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When someone’s suffering, it’s natural to want to make them feel better. It’s even human nature to want to take away their pain. But you can’t, no matter how good your intentions. In fact, you risk invalidating people’s pain when you try to “fix” it.
The first rule of offering condolences is to do no harm. Here are some examples of well-worn phrases that miss the mark, followed by suggestions of what you might try instead.
Um, probably not. Just as no two people are the same, no two losses are the same. Although you may relate to their sadness, it’s impossible to know the depths of their grief.
Instead, try: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I can’t imagine how hard this is, but I’m here for you.”
For someone grieving, the best place is right here with them. Even if the person who died had made peace with death, the people left behind are feeling the heavy weight of their absence.
Instead, try: “I’m sure you miss her terribly. I’ll never forget her.”
When you love someone, life is never long enough to offset loss. In fact, the more time you have with someone you love, the more your lives are intertwined, which can intensify the pain of separation.
Instead, try: “We never get enough time with the people we love. It hurts to lose someone who means the world to us.”
We all know life comes to an end, but it’s painful to hear someone propose that your loved one died as part of a grand plan. Or that their death serves a special purpose.
Instead, try: “I wish I knew what to say, but there are no good words for this. My heart is very heavy for all of you.”
Although you may struggle with the right words, saying nothing can be the deepest cut. Failing to acknowledge someone’s loss can come across as insensitive and unfeeling.
Instead, try: Showing up. Your presence at a visitation or memorial service is a simple, but profound, way of showing your support. It tells people that the person they lost matters, and so do they.
You can also show your support in quiet ways. Drop off a basket of homemade muffins. Mow someone’s lawn or shovel their driveway. Help them plant their summer flowers. Invite them to dinner, a movie, even a church service if you know them well enough and feel it would help.
If it’s easier to express yourself in writing, drop them a note. Or take a hint from the book “There Is No Good Card for This.” It’s a great guide to offering comfort to people when you’re at a loss for words.