What to Say — and Not to Say — to Someone Whose Loved One Has Recently Died

By Sue Morris, PsyD

While the number of cancer survivors continues to increase, unfortunately some cancer patients do die from their diseases, leaving grieving family members and friends behind. Many people avoid talking to someone whose loved one has just died – from cancer or other causes – because it makes them feel uncomfortable and they are not sure of what to say. Others, often unintentionally, make insensitive comments that can be hurtful and create an expectation that the bereaved should “get over” their loss and move on as soon as possible. Either way, the bereaved is likely to feel hurt and unsupported at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Sue Morris, PsyD, (left) is the director of Dana-Farber's Bereavement Program, which provides support to family members and friends of deceased patients.
Sue Morris, PsyD, (left) is the director of Dana-Farber’s Bereavement Program, which provides support to family members and friends of deceased patients.

What recently bereaved individuals really need is support – both emotional and practical – because grief can be a very isolating and lonely experience. If someone you care about is grieving, reach out to him or her, even if you don’t know what to say. Tell them you care and that you want to help them. Tell them you don’t know what to say; being there and not knowing what to say is far better than not being there at all.

Here are a few tips to help support recently bereaved individuals:

  1. Acknowledge the death – express your condolences by calling or sending a card
  2. Be a good listener and let the person tell their story about what happened – as many times as they need to
  3. Avoid telling them what to do, even if you have experienced a similar loss
  4. Provide opportunities for the bereaved to reminisce about their loved one and share stories
  5. Don’t be afraid to use the deceased’s name
  6. Remember significant dates, such as the deceased’s birthday or the date they died, and acknowledge them
  7. Offer practical help, like assistance with meals or childcare
  8. Call them frequently to check in
  9. Invite them to do something with you

Examples of what to say…

  • I am really sorry
  • I am thinking about you
  • There are no words, other than to say how sorry I am
  • I just heard about ____’s death – I wanted to say how sorry I am
  • I don’t know what to say, but I wanted to be here for you and to give you a hug
  • I know there is nothing I can do to change what has happened, but I wanted to offer my condolences and let you know that I am thinking of you

What not to say…

  • They are in a better place now
  • They had a good life
  • You’ve got to be strong
  • You’ve got to stop crying
  • It was God’s will
  • I know how you feel
  • You’ve got to move on
  • You’ve got to get over it
  • You’ve got to be strong for the children

Most of us will experience grief at some point in our lives following the death of a loved one, but everyone’s reaction to it will be different. If someone special in your life is grieving, express your condolences and make sure they know you are there to provide support, and that additional resources, such as online or in person support groups, counseling, and grief guides, are also available.

Sue Morris, PsyD, is director of the Bereavement Program at Dana-Farber, which offers support to bereaved families and friends of recently deceased Dana-Farber patients.