What to say when someone dies

Linked In 7 Feb 2022

A fortnight ago, someone I knew died in an accident. She was an an acquaintance whom I admired very much. She was one of life’s uplifters: positive, hard-working, caring.

Death is random. The first time I understood this was when I was thirteen. A boy in my class fell out of a tree and died of his injuries. While my classmates struggled with his loss, I recall spending so much energy trying to hide my emotions. Death plays a major part in the human story yet we are poor communicators when it comes to losing the people we value.

What do you say to someone who has experienced the loss of a loved-one or acquaintance? Your first instinct may be fear, silence or physically avoiding the bereaved one in case you make them uncomfortable or upset.

The go-to phrase, particularly in social media, is “I’m sorry for your loss”. Try to take that phrase a step further and acknowledge the bereaved’s suffering and the burden they carry as a result of the loss. Don’t be afraid of starting a conversation.

In the days following a death, it can be difficult to focus. It’s a shock. People suffering from grief may need help with mundane things like shopping, cleaning and cooking. Offering simple and practical help is an enormous comfort. It’s also the perfect workplace response.

Avoid offering your opinions about death.  Don’t say things like, “This was meant to be”, “It’s all going to be okay soon”, “You will get over this eventually”.

Don’t bring up your personal experience of loss, unless it’s asked for.

With the death of an elderly person it might be appropriate to talk about a life well lived, but you wouldn’t say that to a grieving mother.

“When your child dies, there’s no acceptance. It constantly breaks your heart,” says Michelle McLaughlin.

Michelle’s son Tom, aged four, died in 2014 after being struck by a car. Michelle set up Little Blue Dinosaur, a not-for-profit organisation which campaigns for road safety across the country. She reminds us too, that it’s good to use the deceased’s name as it reinforces that they are not forgotten.

The best advice is an offer to listen. Listening is a service that can never yet always be repaid. The thing about listening is it benefits both parties. Grieving takes time and you should never rush someone or suggest to the bereaved that it’s important to move on.

If you still don’t know what to say, then just be silent but present. Whatever you do, don’t react by hurriedly crossing the road or looking the other way if you suddenly see someone you know is grieving. “How are you managing?” “What do you need from me?” “I am here if you need anything.”

Like love, you can’t hurry grief. It takes time to settle in.

[Thanks to Michelle McLaughlin from Little Blue Dinosaur for her thoughts. In memory of Jill Covitz, who always knew the right thing to say.Sculpture by Peter Tilley. Image by Michael Cox]