I think it’s important to note before I begin that I don’t believe there is ever the “right” thing to say. I don’t think anything anyone has ever said to me has been “right.” Believe me, if there were the “right” words, I would be shouting them at the top of a mountain for everyone to hear.
As badly as you may want to say the right thing (or hear the right thing), it’s important for the sender and receiver of the message to know that there isn’t a “right” thing to say. So let’s start with that.
1. I know there are no “right” words.
This might seem simple and maybe you’re thinking not sympathetic enough, but you must acknowledge that your words are not going to make the situation better (as badly as you may want them to).
2. I don’t understand your pain.
Again, are you thinking simple and not sympathetic enough? Wrong. You must acknowledge that you do not understand that person’s pain.
Example: Even if you’ve lost your sister as well, chances are that there are many differing factors like age, type of death, relationship dynamics, etc.
Hear me out. When you feel like you’re drowning and everyone else is on the boat watching you struggling to get air, it’s not helpful for those people on the boat to tell you that they know how you feel while you’re drowning.
*Note: I’m so sorry if drowning is a trigger for you. This is an analogy that I have found very fitting with grief so I am very sorry if it triggers you.
3. I will support you the best that I can.
Key words: the best that I can. This sets the expectation level to be attainable. This is saying that you will do what you can to help the griever. Realistically, we will never be able to do what we want to help the griever. Because what we want to do is take away his/her pain, right? And sadly, that’s impossible.
Better yet, tell the griever what you can do to support them.
Example: If you say, ” call me anytime,” you need to mean that. So if the griever wants to call you in the evenings when he/she is lonely then you need to be available for that phone call. And if you aren’t, then change the “anytime” to the appropriate times you can talk.
4. If I do or say something wrong, I’m sorry.
Although the griever desperately wants and needs you to be perfect right now, that’s impossible. And we all know that.
So acknowledging that you may do something “wrong,” sets the expectation level, again, that you are not perfect. You can even say, “I wish I could do everything perfectly, but I know that’s impossible.” And maybe even add, “But I will try my best (and mean it).”
You might be thinking to also add, “tell me when I do something wrong”. Personally, I don’t think this should be added, but you know the griever better than I do, so use your judgement here.
Why don’t I think you should ask the griever to tell you if you do something upsetting? Because this puts one more thing on his/her plate. And the griever doesn’t need that. The griever doesn’t need to be responsible for your behavior and your relationship together right now. Acknowledge that you won’t be perfect, but that you’ll try your best and that’s good enough.
*Note: Really do your best to be the best you can right now for the griever. I’m not suggesting to just go ahead and apologize for your (future) poor behavior and now it’s suddenly excusable. Be ultra sensitive right now. I’ll get into what not to say in a later post.
5. You’re important to me and so is your pain.
When you’re grieving, it’s hard to feel “normal” and it always feels like all eyes are on you. So acknowledging the griever’s pain is allowing the griever to know that you are aware of his/her pain, which will hopefully help the griever feel more comfortable doing “normal” things around you (like laughing, smiling, telling stories, etc.) instead of feeling guilty or uncomfortable because his/her pain has not been acknowledged by you.
The goal is to make the griever as comfortable as possible. You can also add, “I’m here to listen or talk about it if you ever want to.” But you have to really mean that if you say it.
I hope this helps.