What to say when someone dies

It can be hard to find the right words when someone you know is grieving. Bereavement expert, Julia Samuel, gives her advice on what we should and shouldn't say.

Death is the last great taboo, and its consequence, grief, is profoundly misunderstood.

We seem happy to expose our deepest vulnerabilities or to talk about sex or our failures, but on death we are silent. It is too frightening, even alien, for many of us, to find the words to voice it.

Silence can lead to ignorance, which means we often don't know how to respond to grief in others, let alone ourselves.

We prefer it when the bereaved don't show their distress, and we say how "amazing" they are when they are being "so strong." But the fact is death happens and grief hurts.

Despite the language we use to try and deny death: “passed over” “lost” "gone to a better place" it is a harsh truth that as a society we are pretty ill equipped to respond to it.

Every day thousands of people die, expectedly and unexpectedly. On average every death affects at least five people, that means millions of people will be faced with the shock of the news.

They will forever remember where they were standing when they heard their parent, their sibling, their friend or their child is dying or has died. It will impact their relationship with themselves, and with every aspect of their world, for the rest of their life.

It has always been very clear to me that the friends or family of someone who is bereaved, desperately want to help.

The difficulty comes because they often don’t know how to help. They are likely to be scared of getting it wrong and making it worse, and so do nothing.

Bereavement support

How you can make a difference

  • Acknowledge the loss - no magic response is needed, a simple and sincere few words, “I am so sorry that … has died” is enough. It is more helpful to say “how are you today” than “how are you” which is hard to answer.

  • At particular times of year, like Christmas or significant anniversaries, it is helpful to acknowledge they may be difficult for your colleague, simply by saying “I imagine this is a difficult day/time for you, if I can help by… let me know.”

  • Listen – it’s your most important tool, listen when they want to talk about the person who has died, and listen if they want to talk about something else - follow their lead.

  • Move towards the person who is bereaved, not away from them, again, a simple hug and acknowledgement is enough.

  • Do more than text a message offering help, show up with food, or practical assistance.

  • If you are a close friend be there for the long haul, not just the immediate aftermath.

  • Be honest - honesty is comforting and easy to deal with.

  • Be Sensitive - to their needs, not promiscuous honesty, and remember the loss is not about you.

Making a connection

How the bereaved manage the grief process, and how we respond to them will have a big impact on their outcome.

People need people.

We are born for connection. We need people to survive. We need people to share our life with when we are happy, when we are just getting on, and we need people when we are bereaved.

JuliaSamuels3

By Julia Samuel

Psychotherapist and author of Grief Works