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What can You Say to Someone Who is Grieving?

What can You Say to Someone Who is Grieving?

Picture of Harriet Hodgson

Americans tend to avoid death. We don't want to think about it, hear about it, or talk about it. This avoidance makes it hard for people to find words of comfort. I say this as someone who lost four family members in 2007. Word of my losses spread through the community quickly. "It's unbelievable," many said. Actually, I had trouble believing it myself.

My daughter died on a Friday in February from the injuries she received in a car crash. Two days later, on Sunday, my father-in-law succumbed to pneumonia. Four weeks later my brother had a heart attack and died. In November my former son-in-law died from the injuries he received in another car crash. His death made my twin grandchildren orphans and my husband and me GRGs--grandparents raising grandchildren.

How did people comfort me? I heard many comforting words and odd comments as well. "You're a strong person," was a comment I often heard and still hear. This comment didn't take my pain away. Strong people feel pain, too. And experience had taught me that strong people falter now and then.

Some people resorted to religious platitudes. "When God closes a door, He opens a window," is another comment I often heard. What did it mean, exactly? The comment didn't match my religious/spiritual beliefs. But this comment wasn't as bad as, "God doesn't give us more than we can handle." But I felt overwhelmed and the last time someone said this to me I replied, "Well, I would be willing to debate that."

Raising teenagers and grieving for four family members has been the greatest challenge of my life. In our society, "Hi, how are you?" is a common greeting. In fact, it is so common we don't even think about it. I dreaded the question so much I wrote answers to it.

My first answer was "fine." I used it in th early stages of grief because it was the answer people expected. Of course, I wasn't fine and knew it.

My second answer was "okay," an all-purpose word that fits many situations. When I said "okay" people looked relieved.

"Getting along" was my third answer. The word "along" implied movement and progress. In truth, I was moving forward with life.

"I'm coping" was another answer, but I only used it with family members and friends because this answer leads to long, in-depth conversations.

"I'm good" is my current answer and I am good. Though I'm living a life I never thought I would have, I'm living a happy, satisfying life.

The problem with "How are you?" is that it is a question that often leads to negative conversation. The grieving person may go backwards on the recovery path. Over time, negative conversation, whether it is verbalized or self-talkl, can become self-defeating. Worse, it may prolong the recovery process. So intead of asking this question, you may say, "I'm so glad to see you." Or you may say, "I've been thinking about you." You may also say, "I care about you." I've even used the sentence, "You're looking good." Of course, I use this sentence carefully. The sentence I use most often is, "I'm so sorry."

Actually, this is all the bereaved needs to hear. These three little words show caring and empathy, two things we need as we walk along the recovery path to a new life.


Picture of Angilee Shah

Harriet, thank you so much for joining the community and sharing your story here. I'm Angilee, the community manager. At Reporting on Health, many of our members are reporters or health care providers who write about these kinds of issues. Do you have any words of advice for them about how to be compassionate while asking questions?

Picture of Harriet Hodgson

Interviewing someone who is grieving, overwhelmed by multiple losses, or traumatic loss, takes skill and planning. My suggestions for a good interview are below and they come from experience.

* Choose a quiet place and eliminate background noise.

* Provide questions ahead of time, if possible.

* Speak in a low, modulated voice.

* Speak slowly and pace your questions.

* Keep questions short. Remember, even a short question such as, "How do you cope?" may lead to a lengthy answer.

* Monitor facial expressions and body language. If the person becomes upset, take a break.

* End the interview with "Is there anything else you would like to say?"

* Provide contact information. Ask the person to contact you if he or she has additional thoughts.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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