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What Do You Say to Someone Who Loses a Family Member?

Expert Author Cj  M Swaby

The death of a family member can be an extremely difficult time. Whether the death was a sudden, or over a prolonged period, there is no doubt that in the initial stages emotions can run raw, and may do so for sometime. I know that this was true for my own personal experience of loss and bereavement. It is something that I have also witnessed working with various clients through our Dialogue on Death bereavement coaching program.

If you have never experienced the death and loss of a loved one, you may find it a challenge to support others who are struggling with grief. Unsure of what to say or do, your well meaning intentions may be rejected as you fail to connect with your friend, colleague or client.

Even if you have experienced the death of a family member, it is a common mistake to assume you know what other people are going through. You may find yourself causing more harm than good.

So what do you say to someone who loses a family member? While there is no set "right" thing to say, if you consider these three important guidelines, you can be sure that your true intentions may be understood.

Everything Is As It Should Be.

Grief is not a race. Remember nothing you say will suddenly stop the pain. It will not bring them back. They do not need to be "fixed". This is not to suggest that anything you say will be pointless, just do not expect a particular response to your efforts.

Even if you have painstakingly spent hours deliberating what to say, or writing that special poem for them, give it freely as a true gift. Release any attachment to how they respond. Let them do with it what they will. That way the airwaves are clear for open and honest communication.

Be Authentic.

If you do not know what to say, feel free to be authentic and say it. Share with the person how you feel. At this time, probably more so than any in their life, authentic communication and a genuine connection to others around them can provide instant support.

Who knows, but by sharing how you feel and asking the question, "I don't know what to say or do, but I really want to be there for you." Or ask "How can I support you?" and "What do you need from me?" You may begin to open up a powerful dialogue. Equally, sometimes all that is required is to feel they are being listened to. By acting as a sounding board you could be providing invaluable support.

Their Grief Is Not Your Own.

Everyone's experience of grief and loss is unique. Just because you have also experienced the death of a loved one, it doesn't necessarily mean that you know how they feel. You may be able to appreciate what it is to lose someone you love, but you can never truly know their grief and loss. It is important not to assume.

Respect how they feel and what they are going through. Remember, to ask yourself, "Who do I need to be for them?" Your focus should be about supporting them through their grief, not about your past experience. If they request it, or if it is appropriate to do so, share what you have learned through your own bereavement. If they can benefit from your wisdom then that is fantastic. Just remember not to stifle their grieving process. Listen to their needs.

There is no easy way to know what to say to someone who loses a family member. They may find little comfort in words, knowing that the person they love is no longer physically with them. Avoid clichés, and remember carefully considered, authentic words can have great impact.

When you remember the three guidelines:

1) To be authentic, and speak from your heart.
2) Take into consideration that everything is as it should be.
3) Recognise that their grief is not your own, you will be a useful and powerful support during their challenging time.

Cj Swaby is a NLP Coach, Speaker and Author. He is the founder of the Dialogue on Death program, which provides practical solutions for coping with loss and bereavement. He created the program after the sudden death of his grandmother, and losing his brother to cancer. You can download the free eBook and coaching podcasts at

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