What can I possibly say? How can you respond when someone tells you they have lost someone?

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.

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3 thoughts on “What can I possibly say? How can you respond when someone tells you they have lost someone?

  1. Thanks so much for this Katherine. It is so clear what NOT to say (“I understand” when you don’t; anything that diminishes the significance of the loss, etc.) but hard to know what to actually say. Honesty and sincerity do go a long, long way.

  2. So happy to finally read this…and I honestly never reflected on the deep mean of “lo siento”….I have found myself saying “its ok” many times, and yes, you are completely right, its not ok…but its that automatic response that you have in your head.I wonder where it comes from.

  3. I was really moved by reading about the Spanish response, “lo siento.” That’s a beautiful way of expressing sadness in response to someone’s grief. I’m going to add this to my journal tonight with the hope that I remember it when I need it.

    another thought…I don’t know how relevant this idea is for your blog, but I will toss it out there…

    i know that grieving personal losses usually exists on quite a different level than grieving the death of a family member. However, there are some striking similarities so that one situation might inform the other. As I have become progressively sicker, I have had to process grief each time i’ve lost integral parts of myself. First, I lost my physical, athletic self (ok-no more marathons), then i lost my teacher self-gulp- a huge personal loss. I still cry about that one…. then my independent self- the ability to drive, then the ability to walk…As I grieved each of these losses internally, other people around me often did not know what to say to me and sometimes pulled away from me rather than dealing with embarrassed silences…

    Whereas i used to be a very social person, it has become easier and easier to stop going out with friends. It hurts me to get myself ready, and if I stay home, I can avoid those awkward silences. This is where the similarities in the two scenarios are the strongest. We tend to isolate the person who is grieving because we are afraid that we won’t know what to say. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m no saint. In fact, I’ve been on the other “too-fearful-to-speak-to-the-person-who-is-grieving” side more often than I would like to admit.

    With this blog, you are asking that we re-start or continue the conversation. However, the responsibility to restart the conversation does not simply lie with one side (the griever) or the other (the friends). It will only work if all parties concerned are able to acknowledge that everyone is afraid, and reach out to each other with our hearts anyway.

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