animal grief, grief

What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One: What People Should Have Said to You

what to say to someone who lost a loved one

People say the strangest things when they hear you have lost a loved one. They talk about their own losses. They tell you that you’ll feel better in a year. They say that you can get another animal. They say that at least they aren’t suffering anymore.

Our culture is pretty terrible at comforting people in their grief. And we are all guilty of it. I can think of a few times I have said or done the wrong thing when someone shared a loss or challenging life event with me. No one is perfect.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have conversations about what we can and should do better when supporting each other in our grief. So this article is for both the people asking, “What to say to someone who lost a loved one?” and those who need to hear what they should have heard when they shared a loss.

Why Do People Say the Wrong Thing?

People say the wrong thing for a few reasons.

  • They don’t know the right thing to say. There is no “right thing” to say. But many people are uneducated about more appropriate things to say. So instead of saying, “This must be so hard for you,” they try to connect their own experience to it and say, “I remember when my dog died.” People do this in an attempt to connect and comfort, but unfortunately, it usually has the opposite effect.
  • They’re uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable hearing about someone’s challenging life events or a death, especially if the person you’re telling has not actually acknowledged pain and death in their own life. This leads them to say inappropriate things like, “At least you had them for as long as you did,” and “They’re in a better place.”
  • They have not experienced a loss (or at least not like yours). Some people HAVE experienced a loss, even one similar to yours, and don’t say the right thing. But there are those who have not personally experienced grief (and certainly not the particular grief you are experiencing) and have, quite literally, no idea what is happening in your mind and in your life. These people say things like, “I can’t imagine,” or “You’re strong, you’ll get through this.”

So what to say to someone who lost a loved one? Here’s what people should have said to you.

“I’m So Sorry This Happened.”

It’s such a short and simple phrase, and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. But saying “I’m so sorry” is the simplest way to acknowledge someone’s loss. If someone has not said this to you yet, let me be the first: I am so sorry for your loss.

People can also say, “I’m so sorry this happened.” It’s best not to continue this phrase by saying platitudes after it. For example: “I’m so sorry this happened. At least you had him for as long as you did” is not the right thing to say. It’s better to say, “I’m so sorry this happened. How can I support you?”

“I’m so sorry this happened” or “I’m so sorry” are both good phrases because they acknowledge the loss, but the important thing is that they do not attempt to cover over a loss or fix it with meaningless platitudes.

“That Sounds Incredibly Hard.”

Another great phrase to use when you’re wondering what to say to someone who lost a loved one is, “That sounds incredibly hard.”

Variations of this, such as, “That sounds so painful,” or “That sounds so awful,” are okay too. These phrases allow people to acknowledge our pain and how difficult our lives are in the wake of a loss, again without attempting to fix it or add a silver lining to it.

You can even use this phrase in combination with others on this list: “That sounds so hard. I’m so sorry this happened,” or “That sounds incredibly difficult. How can I support you?”

“I Know You Love Them So Much.”

Recognizing love is a powerful way to acknowledge someone’s loss. It’s especially supportive for people who have lost an animal because the human-animal bond can be so deep and transcend human connection.

“I know you love them so much” is a phrase that allows others to witness us because grief is, in essence, love. Seeing our pain without trying to take it away means witnessing our deep and irrevocable love for the being who passed.

This phrase is another great one when you’re wondering what to say to someone who lost a loved one. Like the others on this list, it can be used in combinations, such as, “I’m so sorry this happened. I know you love them so much.”

“How Can I Support You?”

I love this phrase because it gives the grieving person an opportunity to express their needs, especially at a time when a lot of other people may be offering unsolicited advice about how to “heal.” “How can I support you?” is a statement best used with another phrase, such as, “That sounds incredibly difficult. How can I support you?”

Then, just listen to what we say. We may say nothing or not respond, and that’s okay too. You can check back in another time. Please don’t take anything personally. Grief is a strange thing, and we are not ourselves inside of it.

Often, just listening is the best thing. Sometimes, we just need to be witnessed.

What Do You Wish People Had Said to You?

I’d love to hear some of the phrases that you wish people had said to you when you told them you lost a loved one. And if you’re wondering what to say to someone who lost a loved one, use the above phrases. Less is more, and listening is often the best thing. Just be there as a witnessing and supportive presence. Words are often not necessary to do this.

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