Choosing Words for the Bereaved

One of the most challenging times for our communication skills is when someone we know suffers bereavement. Death and grief are often taboo subjects in our society, so we are often unsure what to say or how to act around people who are grieving.

Whether to say anything at all, and if so, ‘What, how and when?’, are common thoughts.

It is reasonable for this issue to feel awkward if we are without awareness of the person grieving, but presumably, if you want to demonstrate some compassion, you will know something of the person.

My first tip comes from my professional experiences attending literally hundreds of deaths in the community. It helped me if I reminded myself that the loss belongs to the bereaved, rather than I; easier said than done at times!

We often react based on our experiences from the past – or even inexperience! It is still very possible to provide a compassionate question or statement without making the pain our own; a small disassociation can be useful. On this occasion, sympathy rather than empathy is in my opinion, the order of the day.

Most of us will be concerned about saying the wrong thing, and you may well do; you are altering your behaviour, and this will be making the communication different, perhaps too considered! In avoiding saying something, tiptoeing around each word we make, each sentence is contrived. We may actually be at risk of behaving selfishly, because we are worried we might further upset the bereaved – and that would upset us, we may lose some form of control.

An analogy might be something many can relate to, the interview. We stumble and falter because we are trying to say what we think people want to hear, rather than say what we think!

Guess what? The thoughts and feelings of the bereaved are on that which has happened; many will be numb to your stuttering efforts! If you say something that hurts, perhaps because it gives rise to a memory, this is natural and can help the grieving process considerably more than ‘being brave ‘or stoical, and repressing that which can benefit from acceptance.

Try to talk sincerely. If passing a comment of condolence, simply state what you want to say, preferably looking into the eyes – and move on. The key here is expecting nothing in return!

If you are visiting someone specifically, again, ensure you have no expectations around responses. Listening is what is required, rather than your opinions, views or whatever else. This individual requires permission to think and feel whatever they like at this time, and a safe environment without judgement in which to do it. Please avoid the “I know how you feel” comment!

Be kind to yourself.

If you are unsure how you are feeling after talking with the bereaved, know that you tried to do your best, and if you are then suffering talk with someone else but above all reminding yourself where the pain belongs can be highly useful.

About the author
Managing Director / Counsellor at Anglia Counselling Ltd | 07747042899 | [email protected] | Business Website

Bob Brotchie is a counsellor, mindset consultant and creator of "Conscious Living by Design"™. He writes for Anglia Counselling, is featured on various other websites and introduces us to many guest writers all covering topics related to mental health and wellbeing.

Bob provides bespoke counselling services to individuals and couples in the privacy and comfort of a truly welcoming environment at his Anglia Counselling company office, located near Newmarket in Suffolk, England. Bob also provides professional online counselling, for local, national, and international clients. The therapeutic models offered are bespoke to the client’s needs, especially those in receipt of 'childhood emotional neglect' (CEN), whilst integrating a mindful approach to psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles. For clients experiencing trauma and/or phobia, Bob offers EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).


  1. Moira Upton

    Very wise words. Too often people tell me of friends who cross the street or don’t call following a bereavement rather than say something that might be upsetting. If there’s been a death you are already upset! Feelings need to be expressed or they fester and turn inwards. Thank you Bob, for trying to motivate people to do the right thing – communicate. We are human beings, so BE with someone in their darkest hour.

  2. AnnTIG

    Really, really good advice Bob – so obvious it comes from the heart and lots of experience. Like Moira says below, the most hurtful thing is to ignore the bereaved. Even a platitude or a simple pat on the shoulder is better than nothing but your way of explaining it should help a lot of people to be more comfortable in dealing with these trying circumstances.

  3. AnnTIG

    Just remembered, I heard someone in a hospital drama respond to a well meaning “It was meant to be” with a snappy “Go and polish your platitudes” which I guess is the sort of thing that puts people off saying anything at all!

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