked a journey no one could prepare for, and for which there is no well known map to navigate. She must have known that lending a hand, an ear, a shoulder is the only and best thing she could do. Bless her for that. I am so glad she came to you when you needed her so badly.

    And bless you for taking this horrifying event and sharing it with others, educating people on the harsh realities of dating violence – using your incredible pain and heartbreak so it might just save others… You do great honour to your daughter’s memory.

    Thank you for sharing here. I’ll carry your story here with me. x

  • Lisa.

    I’m so sorry for your loss of your baby. Such cruel, ignorant comments you had to endure! Awful.
    As for your ex, sounds like you dodged a bullet with him, I’m sorry to say. As you stated, so cowardly were his actions towards you. You deserved better. You still do.
    If I may add, I don’t be you owe anyone an explanation as to why you don’t have children. Your reasons are yours alone, and you can share if and when you choose to do so.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • JoD

    without trying to denigrate anyone who has very openly & bravely discussed their experiences here, it is worth noting that many have said that people’s (usually well-meaning) comments caused them further hurt, some say just acknowledging the loss is enough, others say it should be more meaningful if they are close to you. This is partly why many (myself included) who have not experienced a tragic loss, and even some who may have but the experience was different, are hesitant & don’t know what to say or how/when to say it, because we don’t want to increase the pain or clumsily hurt someone already suffering. I don’t believe there is any universal ‘right’ way to respond but most people genuinely do care but may not know how, when & where to express it

  • Lisa Getch

    Agreed. Everyone has different ways they handle grief. As some said here, they want people there when others gave them space. For me, I wanted space after my dad died…and the comments and cards all let me know they care. I try not to judge anyone for how they handle it, because –even if it comes across wrong — they all generally mean well…and I’m grateful they took time out of their busy schedules to show they cared.

  • Harrie

    Your story is my story! My son was 39. We lost him to a driver on drugs. That was 11 years ago…..and it was yesterday at the same time. Those who gave the most comfort were the ones who wanted to share their stories of my son.
    Hold to your memories and speak of your son to those who knew him. It’s such a blessing to share him with others!

  • My response to people who’ve suffered some grief/loss is,

    “Look, I’m awful at saying the right thing, I can be kind of insensitive without realizing it, and it drives me personally crazy when people say, “I’m so sorry” or “I know how you feel”. Let me make you a lasagna (or some other food item!), because I know that sometimes when the feelings get too big it’s overwhelming just figuring out what to make for dinner. You can put it in your freezer and make it when you’re drowning and having a homemade meal on hand would give you space to sit and be. If you want to eat it with me, and share that time with me, that’s great too.” And then later on, I’ll ask, “Hey, are you doing okay?” and they’ll say “yeah” and I’ll say “No, you’re not. How are you really doing?” and then shut up and listen.

    If you’re crap at saying the right thing, you can never go wrong by handing someone who’s devastated by a tragedy a meal, or offering to do their laundry, or some other small stupid show of “I know life is really hard for you to handle right now but I don’t know how to say good things so I’m just gonna do a thing for you instead.”

    Because yeah, I AM kind of insensitive (the irony of this is that I’m so empathic that people with strong feelings to me feel literally like getting steamrolled by their feelings), but what matters more is that you’re there for them, you listen to them, and you provide support when you can, without letting your own ego get in the way.

  • Jean Pennellatore

    Gr8 article my dog passed away in 2012 of May he was 16yrs.Then my husband of 32 yrs passed away unexpectedly in August of 2012.Then my young Grandson William 20yrs old died in a drowning In Aug 2014.Then my young nice passed away in March of 2016 she just turned 41 in January and left 3beautiful children and her husband.Grief I know and live with it every day.How I get through it .By the love and Grace of God..And I don’t like that word Grief I choose to live by The Lord’s strength and Healing .Surely there are Tough days as I realize my loved ones are only sleeping for a time.Amen Thank you.

