Using Empathy to Support Your Grieving Loved Ones

When someone we love has experienced a loss, we may struggle with what to say. Statements such as, “I didn’t know what to say to help,” or “I had such a hard time finding the right words” are common statements. When we extend expressions of empathy to someone who is grieving, it is best to speak honestly and from the heart. Here are a few tips based on the teachings of Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, on expressing empathy to a grieving loved one:

Instead of ... using many “I” statements, such as “I am so sorry,” “I was shocked to learn of his death,” “I couldn’t believe it”
Consider ... employing “you” statements and questions, such as “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” or “You were so important to her.”

Instead of ... making assumptions about the loss and its impact on a survivor by saying “you must be feeling so…” or “normally, people feel…”
Consider ... asking specific questions about how the survivor is feeling and what this loss has meant to them

Instead of ... imposing personal attitudes, values or beliefs, or assuming that you understand those held by the griever
Consider ... asking about and being receptive to the griever’s communicated attitudes, values and beliefs surrounding the loss, which may be altered due to grief

Instead of ... providing unsolicited advice or trying to guide someone through their grief
Consider ... meeting the griever where they are in their own unique pathway of grief

Instead of ... identifying with the griever’s situation by sharing one of your own stories of loss
Consider ... keeping the griever’s loss at the center of the conversation in recognition that they have the right to own their unique story of loss

Instead of ... limiting the griever by saying, “I know how you feel”
Consider ... telling the griever that you would like to understand how they are feeling

Instead of ... shutting down the griever by saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”
Consider ... expressing that you want to understand what they are going through and ask open-ended questions about how they are coping

Instead of ... communicating “silver lining” or “at least” statements such as “at least they didn’t suffer” or “well, she lived a long life”
Consider ... articulating that you understand that no matter the circumstances of death, the griever is experiencing a profound loss and has the right to grieve

In general, to express empathy consider:
  • Practicing listening without distractions
  • Listen more than talk
  • Maintain centered and open body language
  • Keep eye contact
  • Allow for spaces of silence as needed by the griever
  • Ask questions about the relationship, the griever’s feelings and anxieties and ways in which you can help

We hope these tips can help you with communicating empathy to those who are grieving. Remember not to hold yourself to impossible standards because, like grief itself, practicing empathy is a unique process for each of us.