How to Comfort a Bereaved Friend or Relative

Published: June 1, 2008
Publication: Bottom Line Personal
Source: Fran Dorf

Thirty years after her son’s death, my friend still smarts when she remembers all the people who pointed out how lucky she was to have two other children. Another friend, whose brother recently died, grumbles that everyone keeps telling her it will get better with time. Having received my share of insensitive, even hurtful, comments after my son, Michael, died 13 years ago, I certainly understand. Even people with good intentions often say and do the wrong thing.
If you want to comfort a grieving friend or relative, your primary task is to validate his/her feelings. Don’t say anything that minimizes those feelings — which, in effect, “de-legitimizes” them.

I’ve found that “de-legitimizers” can be divided into six categories…

  • Babblers. These people chatter on about the weather, a friend who had a heart attack and so on. But ignoring the elephant in the room just makes it bigger.
  • Advice-givers. People often give advice, such as, “Start dating again”… “take a long vacation”… “concentrate on your other children”… “it’s time to get over it”… “remember the good times.” But when we hear this advice, we may interpret it as, “What’s wrong with you? If only you would take my wise counsel, you’d feel better.” I remember that people advised me to take a sedative, but somehow I knew that I needed to shed a certain number of tears (more than I could ever have imagined) and that it would be counterproductive to try to mask my pain with medication.
    Platitude-offerers. When you spout clichés, such as, “God must have wanted him… he’s in a better place,” the bereaved may feel offended. You may prefer to believe God must have wanted him, but the bereaved person may hate God at the moment and thus feel de-legitimized for feeling what he feels.
  • Pseudo-empathizers. It’s particularly distressing for those experiencing “high grief” — for example, from the loss of a child — to hear, “I know just how you feel.” If you haven’t experienced the same loss, you have no idea how a person feels — and maybe not even then.
  • Lesson-learners. There may be profound lessons to be learned from tragedy, but it’s best to let others learn them in their own time and ways. Don’t say, “Everything happens for a reason”… “We must learn to appreciate our lives”… or “Life is short.”
  • Abandoners. Whatever the conscious or unconscious rationalizations — such as fear of saying the wrong thing or feeling uncomfortable in the face of grief — if you walk away from a friend who needs you, you’re probably walking away from the friendship permanently.


  • Take your cues from the bereaved person. If he’s sitting quietly, sit quietly beside him. If he’s using humor to cope, laugh a little.
  • Let the grieving person tell his/her story in as much detail as he chooses to, even if he repeats it and it’s hard to hear. It helps the bereaved to tell and retell the story. If you’re not sure how to respond, try simply, “I’m so sorry” or even, “I don’t know what to say.”
  • Read a book on grief. You honor your bereaved friend by learning all you can. Good books include A Good Friend for Bad Times (Augsburg Fortress) by Deborah Bowen and Susan Strickler, and I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye (Sourcebooks) by Pamela Blair and Brook Noel. Or search on-line for information about grief under “grief” or “bereavement.”
  • Acknowledge the deceased person. Tell a wonderful anecdote about him. Even now, I am grateful when someone mentions my son, Michael. Just saying his name aloud brings him back into the world.
  • Contact the bereaved on significant days – birthdays, death days, anniversaries. These are difficult, especially “firsts.” Don’t avoid, ignore or forget them.
  • Offer practical and specific support. Pick up the kids from school… cook a meal… mow the lawn. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do?” or “Call me if you need me.” Decide what you can do, and then do it.
  • Stay in touch. Remember that when the formal mourning period is over and the last casserole is gone, the bereaved is still grieving. Continue to call and get together.
  • Banish the word “closure” from your vocabulary. There is no such thing, and who would want it anyway? We incorporate our losses into our lives. Psychologists have proposed many ways to describe how we find a way to live with loss, but the one I find most useful is that we must “reinvest” in a new reality.
    In memory of my son, I eventually wrote a novel. Also, my husband and I established an educational program for toddlers with special needs. But reinvestment can be private, too, revealed in a change in priorities, attitudes, interests or goals.
  • Meet us where we are. Don’t have expectations. Don’t compare one grief to another. Remember that grief may take years to work through. Be prepared for tears, moaning, sighing, wailing, trembling, even screaming.
    Don’t take anger personally. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s classic five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — come not in stages but in circles and waves like a roller coaster. The best definition of compassion I’ve ever found is a Buddhist one — “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Grief support takes work, stamina and commitment. Be present. Be humble. Be patient. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen.