What to say to someone who’s lost someone: Q&A with a BlueCross psychiatrist

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This year, even more of us have lost loved ones. Often these losses happened under difficult or unexpected circumstances.

As people continue to reenter the workplace and social settings, it’s important to pause and explore loss, as well as the language we use to talk about it.

To learn more, WellTuned spoke with Dr. Judith Overton, a psychiatrist and medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

How should you approach someone when you know they’ve experienced loss?

Dr. Overton: Early on, most survivors are going to be in a state of shock — even when loss is anticipated, and certainly when loss is unexpected.

Early grief is typically a time of very high anxiety, which can express itself in different ways. A person experiencing grief may:

  • Feel numb
  • Appear robotic or as if they’re on autopilot
  • Be physically present but not fully be “there”
  • Have difficulty remembering things that happened around the loss or in the days and weeks following
  • Be inconsolable to the point of being unable to communicate

Shock and grief affect every person differently, and those effects may change day to day. Remember that a person’s outward appearance may not match what’s going on internally.

What should you say to a person who’s lost someone?

Dr. Overton: Sometimes less is more. People may get anxious about trying to fill in the silence, and that’s natural. But during these difficult times, your presence is often enough.

Show compassion by:

  • Reaching out consistently
  • Expressing concern for the survivor’s welfare
  • Reinforcing that you can tolerate the intense pain survivors are experiencing

When it comes to specific words, speak clearly and honestly. Say something like: I’m so sorry to hear about [name’s] death.

  • This must be so hard.
  • I can’t know how you feel, but I’m here to help.
  • I’m here to support you in any way I can.
  • [Name] cared about you [and the kids] so much.
  • [Name] talked about you so many times when we were out [fishing, hiking, etc.].

If you feel it’s appropriate, share a special memory of the loved one, or just offer the person a hug. You don’t always have to offer words in order to be supportive.

What should you NOT say to a person who’s lost someone?

Dr. Overton: My husband’s previous wife died unexpectedly about five years ago, and we’ve  had many conversations about comments friends made with the best of intentions but that made his bereavement more difficult. Personally, my takeaways are:

Don’t avoid the person because you don’t know what to say.

Many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing. But that just makes the person feel even more alone. Make a point to reach out, even if all you can say is, “I don’t know what to say, and I’m so sorry.”

If you’re uncomfortable with words or phone calls, write a note or send a text. At the funeral, I think it’s best to keep things generic and help people get through the immediate trauma. In a few weeks, you can ask, “How are you doing? How can I help?” and give them time to talk.

Be cautious about expressing your own religious beliefs.

Early on, people are struggling to figure out the “why” surrounding their loss. They may be angry at God, or they may not share the same religious beliefs you have. Saying things like, “Now he’s at peace,” or “It’s God’s will,” can make people feel even more misunderstood and alone.

Don’t try to fix it.

Avoid asking what a person is going to do in terms of logistics such as moving, property or other financial details. While you’re just looking out for them, bringing this subject up too soon may be overwhelming or potentially raise concerns that you have an agenda.

Don’t say: “I’m here to support you” if you’re not truly available.

If you don’t have the time or resources to support someone through a loss, it’s okay to keep things simple. Offer memories or condolences and leave it there.

Don’t say: “It will only get better.”

Everyone’s grief journey is different, and the survivors’ circumstances may get worse before they could possibly get better.

Don’t say: “I know what you’re going through.”

It’s important to avoid comparing your experience with someone else’s. Even if you’ve been in a similar situation, everyone’s experience is highly personal. Avoid minimizing or misunderstanding what they’re going through.

Don’t say: “It was their time,” or “It could’ve been worse.”

Their loved one is gone. There is no right time for that, and there is nothing worse.

Offer to help in practical ways.

If you have the resources to do more, ask: “What can I do to help?” If you know the person well, you can also consider making specific suggestions. For example: “Would it help if I pick up [name] from school?” or “How about I do the grocery shopping this week?”

Don’t stop your support after the funeral.

Continue checking in after the funeral. If you need to, set reminders to follow up every few days  or weeks, and make plans to grab lunch or go by the house. One of the most difficult parts of  grief is when life goes back to normal because a grieving person’s “normal” no longer exists.

What should people keep in mind with COVID-related losses?

Dr. Overton: We lost three good friends due to COVID-19 within the past year, and what’s become clear to me is that some families were completely shattered. They are still in the middle of emotional trauma, anger, grief and confusion. Be open, be understanding and, most of all, listen.

Related from Dr. Overton and WellTuned 

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).