What to say to a friend that's lost a loved one

Written by: Amber Roo

When you start passion projects like these, you don’t always account for the big events in life that happen at random and stop you in your tracks. Some of them you bounce back from, get back to your routine and continue working, writing blogs and doing daily life. Then others, they come along and the world seems to pause on it’s axis for a while. You do the things you absolutely have to do, like getting up in the morning, working so you can still afford to live and breathing because, well, the alternative is burying yourself in the duvet and never emerging again.

Death is one of the latter events. The ones that sometimes force you to be still for a while and reduce you of the ability to keep life going, even if you try really hard. That’s what’s happened with the site for the past few weeks as I had to step away to gather myself. My grandfather had a sudden heart attack in April and passed away shortly after. Then, 3 weeks ago, my Godmother died very unexpectedly. So, it’s been a tough time of late especially being so far from my family, having emigrated to the states last year. I went back to the UK to see my grandfather for the last time in April and in a way, I’m glad, as that also allowed me to spend one last day with my Godmother (not that I knew it at the time, of course). I’ll be returning home again in a week for her funeral and I won’t lie, part of me is terrified that every time I go back home, it might just be the last time I get to see one of the people I hold closest to my heart.

This piece isn’t about the thoughts that feed my anxiety monsters, though. If the last two months have taught me anything, it’s that what one wants to hear in the event of a bereavement is not what people tend to say. No one is really at fault for this as minds cannot be read, however it does become apparent that those who say the most effective things in these situations are the ones that have been through the same thing. So I’m here to help, for those of you that haven't had first hand experience of this and might be unsure of what to say, do or expect when your friend has lost someone close to them. 


If “I’m sorry for your loss”, “stay strong” and “hang in there” are your default go-tos, stop right there.

It may not seem like a big deal when you’re the one saying it, but read it out loud. “I’m sorry for your loss”. It’s so impersonal it almost seems insincere. You could even just switch it out for, “I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this” and it automatically makes it more heartfelt, or if you really must say it, try to personalise it to “I’m sorry for the loss of your [insert loved ones name here]”.

Although “stay strong” and “hang in there” can’t really be personalised, by themselves they have no real meaning. There are plenty of other things to say besides those two.

For me, after having had the usual messages of condolence after my Grandfather passed, and realising how much this phrase grated at my soul, it actually made me not want to tell anyone when my Godmother died. I literally just didn’t want to hear “I’m sorry for your loss” as in those situations, although you’re not trying to be ungrateful for people’s thoughts, nothing is enough and then words that seem dismissive just really drive it home. 


Give them space, but not too much

It’s understandable that you may feel you’re intruding by getting in contact frequently, or that the person wouldn’t want you asking them how they are all the time but in reality, nothing is too much. While they may need some space, having someone checking in on them daily is a reminder that there are people around them that care and who will listen if they want to talk. 

Sometimes, we have a tendency to leave people to be with their families or other loved ones when they’re grieving and although this may seem like the polite thing to do, it can lead to the person dealing with the loss feeling quite abandoned by their friends.

For me, when friends were sincere in asking how I was and were prepared for an honest answer, I really appreciated them listening and responding. Sometimes, that’s all it takes, even if the frankness of the person makes you feel awkward - push through.


Manage your expectations

It's very likely that you'll want to tell your friend how much you love them and how much you're here for them when you find out that they've lost a loved one. It's also human nature to want a positive reaction to that expression of feelings however every single ounce of your friend's emotions are pouring into the feeling of loss they're experiencing and they often won't be able to return sentiments of love or support in the way you might expect.

I know that every time a friend text me to say they love me or each time someone said 'I love you' on the phone, it hurt too much to say it back. All I could think of was how much I loved the person that's now gone and how saying it to someone else was almost impossible at that moment. 

It's not that the sentiment isn't appreciated, it really is and is absolutely needed in times of grief. Your friend's capacity for love is just different right now and it's up to you to not feel disappointed or peeved by that. 


Don’t ask, just do

If there’s something helpful or soothing that you’d like to do for your friend, make an informed decision and go ahead with it. We often feel the need to ask the person if there’s anything they need or if they’d like us to do certain things, which can be very difficult for them to answer. It’s hard to make even the simplest of decisions in times of mourning, let alone ask a person to do something for you.

I rarely felt like friends were overstepping when they went ahead with their gesture and in fact, those are the ones I most remember and appreciate. So go drop off dinner, spend the day with them or take care of a responsibility you know they’re struggling with.

Extra burdens that are lifted with no request or prompting are the biggest blessings in times like these.


Ask them about the person

Your friend may not want to talk about the person or circumstances right away, but don’t shy away from the topic once the initial shock has softened. Chances are, they are clinging tightly to the memories they have with the person they’ve lost and they’re racking their brain for all of the times spent with them that they can’t remember vividly anymore, so talking about their loved one can help to bring those memories back to the surface.

I know that was a major thing that kept me up at night for weeks, so when others gave importance to the memory of my loved ones by asking me about them or talking about them, it gave me comfort that their life wasn’t slipping through my fingers and fading away as the days went by. Our conversations were keeping them around.


Remember that everyone reacts differently. Acceptance doesn’t negate grief

Everyone reacts differently to the news of death. While some are very visibly upset, others remain stoic and deal with their grief internally. However your friend reacts, don’t let this be the benchmark on which you judge their grief. Losing someone you love is never easy and the reality of the situation can set in a different times, meaning that the effects of grief can be delayed or simply just not visible to you, as an outsider looking in.

If your friend seems fine when you see them, check on them later that evening once everyone has gone and they’re alone. The aftermath of social situations are the hardest times for me and are when I most need a person to talk to or someone to help distract my thoughts.

Try to bear that in mind next time you see a friend that’s coping with a loss. Don’t just assume that they’re ‘over it’ when daily life resumes as we often have to push ourselves back into our routines much sooner than we are ready to do so. 


It’s almost impossible to know what to say or do if you’ve never been through a loss yourself, so hopefully these tips are useful for anyone unsure of how to navigate another’s grief.

Above all else, just be mindful that we are all carrying burdens and we have no idea what pain others are going through. Be kind to one another, remember the importance of empathy and understanding and all else will follow.