Knowing What to Say

Oct 18, 2022

While I try to target the professional application of my posts, the ideas contained here are geared toward more personal relationships. I would be happy to talk through more professional examples if you would like. Reach out!

“I’m sorry.”

Have you ever found yourself in an awkward position of not knowing what to say to someone who is grieving? Does “I’m sorry” come out of your mouth in those moments? Have you been in the reverse scenario where you are grieving and someone meets you with, “I’m sorry?”

If you have been on the receiving side, you know that “I’m sorry” is not terribly helpful. In fact, it might be a little irritating, insulting, empty, or even humorous. The chances are high that the person who said they are sorry is not responsible for the grief.

Suggested Alternative:

It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. May I help with [fill in a specific task you can reasonably assist with, such as picking up your grocery order, running something by the school, or doing the laundry while you nap or shower]?

Offering that you can help in any way is too abstract. A person who is grieving oftentimes will not reach out with a specific thing that they need help with because it is all too much to process. I recently read an article that stated, “grief changes our very concept of time altogether.” As I reflect on my own experiences of early widowhood, I really do not remember how I fed my six-month-old baby and two-year-old. It’s a scary thought and one that haunts me from time to time. As crude as it sounds, I know I fed them because they are alive today but I have no memory of actually feeding them (or myself). My low weight was 118 pounds. I’m 5’7” which meant (according to a standard BMI calculation) that I was “underweight.”

I had so many wonderful friends who don’t know how truly wonderful they were who brought me food for three months straight. Most of it went directly into the freezer because I couldn’t eat it but I knew it was there. I had this one super caring friend who brought me crème brûlée. She watched me eat it. And, she saw how much I liked it, so she brought me more and then she sent me the recipe. I gained a few pounds and she was happy. And, it turns out I was happier too. Not because I was gaining weight, but because I saw how much it made her happy to watch me eat and how I had a little more energy. I have not told her that story and the tears roll down my face thinking of how such an insignificant gesture was so significant.


“I understand.”

Just because you have also experienced a close death does not mean that you understand another person’s feelings. You never will. Period.

It is natural to respond with a story of how you can relate to feelings of grief. But the reality is, you were not living the other person’s life and cannot possibly understand the range of emotions or history. I read in that same article referenced earlier that a child in therapy once told her, “I’m glad my dad’s dead. He was mean; he beat us up. Now I feel ashamed for feeling that way.” This is an extreme case, but can you imagine how it might feel to receive words of “I understand” when you have a story as complex as that child?

Suggested Alternative:

May I sit with you for awhile? We don’t have to talk, I’ll just sit here and you can sit with me or take a shower, take a little nap, or do whatever else you want to do.

Not forcing a conversation is oftentimes the best way to show your support. I have another super sweet friend who offered just this to me. She is a talker so I was nervous when she asked if she could come sit with me assuming that she would want to talk the entire time and I simply wasn’t up for it. Instead, she delivered exactly what she offered. She came into my house, sat down, and said, you can take a shower if you want. I’ll listen for the kids. So, I took a long shower. We sat in silence for a bit and then, she said, do you want me to sit here longer? I told her I was good and she left. Being that friend is hard. I’m certain she had a thousand things she wanted to tell me, but she knew that was not what I needed and she put me first.



We tend to skirt around the finality of death by substituting words like “passing,” “loss,” or “gone” for “death/died.” I suppose some of this is culture. When you are taking the role of friend/helper, are you using the words that the griever uses, or are you using your preferred word?

Suggested Alternative:

Listen for the word that the person in grief uses.

However uncomfortable the word is for you, this is their grief and you are there for them. The word is significant for the person who is grieving. Consider, for example, the child from the previous section. He was being told by well-meaning people that they were sorry for his “loss.” The boy did not see the death as a loss. Loss could also be interpreted as not understanding what happened, that you misplaced the person, and they could be found again. The word means something. Listen. The person who is grieving will most definitely use their preferred word and when you listen to their story, you will hear it.


Tell Me More

I would be interested in hearing what some of you prefer when you are grieving. Share your thoughts so we can all learn and grow. There are many more examples that I could provide, but these are the top three for me. “I’m sorry” still comes out of my mouth from time to time. I hear it, and I correct myself in that moment. Humility is not a weakness. Humility is humanity.

Are you looking for more to read? A dear colleague writes about interesting perspectives that always get me thinking more—check out Dr. Ted Klontz here.

Professional Application

Are you interested in training for yourself or your team on issues like these? Reach out to see if I can be useful to you.

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