Let’s talk about something that everyone will have to face at one point in time in their lives no matter who they are: comforting someone who has lost a loved one. Death of a family member or loved one is a natural part of life and it is a stage of our existence that we all must face. The relationship that people have with death varies from person to person, but one thing is certain: some aspects of your life will be touched by death in some way or another, and it can be hard to find the right words for someone going through this difficult time. 

For some, they learn about death early on through the loss of a pet, loved ones or relatives, or friends. Others may grow into adolescence or even their twenties without really facing a situation when death has come close to them. However, the truth is we are going to be in a position at some point in our lives where someone who knows lost a loved one and that is a very precious and important position to be in. 

How To Help Someone When You Can’t Relate

For many people, the situation may arise where someone you know and even love dearly will lose a person close to them, and you can’t relate. How do you talk to your friend who lost their mother or father when you have never had to cope with the same kind of loss or tough time?

This can seem overwhelming especially if you are observing grief or a time of sorrow for the first time. The compulsion to do something and somehow contribute to the situation is normal. In fact, it may even be frustrating because in situations like this it could seem like you have no way of making the situation better. 

When it comes down to it, grief for every person is a unique journey. One that has no definable roadmap and while there may be similarities and patterns every person will have their own path to follow. The best thing that you can do for your friend in these situations is to be honest with them and present only what you can truly offer.

Honor Their Experience

One of the best ways that you can help your friends through their grief is to honor their experiences and offer your heartfelt sympathies. Your words as well as your actions will be a big part of helping a grieving friend understand that they are supported as they go through this hurt. 

The time of grief itself is one that can be a source of a lot of frustration for people who may go through it. It’s a long process and one that can be unpredictable for the bereaved person. When a loved one or someone that you know is experiencing this journey, a powerful tool you can give them is the knowledge that they are supported by a close friend.

This lends itself powerfully to words of affirmation and support. When you know that your friend or loved one is experiencing hardship, go the extra mile and speak your support into their life with a sympathy card or other words of sympathy for the grieving person.

Tell your friend or loved one that you are there for them and don’t be afraid to affirm that they have the freedom and support to experience their grief. Encourage them by calling out the courage in them and affirm their experience is important and that you fully support it. 

Don’t Be Afraid To Not Relate

If you find yourself at a spot where a loved one is experiencing something you cannot relate to, don’t let that hold you back. Acknowledge it openly to your loved ones and let them know that you are open to their needs while they are healing. 

Just because you can not relate does not mean that your presence and love in their life isn’t needed. In fact, by affirming that you can’t relate you can reinforce their perception of acceptance as they experience the process of grief for the deceased firsthand. 

Words To Say When You Can Relate

On the other hand, the unfortunate truth is that many of us will be able to relate all too well to the grief of a loved one or friend walking through loss. This creates a new space and ability to help strengthen your loved one during a time of crisis. 

However, that does not mean that the obvious answer is to constantly pull from your own experience. In fact, doing that very thing could at times be more stifling to your loved one than encouraging or alleviating. Offer your deepest sympathy messages to the person who needs them, and share in the remembrance of the deceased.

Timing Is Everything

Grief is a deeply challenging process. It may seem like a strange analogy, but grief can be like running a race—just not one that you necessarily want to run. Regardless, there is a certain amount of preparation that goes into grief. As we grow and live our lives we are constantly learning about death and so preparing for that moment when we will have to face its effects in our lives and say our goodbyes. 

For some, death is brought into their lives suddenly and without any warning. A traumatic event took a loved one from out of seemingly nowhere with next to no warning. Maybe even a health condition limited the amount of time you thought you had with a loved one and expedited the process of preparing for grief. Regardless of the situation, once grief starts, it’s an arduous journey to walk through—it is a process

As such, it will have key moments when encouragement and love are needed in different ways. The same way that a marathon runner knows when they will be in need of encouragement and so asks their friends and family to camp at a certain mile marker to provide that boost of confidence, the grief process will also need encouragement. 

If you have a loved one that is experiencing grief in a way that you can relate to, pull from your own experience when it comes to timing. When were words of encouragement most needed for you? What do you wish you would have heard sooner? What did you hear that didn’t help or even made it worse? 

Speaking to a person who is grieving about your own experience in an effort to encourage them may not be the wisest way to pull from your experience. For instance, sharing with someone your own post-experience may not send the message or emotions that you want to during their grieving process.

While your intentions may be to encourage them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a person experiencing grief may not be able to appreciate such a sentiment at that moment. So hearing about your own story may actually act to falsely devalue their own sadness or make them feel confused. 

Pull From Your Negative Experience With Grief

This is one area that you can greatly help your loved ones. By looking back over your own experience and pulling from where you felt like someone said something that was out of place or badly worded, you can impact your loved one and communicate effective and sincere sympathy. 

Even though everyone’s journey through grief is unique, there are strong similarities that can help us as a community navigate the path together. The negative moments or the moments where intentions were well-meaning but delivery or execution was amiss can prove as incredible moments to help you improve your community with heartfelt condolences. 

Pull From Your Positive Experiences

This same principle can be applied to the moments and words that you experienced and received from the community that really helped you. Whether that was a direct word of encouragement or a simple action, this knowledge can help you powerfully impact your loved ones who are suffering grief. 

Be Authentic and Be Open

The hardest part of trying to figure all this out is the innate messiness of just being human and feeling inadequate. No matter how carefully you plan or how sensitive you are, the chance and opportunity to accidentally offend or dismiss someone is always present. However, that should never hold us back from doing our best to help encourage and love those who are grieving with a condolence message or sympathy gift.

It’s difficult to try, and possibly even impossible, and define words of comfort down to an exact science. When prayers or words of comfort are needed they are simply needed. It’s a time and place and an action that needs to be followed through on. 

These basic principles that we have talked about can help to generally guide you and give you some tools that will increase your chances of encouraging someone. But they are simply that, guides and tools. The most important thing to remember when trying to comfort someone who has lost a loved one is to be authentic and come from a place of love, not judgment, for the recipient.

Practice acceptance with yourself before you try and comfort a person going through grief. The truth is that they do need you and your love and support will be a huge part of their journey. So be sensitive, make sure you’re being open and authentic and coming from a place of love. However, most importantly—simply be there for them. Don’t let a fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from sharing words of encouragement when they are needed most. 


Sympathy reconfigured: Some reflections on sympathy, empathy and the discovery of values | Online Library Wiley 

Complicated grief - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic 

 Grief: A cognitive-behavioral analysis | Springer