I am not going to pretend to speak for anyone other than myself, but I do think that there are a few general guidelines that are usually helpful to follow for those who are trying to find words of sympathy for someone who has recently experienced loss.
First of all, there is really only one thing that needs to be said (although it can be said in a variety of ways): I am so sorry for your loss. You may want to add on something like, “You are in my prayers.” on to it (assuming, of course, that you are actually doing that). But, keep it at that. I know that it feels inadequate. That is because, in situations like this, everything is inadequate. There are no words that make unbearable pain suddenly vanish. However, know that as simple and inadequate the words “I’m sorry” seem, they are actually quite powerful. While nothing can make the pain vanish, having people who are grieving with you can make it somehow–at least a little bit–more bearable.
Let me tell you common mistakes that people make when offering their sympathy. (By the way, I totally understand why these mistakes are made. I still make them sometimes, much to my chagrin. So there is no judgement here!)
- Saying “I’m sorry this happened. I know how terrible it is because it happened to me too.” While this may seem like a great way to sympathize and relate to someone, the truth is that you have now made someone else’s tragedy about you. Don’t do that. The day may come when it is appropriate to share your story with your friend, but right after the tragedy? That is not the time. Mourn with them over their loss. Don’t make it about you.
- Making up a reason why this tragedy is a blessing. It isn’t. The Lord is faithful. He will bring good out of even the worst tragedy. (Although, sometimes you won’t be able to see that until way, way, way down the road. And, maybe not on this side of eternity.) However, that doesn’t mean that the tragedy had to come in order for the good to come. Loss of one you love is never a blessing, and speaking like it is simply causes more pain.
- Along those same lines, don’t try to find a reason. There is no good reason for tragedy. And, even if there were, why do you think you would be the one to know it? Tragedy is a senseless, terrible thing. It is personal. When you experience it, it can feel as though it is a personal attack, aimed directly at you. Having someone else try to explain what you are experiencing or why, will usually only end up with you feeling misunderstood and isolated.
- Telling people how to move past their grief. Each grief has its own timetable and process. What may have helped you deal with a loss you experienced may be the exact opposite of what someone else will find hope in. Each loss I have experienced had a different process. What gave me hope in one circumstance actually deepened my grief in another. Don’t expect people to grieve in the same way you did. The time may come when it is appropriate and helpful to share your journey, but not right away.
So, what do you do?
- As I said at the beginning, start with saying “I’m sorry”. What someone needs when they are mourning is to have others mourn with them. Grief doesn’t usually start with many words, it is a pain beyond that. So, simple words expressing that you are sharing that grief (albeit, a tiny portion of it) can be healing.
- If you want to move beyond words, look towards practical helps. For example: making a meal to share; cleaning the house; babysitting; etc. Please note: Some things that seem helpful may not actually be helpful. So, it’s a good idea to check with that person (or perhaps their spouse) before you move forward with any plans. (Meals are great because simple life tasks can be overwhelming during times of tragedy. On the other hand, some people will find getting back into “normal” life quite therapeutic and having a freezer filled with 42 casseroles may actually hinder that. Also, while taking kids so that a parent can have room and time to breathe (and grieve) can be a much needed gift, this too can backfire. Having the kids around may be healing. Or, maybe the kids are grieving too and being constantly away from home could add to their trauma. Etc.)
- Give a small gift that has nothing to do with the tragic event. After one of my miscarriages, a couple of friends gave me a gift card and some truffles. It was great! It didn’t have anything to do with my loss, but that was probably what made it such a great gift. It was simply a token of love to me, which was a healing balm to my soul.
- Send a card expressing sympathy and love. I know that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” is all that needs to be said. And, I stand by it. However, if this is someone that you are close to, a card with more words might be appropriate. Stick with the “I’m sorry” theme, but add to it how much you care about that person. I had a friend who once gave me a card that was filled with loving sorrow and nonsense. (She is someone who often makes me laugh with her “nonsense” of funny stories, etc. so it was authentically her.) It was perfect. Not only did it make me feel loved, but I also laughed each time I read it.
- Cry with them. Laugh with them. Match what they need in the moment as best you can. My husband and I once went to a movie after we found out about a loss of ours. We cried a little first, but then kind of went into shock. We found we needed something to focus on before we could begin to process the pain. The movie didn’t bring healing, but it did give us a much needed relief from having to start processing before we were ready to.
- This leads me to my last suggestion: let life be “normal” again. It can be daunting being around people when everyone knows your secret pain. It can feel overwhelming and a natural tendency is to want to isolate yourself in those times. Having someone that treats you the same as they did before can be a much needed gift.
Obviously these lists are only suggestions. And, I do understand that the level of relationship before a tragedy can affect what response is appropriate after. (The amount of time that has passed after a loss can affect your response, too.) Loss is never easy, but having people around that genuinely care and grieve with you? That can make all the difference.