  • Diane Bassett

    This brought tears to my eyes. I am so sorry for your indescribable loss, and so grateful for the compassion of your neighbor who was able to provide some comfort. I am sending you love and good energy from afar.

  • rebecca

    My boyfriends brother passed away two weeks ago. obviously the death is very fresh to the family. The brother was young so you can’t even say he lived a good life. he lived a short life that was good up until he passed but it’s so tradgic. I’ve been trying my hardest to be there for my boyfriend and his family. all I care about is his well being. I feel terrible. I’ve made my self available whenever he wants me to be there. I feel like I’m struggling the most with how to understand how he is coping. I don’t want to try to hard but I don’t know what to do. I know all I can do is be there for him through everything but I feel stuck. he gets upset so easily which is understandable but I’m afraid he is going to shut me out. my personality is to help others, that’s what I do best. but I can’t help bring the brother back or heal their pain. I need advice if anyone can relate please respond.

  • Claudia Hnatiw

    Hello Rebecca, I can personally tell you that having lost my own child and brother at certain different times of my life, I experienced the avoidance and look of “not sure what to do or say” from other people at times. I have to admit that their look at times made me uncomfortable, because I hated to create that reaction on them. It was a new loss to me and I was in a stage of blurry vision I could say. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me, I wanted just to be left alone at times, and I wanted to be hugged and comforted at others. Losing a brother is a hard thing for anyone, and perhaps your boyfriend is not even aware that he may be shutting you out. I believe it is ok for your to seek a conversation; to hold his hand and tell him you need him to listen to what you are about to say. First explain that there is no way that you can understand what he is going thru and you will never even try to pretend that you get close to understanding. Let him know that you would do anything to make the pain go away. Explain that you feel helpless because this is also new for you and you wish there was something you could do to at least comfort him. Tell him how much it means to you that he allows you into his heart, and to tell you how he wants you to deal with how he feels, regardless of what it is that he is feeling at different times. If he wants to be alone, to please tell you. If he needs a hug, to hug you. Tell him that it may be an odd request but you need his help to feel that you are needed by him during this time. Tell him it is important that you know he needs you because you love him, and you would do anything for him. Tell him you will do what he requests of you; all you ask is that he includes you and allows you in so you don’t feel excluded. Tell him that him needing you during this time is the best he can do for you, and you will love him in return. Tell him you will be there to hold his hand thru time so you both together can find for him a new normal. I’d love to hear how that goes for you. All he needs to know is that you are lost and if he just opens a little window for you, you’ll be able to peek in and find your way with him to a new stage of normal. Only time and love can take us there.

  • Mada Maday

    Very good article. I love Linda Carroll! I have just listened to her on Art of Charm Podcast. She is wonderful!

  • Victoria Underwood

    From my experience (I lost my husband a little over a year ago) the ones that might have said the wrong thing dont stick in my mind. The ones that didn’t acknowledge it all do. Don’t be afraid to say something, even if you think it’s not the perfect thing to say. Do stay away from I know how you feel. That one always made me angry. I do believe everything happens for a reason so that one didn’t bother me but it didn’t help me either. If I believe it then I already know that and it I don’t believe it I don’t want to hear it. I had the most support the 2 months after it happened. Then my support dwindled. Now I moved to a new state new job and all my feelings are coming back because he isn’t here to tell me he is proud of me or enjoy my new apartment and our wedding gifts that we waited to open. Yet no one has asked me how I’m feeling. All that support is gone. So if you don’t say something right away, say something eventually. And continue to check in. Their loss doesn’t ever end or go away, especially the loss of a parent, child or sibling.

  • Laura Hains

    I’ve made it 9 months after the death of my 21 year old daughter. One of the hardest things I find is that no one wants to speak about her. It makes me feel so good to talk about her. I feel so awkward around family. Sometimes I feel like screaming, she was a real and beautiful girl who made some wrong choices, but she didn’t deserve to die. I’m having such a struggle to find meaning in life again.