When the heartbreaking befalls a friend, silence is not an option.
Whether we choose to share our message of condolence in person, or to write a sympathy card (or both), we have to figure out what to say when somebody dies.
And in creating our message of sympathy, we have to be careful not to say things that will make our friend feel worse.
Knowing what to say is just half our responsibility when we share a condolence message. Equally important is our intent. We love our friends dearly, but in any attempts to try to “fix” their loss, we will only create more grief.
Therefore, it’s important to know the best traits we can display as a compassionate, empathetic friend:
It’s important to remember that the purpose of our words isn’t to try to change how a suffering person is feeling. They have to work through their grief at their own pace.
As a supportive friend or relative, our role is to support them through it, not to force them through it.
So here are some bacis templates and guidelines you can use to structure your communication in a supportive and compassionate manner. Then, it will be up to your judgmment to decide what and in what combination to use these ideas:
Even if you have also suffered a loss, right now a person in grief doesn’t want to hear about it, no matter how similar. Why? It may make them feel guilty about their feelings – here you are, doing fine despite your loss, while they’re hurting. This is like saying, “Hey, it’s no so bad – you’re gonna be just fine! After all – look at me!”
Because we almost certainly don’t. Even if we have suffered loss ourselves, our minds are programmed not to hold onto the most severe pains we face (just think about the last time you cut yourself or burned yourself – you can remember the pain was bad, but not the pain itself) as a means of protecting our psychological well being.
Odds are, they will be hearing a lot about how “there are no words to describe this” and how there are no sufficient words. Of course, this is true, but likely not very helpful to someone in grief.
Putting aside the fact that the person grieving may not believe in a better place, this phrase doesn’t address their loss. The fact that their loved one is in a better place in no way lessens their loss or hurt.
Someone in grief or experiencing loss has often had their world turned upside down. Things are confusing, uncertain. Strong is probably the last thing they’re feeling. By saying this, instead of creating a safe atmosphere to express themselves honestly, we’re putting pressure on them to act and feel a certain way.
More phrases that fail to address the griver’s loss. Of course it was too soon. And maybe they did live a “full” life. But they’re still gone and it still hurts.
…or “I’m here if you need anything”
First of all, we’re putting the burden on the grieving person to think of something, “anything” being completely open ended. Note that this is different than when we said “I’m here for you” earlier. “I’m here for you” means I’m here now, present, compassionate, supportive. “I’m here if you need anything” is about the future.
or “God chose them/It was their time/They brought this upon themselves”
All of these phrases fail to address our friend’s feelings, and frankly they’re all insenitive. Never say or imply that the person deserved it in any way – whether you’re framing it positively or negatively. We’re dealing with the loss and grief of our friend, and that’s what we need to address.
This sounds like a compassionate and caring thing to ask, after all, we are concerned with the well being of our friend. But we’re putting them in a difficult, no-win situation here. First of all – of course they feel terrible about the loss. Asking this to someone who is obviously suffering can be a slap in the face, even if our intentions were good.
Furthermore, asking “are you okay” is what journalists would call a “leading question” – in that it has a preferred answer: “yes, I’m okay.” This implies that it’s not okay to suffer and grieve, which can make the recovery process more difficult as it closes us off to the individual that could use our support.
Sometimes, the best way to connect with another person is through physical contact, not through words. It’s a form of silent but active support that can mean a lot and make a big difference.
Remember, when it comes to comforting, empathizing with, and supporting someone who is suffering from grief and loss – in particular the grief and loss of a loved one, the most important thing is that we remain calm, open, loving and compassionate.
It is often hardest to do this exactly when our loved ones need it most. But learning to do so can go a long way in helping these people move on and continue living despite their loss.
Being a good friend is one of the most important aspects of creating a better world. But our responsibilities don’t end there. Read on to find our more about how you can contribute to our world: