Many of us have been in the situation where a friend (etc.) shares that they have lost someone close to them. While the situation may feel awkward or difficult, a lot of emotions rush through your mind – a sense of closeness to the person, curiosity about what happened/how they feel, and an inadequacy to respond in any sort of meaningful way to what they have shared. How can we respond? How should we respond?
This question was posed to me by a friend, who is currently a med student. He asked my opinion on what he was being taught to say as a doctor, when someone discloses a loss. The medical response is: “I am sorry, that must have been hard.” While this may be appropriate from a doctor, it made me consider the question. What do I say when someone shares something with me? What should I say? Additionally, as someone who has experienced a loss, I put people in this situation all the time. What am I seeking from them? What kind of reaction do I expect or want?
To begin to answer this question, I reached out to friends who have lost family members. This post is a compilation of the responses.
Sincerity. Genuine. Authentic.
These are the words most often repeated in the responses. As with sympathy cards (please see blog post), there is no correct thing that we can say that will make the other person “feel better.” What we can express is our sentiment in a sincere, genuine, and authentic manner.
As one friend writes;
I don’t know exactly the right words. It’s often nice to know them, but then again words fail. I am certain of the sentiment you want to express. And that sentiment would be authenticity – just be real genuine. Maybe you do say “I’m sorry. That sounds very difficult,” and you mean it.
Why is sincerity so important? It creates a safe space – a space where grieving is acceptable – it creates space for listening and empathy. It creates a space to talk about it – if the person wants to. If possible, allow the conversation to continue. Resist caving into perceived awkwardness or your own insecurities – allow the other person to change the subject, if they desire.
I realized some time ago though that I would mention my mom’s death and the other person would reply, “Oh, I’m sorry.” My instinctive response would be to say, “oh no, it’s ok,” like I needed to fix something that was a conversational taboo. The truth is, ten years out, it’s not ok, and saying it is in itself feels awkward. I think in the end a simple, sincere, look-in-your-eyes “I’m sorry to hear that” goes a long way for creating a safe space for the grieving person to speak. I think as grievers, though, we also need to give ourselves a safe space to say a simple, “thank you,” and graciously accept the sympathy that we need to heal.
It’s always hard to say what is right and wrong way to respond. I think the main thing is to be sympathetic and acknowledge their loss…I’ve found that saying “I’m sorry for your loss” usually works. Also, regardless how many years have gone by since their loss, if someone shares that information with you, acknowledge it. If you just brush the information aside, it will hurt the person who disclosed it. I know it is always difficult and, at times, awkward to discuss with someone when they disclose information about their loss. But, if you are unsure if they want to talk about it, just ask! “Hey, if you want to talk about it, let me know….” I don’t expect everyone knows how it feels to lose a loved one, nor do I want them to go through that experience. But, life happens and it’s inevitable that people experience a loss so more often than not people can relate to the loss of a loved one.
Ultimately, be genuine with your response. Understand that people are disclosing a very personal and very difficult event of their life. And, if the opportunity arises and you feel comfortable engaging in the conversation, ask them, “how are you doing? How can I be there for you?” The worst thing, I find, is to ignore that they have lost someone just because it is awkward or uncomfortable.
Various responses also suggest that if you know the person, physical contact may be appropriate. A hand on the shoulder or hug can go a long way. As one friend writes,
I came to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words in this case. . . . Hugs, physical presence and simply just listening (attentively obviously) could be a thing to make everyone feel as comfortable and supported as possible.
It is never easy to bring up loss or to hear about someone’s loss and grief; however, death will remain a part of our lives. It is important that we all take the time to open up spaces for people to talk about a loved one (once the loss has been shared).
I found what one friend shared to be moving,
I like how in Spanish you don’t use the phrase I’m sorry in passing. You say lo siento (literally – I feel it), when you really do feel it. When you really do know sorrow and share in it.
“Lo siento” reminds me to allow myself to feel what the person is sharing and meet them wherever they are in the process.
A special thank you to all my friends – new and old – who shared their experiences for this post.