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.