This week would have been my dad’s 92nd birthday.  He left us two years ago and I still miss him daily.  When he died I had one grandchild (pictured here). Now I have three. The following is a post I wrote just after he died.  It’s still a good reminder that communication about grief is an area that many of us struggle with.  

Grief is a part of life. We all experience it at some time or another. Our family has had its share over the past several years and I’ve made some observations from my experiences. Even though it’s a part of life, people generally don’t know how to talk to someone who’s grieving.

Here are some tips I’ve learned on how to talk about grief and how to support those going through grief.

Everyone is different.

Approach as best you know how and have the courage to make the first move. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Do it anyway.

Don’t be afraid to engage. The worse thing you can do is avoid the situation. It’s awkward and adds stress to the person grieving by feeling their presence is making people uncomfortable. Don’t think they don’t notice your behavior. They do.

Humor is good, but be sure you know the person really well so as to not offend. When in doubt, don’t joke about the person or situation.

Don’t compare stories about how you know how they feel because you lost a loved one. This diminishes their loss and makes it about you. It’s not about you this time. Everyone’s journey is different and theirs is the focus now.

Offer words of comfort based on their faith. For example, tell them you will pray for them or even better, pray for them right then and there.

Below are some simple things you can do or say.

Say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Then share a story or memory of that person. If you didn’t know the person, ask them for one – “What’s your favorite memory?” or “Do you want to talk – I’d love to hear about him/her.” You can also say, “I’ve heard you talk about what a wonderful person he was.”

Refrain from saying, “It was God’s will,” or “He/She is better off.” That is unsettling and never comforting. It’s always okay to simply say, “I don’t know what to say.”

Take the time to send a card. They mean more than you know and will likely be read more than once.

Tell them what you’d like to do for them. Most people like to ask the grieving for what they need and say things like, “let me know how I can help”.  They most likely won’t ask and may not even know what they need. Make a suggestion based on something you’d like to do and ask if that would be okay. For example, “I’d like to bring dinner over, is tonight a good night?”  You can also say, “I’d like to help with the reception. Who should I connect with?”

When all else fails, simply listen.

Above all, someone who is grieving needs the opportunity to tell and retell their experiences of loss. Your caring and compassionate listening is the best communication skill you can use to help them grieve and heal.

Betty Lochner is a human resources consultant, business coach, and expert in workplace communications. She is the author of two books on communication, and a newly published journal, Intentional Gratitude.