Wednesday, December 9, 2015

11 Things We Ought to Say When Someone's Lost a Loved One



by Beth Saadati

Most of us have experienced the awkward situation. Someone we know has lost a loved one, and we're unsure of what to say. Not wanting to utter anything hurtful, we stay away. Or, we attempt to communicate around the elephant in the room. 

Although everyone’s grief journey is unique, based on the loss of my teenage daughter, here are some words I’ve found to be safe—even healing—to speak:

1. I’m sorry. Or, I wish it weren’t this way for you. This may sound ordinary. Unoriginal. Even cliché. But, oftentimes, there really are no adequate words. To the one who’s grieving, this simple phrase says far more than most people know. And, if tears come, please don’t apologize or hold them back. Offer them as an unspoken gift as well.

2. I can’t imagine the pain of your loss. It’s okay that you don’t. That honesty—and acknowledgement that I hurt—still comforts.

3. Her life made/is making a difference. If you recall a specific memory, share it. For example, a year ago, Katilyn, 18, told me how much it had impacted her when my daughter invited her to a game night, made her feel welcomed, and, though Jenna didn’t yet know her well, introduced her as a friend to other teens there. Hearing about it brought me joy. I want to remember, to be reminded, to know that Jenna’s life mattered when she was here . . . and that it still does.

4. You were a good _________ (mom, daughter, sister, friend, etc.). Or, It wasn’t your fault.  I needed to hear this then. I still do. Too often it’s easier to recall all I wish I would have done differently than it is to remember what I might have gotten right.

5. You’ll see her again. If you can confidently say this, do. Remind me that, regardless of how disheartening the unexpected plot twist may seem, the story will have a satisfying ending. Just don’t say “soon.”

6. I care about you. Or, if it’s not too awkward, I love you. Like “I’m sorry,” this simple phrase speaks volumes. Most of us don’t verbalize the words enough. And, when we’re grieving, most of us can’t hear them enough.


7. I’ve been thinking about (or praying for) you.  A week ago one of Jenna’s classmates left the following comment on the blog: “I have been thinking about your family for the past several days and decided to check whether you had posted anything here lately.” The words encouraged me. Why? Because, three years later, I don’t expect others to remember. When they let me know they do, I feel less alone.

8. How are you? Some people hate this question. Asked thoughtlessly—and expecting to hear “fine”—I can understand why. When the person is sincere, however, and willing to receive whatever I may say, I treasure these words. It puts the ball in my court, giving me the freedom to say as much or as little as I feel like sharing. Also, it communicates, “I want to listen because I care.” That love unlocks me. Not wanting to burden others with my grief, I probably won’t initiate the conversation. But if a friend asks, chances are I’ll talk.   

9. Ask open-ended questions about the one who’s gone. Jenna is still my beloved daughter, even though she’s no longer here. I welcome the opportunity to remember with others—to recall moments of laughter and joy—just like other parents who like to reminisce about their kids.

10. Share perspective. No preaching or condemnation, please. But, spoken gently without judgment, personal insight can bring understanding. Here’s what I mean. A few months after Jenna’s death, the mom of one of Jenna’s classmates stopped by. She asked how I was and listened. When I made reference to some school-related incidents I’d read about in writings my daughter had left behind, the mother said she could relate to Jenna's pain. She, too, had felt the intense desire to belong and be accepted by the popular crowd—in a way neither her own daughter nor I had. This helped me think differently and opened my eyes to something I hadn’t seen.

11. Never underestimate the power of a hug. Since Jenna’s death, the embrace-me-tight type of hug has often communicated as much as any words can. Don’t worry. It doesn’t come across as a romantic gesture. Rather, it leaves me feeling less set apart—less like a leper that no one would want to approach. Even more, it touches the girl inside me who’s felt a little lost and needs to know others are close.


Regardless of what you choose to say—even if the well-intentioned words come out wrong—say something. Will it be uncomfortable and difficult? Probably. As a longtime friend said after listening to a radio interview I gave, “I never really knew what happened. I was too shy to ask, because in the moment of asking I [was afraid I] might reopen a wound.” (radio broadcast link)

I appreciate and respect that. What I didn’t realize before Jenna’s death is that thoughts of a lost loved one are seldom far away. The wound is already open. Acknowledging that—whether through spoken words, a short note, or even a text—however, can help it heal.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to pull away. Instead, be courageous and come close. Don’t hesitate to talk. Seize the opportunity and solidify the friendship . . . so the elephant won’t wedge it apart.

14 comments:

  1. You are so wise Beth. And I'm so glad I got to meet you and hear you tell your story in person. I admire the way you are picking up the ashes, and letting God make them into something beautiful.

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    1. Thank you, Ellen, for these encouraging words. It's my prayer that He would do that.

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  2. With these two blogs in particular, you have both honored and educated us with your open heart. I am graced by your honesty and honored to say I know you. <3

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    1. Suicide is a sensitive subject. It's hard to know how the posts come across--or if the transparency is too much. So thank you, Elaine, for your feedback and good words.

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  3. You've answered questions I was never sure I could ask someone grieving so deeply. Thank you for being purposeful.

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    1. Thank you, Mary, for encouraging me once again. I held back from writing the post for several months, but friends kept asking the two questions so I finally did. I'm glad to hear it may help many of us--including myself.

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  4. Beth, thank you for this list of things to say when someone has lost a loved one. Like everyone else, I know I've said the wrong things when my only goal was to comfort and encourage. I hope your list of specific things to say and not say will help me be more of a comfort and encouragement next time. I love you, sweet friend.

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    1. You're welcome. It's good that others asked the questions and suggested I write the posts, because it challenged me to think and learn too. I love you too, Vonda, and am thankful to know you as a mentor and a friend.

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  5. These are excellent tips, Beth. I have a friend who had a stillborn baby. Friends have been at a loss to know what to say to her. She's been hurt and offended by well-intentioned comments and has isolated herself from everyone. You share your personal insights with tenderness and sincerity. I will remember these the next time I extend my sympathies. I, too, am glad our paths crossed at CCC. Blessings and hope for today, sweet sister.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I'm sorry to hear about your friend's great loss and can understand how easy it would be for her to feel hurt when she's already hurting so deeply. It's a difficult situation for both sides, but the bridge to communication can be crossed. I'm grateful for the many people in my life who courageously did--and still do--when I most needed them to. Much love to you today and always, Sharron.

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  6. Your kindheartedness is showing even in brokeness, Beth. Thank you for teaching us how to show our love for those who hurt with words and actions without fear of creating more pain.
    I see Christ's strength in you. Shine on, dear one!

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    1. This means so much, especially coming from someone who models it so well. Thank you, Carolyn.

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