You say it best… when you say something

“It’s so difficult to know what to say.”

Sadly, many of us are searching for words at the moment. In these times of social distancing we find ourselves needing to find alternatives to the many non-verbal forms of communication that we usually rely on. There’s no kettle to put on or hug to give to a best friend whose mum died last week, and most of us find it difficult to put into words what just sitting down and being with someone does.

However, we can make phone calls, video calls and send messages online or through the post. We still have words, our tone of voice and our desire to support our friends and family. They may be more difficult to use, but they are there.

So, what CAN we say?

“I’m so sorry to hear about your Mum.”

Just simply expressing how sad it is to hear that someone is grieving the loss of a loved one can often be a comfort, even if it’s just a simple one-line message. A friend recently told me that even though she didn’t feel she could reply to what felt like hundreds of ‘I’m so sorry’ replies on her Facebook post about her bereavement, every single one meant a huge amount to her.

“It sounds like that was really difficult for you.”

It is impossible to really understand how someone feels, even if we have been in the same position. Phrases like ‘I understand’ can be frustrating to hear, because grief is unique to each of us. What we can do is to empathise – to demonstrate we have listened to what our friend or family member has said to us – and to invite them to continue to talk if they’d like to.

“Just to let you know I’m still thinking about you.”

Arrangements for funerals, memorials and the myriad of administrative tasks that are required when someone dies are compounded even further by restrictions in funeral attendance, people being in self-isolation or sick themselves, delayed releases of personal property… the list goes on. Although complex, many bereaved people say that all the practical tasks help in a way; they can be a distraction. But when that’s all finished, the feelings of grief can be overwhelming and it can feel like other friends and family have forgotten and moved on. A message to let someone know they are being thought about, and without asking for or expecting a response can make a big difference.

“Do you want to tell me how that felt for you?”

We often don’t say anything because we are a) scared of making things worse, or b) scared that someone won’t want to talk about it and we will have offended our friend or family member in some way.

If you’re not sure, it’s unlikely someone will really be offended by you checking. Even just asking ‘do you want to talk about it?’ gives that person the chance to say yes or no.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say.”

Very sadly, the death of a loved one is not a fixable situation. As human beings we like to try and find solutions and make things better. The one thing that most bereaved people want most of all is to have their loved one back, and that isn’t something that any of us can do. We often start saying things that start with ‘at least…’ e.g. ‘at least you could have a funeral, so many others haven’t been able to.’ The thing is, even if this is true, a bereaved person will probably have been telling themselves this over and over already – e.g. ‘I am lucky I got to see her, others are in worse situations.’ It also implies that we should be grateful in some way, but it’s very difficult to feel grateful for anything when someone has died. It doesn’t make the feelings of loss, loneliness and desperation feel any better. Every person’s grief is valid, every bereaved person deserves support. Later on, when someone is feeling philosophical about something particular around what’s happened they may have some thoughts like this – but that’s down to their feelings and judgements, not ours.

Being honest and stating that you don’t know what to say is so much better than saying nothing at all. At least then your friend or family member knows you care and that you’re thinking about them.