Helping a Friend: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

By Eva Shaw, Ph.D.


A friend calls to tell you that there’s been a death. Maybe you see it in the newspaper or heard it from a colleague. Someone in your community, a mutual friend or one of the members of your house of worship has passed away.

There’s a service planned and you know you should go. But you’re thinking of passing on it because, frankly, you don’t know what to say and you definitely don’t know what to do. You’re feeling sad and worse, you’re feeling bad.

Do not feel inadequate. After there’s been a death, our hearts want to be with the survivors and share this time of sorrow. But while our hearts want to help, our “heads” lack the words or ways to express our regrets.

Few people are good at expressing and coping with grief. It’s not your fault. You cannot practice the feelings of loss ahead of time. Experience with a previous death doesn’t count as each death affects us in a unique way.

These recommendations will help you to express your feelings in words and deeds. With these ideas come a few cautions, too.

Call, write a note or visit

Be a grown up, even if you don’t feel like one, and as soon as you hear about the death, call, write a note or visit the survivors. Forget about being eloquent. Simply say what is in your heart. Your feelings will be written on your face and heard in your voice.

What to and not to say

“Time heals all wounds.” “You’ll have other children.” “He’s in a better place.” Before you express anything, put yourself in the survivor’s shoes. While a grandmother’s pain is gone, the survivor may not think kindly that the darling lady is “better off” dead. Likewise, the parents of a child, even an unborn one who has passed on, may react negatively if it’s inferred that a precious little life doesn’t matter. The comment of “he’s in a better place” can wound survivors. The only “better” place might be close by the survivor’s side, sitting in their plaid recliner and watching the evening news.

A simple “Please accept my sympathy” is always appropriate. Do not say, “I know just how you feel.” You cannot know how others feel when they grieve, even if you’ve been through a significant loss.

Say it with a gesture

Make the most of a hug or a handshake. Sometimes words fail. Sometimes at a death, words are unnecessary. Try a light squeeze on a shoulder, a gentle hug or a two-handed handshake to communicate deep feelings.

Tears can heal

Offer a tissue. Tears can heal. You may want to cry, too, because you’re grieving. Of course, you were not as close to the loved one as a family member, but this death may bring back memories of someone with whom you had a close relationship. Sometimes our own feelings of grief return when we are faced with someone else’s grief.

Listen and be sensitive

Be ready to sit and listen even if the surviving family wants to talk about the death, including shocking details. “Why didn’t Pat stop smoking?” “Why didn’t she get help for her drinking?” “Why didn’t Marie call if she was that depressed?” “What was Lee doing in that part of the city at 2 a.m.?” Unless you truly are able to, don’t provide answers.

Don’t offer comments or observations on death and dying, unless you know for certain that the survivor will appreciate your thoughts. Rather, if appropriate, ask questions in a gentle, quiet voice. You may be shocked to find that your poker buddy Ernie, who seemed blasé toward religion, was just the opposite.

Although you may want to share how a scripture helped you at a difficult time, be sensitive. The death may be too raw for survivors to see the beauty in the words. Oftentimes at a death, survivors remain for some time in the anger stage of grief when they are furious at the world and at their loved one for dying. This is normal.

Use the loved one's name

If it’s comfortable, use the loved one’s name. “Jacob was a fine man.” “Susanne was so organized; I’m not surprised she chose the hymns for the funeral.” Survivors yearn for their loved one’s presence and by using their name, you acknowledge this special person is still important.

Stay connected with the grieving

Stay connected with the survivors. Know that those who are grieving may not feel like chatting as they once did, but you can remain close. You might want to offer, “Would you mind if I call (or email) every afternoon?” If the survivor says, “No thanks,” give it a week or so and repeat it.

Find a concrete way to help

Be creative with ways to stay in touch. Don’t say, “Let me know when I can help.” Survivors won’t accept your help, because most people think it’s polite to offer, but don’t actually want to be of service. Instead make suggestions for concrete ways to help. “Mind if I walk the dog for the next few weeks while you have your hands full?” Or, “I’m heading to the farmer’s market for strawberries. I’ll place a basket by your front door on my way home.”

Look for ways to say, “I remember.”

Trim a comic from the morning paper and pop it in the mail. Share a recipe, a cross-word puzzle or a silly joke. Cards, notes and photos, even if not acknowledged, may be just what the grieving person needs. If you stop in at the grieving family’s home, don’t be surprised if they’re not up to “company.” Keep the visit short and at the front door.

Share memories

Talk if you want to. Don’t expect to start a deep conversation. Survivors may be grieving too deeply to carry on a discussion. Instead, share memories and chat about the “good old days.” You might want to recount the good times between you and this friend. Or perhaps share something that became a life-long joke. “Did you hear about the time Jack and I went fishing? He brought home trophy-sized trout. All I ‘caught’ were trophy-sized mosquito welts.”

On television everyone knows what to do or to say. In real life we often say too little or too much. What is right? A pat on the hand and a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry,” are always appropriate and appreciated.

About the author

Eva Shaw, Ph.D., is a noted authority on death, grief and recovery. The author of "What to Do When a Loved One Dies: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Dealing with Death on Life’s Terms," she has appeared as a guest expert on scores of panels, programs and national shows. A renowned speaker, she is an in-demand lecturer at conferences and workshops.


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