I Don’t Know What to Say – How to Speak Words of Empathy to the Bereaved

Show that you care and express empathy

You can’t fix the pain of someone’s loss, but
with empathy you can help to carry it.  

How is it possible to help carry someone’s painful loss?

Before you choose to speak, begin by actively listening. As you listen to your grieving friend, you are helping to carry their loss. You are bearing witness to their pain and sorrow. Offering this gift requires your courage because grief is messy and unpredictable. And yet most often, a griever needs their loss to be acknowledged by others. Courageously choose to be a listener.

As you listen, you are validating an important fact. Your friend’s grief is worthy of your empathy and a compassionate response. This is an important step in helping the mourner move through their grief journey. And while the empty spaces in their sharing may tempt you to fill it with your words, be assured that your sighs, moans and tears are a beautiful expression of your care and concern.

“When we lose someone we have loved deeply, we are left with a grief that can paralyze us emotionally. When they die, a part of us dies too.”  Henri Nouwen

Several friends told me I was relatively calm and composed at my son’s funeral eight years ago. Without sobbing, I was able to give a long tribute to my son, Jordan. I was in shock. A piece of me died and was buried with him. The shock often serves as an emotional anesthetic during a time of unimaginable pain.  

In the months following the funeral, I unraveled as the shock began to wear off. No longer was I calm and composed. I needed to vent about my loss or else I would implode. I’m grateful for the Hope Heroes (grief companions) who gave me opportunities to talk about my life-altering loss. They created a safe space for me to share whatever I wanted to talk about. Without worry about editing my grief, these Hope Heroes listened attentively and chose to respond with words drenched in empathy.

Quite likely, you have a grieving friend or acquaintance who needs you to be their grief companion. (Hope Hero) 

Oxford English Dictionary:
Companion –  to accompany, to associate, to comfort, to be familiar with another’s story   

But do you ever feel uncertain as a grief companion? Are you unsure of what to say?

I had no idea until I was ambushed by grief. Suddenly it became clear how some words — although socially “the norm”  — feel wounding to a griever.  

Some words emerge from Sympathy, a feeling of concern for someone else without necessarily becoming involved in a close, helping relationship. It’s holding the griever at an arm’s length and saying, “I feel sorry for you.” It’s choosing to be a spectator in their grief rather than a participant or companion. 

Words of Empathy emerge from listening with your heart and not analyzing with your head. It’s allowing yourself to imagine being in the griever’s lived experience. It’s feeling with them and refraining from judgement or advice.

The  more you encourage the mourner to teach you about their loss from a position of caring curiosity, the less you will feel the need to “fix things.” As you put yourself in their shoes, you will become a true companion on their grief journey. You will be a comforting presence.

Ephesians 4:29  “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”   

Finding the right words to say is not always easy. Here are some suggestions that can help:

1. You are not alone. We are grieving with you.
2. Honestly, I don’t know what to say.
3. I miss him/her too. My favorite memory of your loved one is ____.
4. I’m available on Tuesday or Friday to walk your dog, do your laundry or take your kids to the park.     What would be most helpful?
5. My heart is hurting with you.
6. I’m so sorry for your loss.
7. I’m here to listen.
8. I missed the chance to get to know your loved one. I’d like to meet him/her through your memories. What was he/she like?
9. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to face these days without your loved one. Are there particular times of the day or days of the week you find especially hard? 
10. I feel honored as you share your pain with me by shedding tears. Tears are not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. They are evidence of the deep love you have for ____. 
11. What does your grief look like today?
12. I’ll bet your world feels a lot different without your loved one. What is the most difficult adjustment for you right now? 
13. What can I be praying specifically for you this week?
14. The death of your loved one has deeply impacted me. I’m choosing to honor his/her legacy by____.
15. I, too, am familiar with grief. While our losses are different and I’m at a different place on my grief journey, I’m available to share from my experience if you think it would be helpful.  

Noooooo, please don’t say it!

Although well-meaning, these sentences may feel wounding to a griever or fail to communicate the empathy and compassion you’re intending:

1. Call me if you need anything. (Instead, choose #4 on the previous list.)
2. It’s been a year. Are you over it now?
3. God won’t give you more than you can handle.
4. Time heals all wounds. 
5. God must have needed your love one in Heaven.
6. At least you have other children. At least you can get married again. At least. . . .
7. I miss the person you were before your loss. When will you be your old self again?
8. I know how you feel. 
9. It’s good that your loved one isn’t suffering anymore.
10. You should be thankful for all the years you had with your loved one. You should. . . . 
11. Please accept my condolences.
12. How are you? (Instead, ask #11 from the previous list.) 
13. Be strong. Keep your chin up.
14. God must have something to teach you through this loss.
15. It could be worse. I know someone who has experienced a more devastating loss than yours.

By no means is this an exhaustive list. I’m sure you could add to it from your experience.

Sharing this list of things not to say is not meant to berate anyone or make them feel guilty. With the best of intentions, I’ve said many of these words, too. But now that we know better, let’s resolve to be mindful of our words. They have a deeper impact than we may realize.

Our ability to actively listen will effectively inform the words of empathy we choose to say. And please remember to prayerfully ask God to equip you with His wisdom, too. 

Thank you for being a compassionate grief companion (Hope Hero) to your bereaved friends. You can leave an imprint that no one else can.

May your empathy and compassion return to you in the same beautiful way that it is given.    

Cheering you on,





Picture of Shirley Thiessen

Shirley Thiessen

Author and speaker helping you bring hope to broken, grieving hearts.