SHIFT: When it comes to what to say to someone who is grieving, there are no words

Sometimes the most helpful thing to say someone who is grieving, whether it be the loss of a loved one, their health or a job, is nothing at all.

Lisa Machado 6 minute read April 11, 2022
Concept illustrations about depression and mental problems. Vector outline collection with people drown in the sea of sadness. Pink, yellow and purple colors.

Lisa Machado has watched those around her struggle with trying to find the "right" things to say and others who avoided the conversation altogether. GETTY

There’s this store near where I live that sells a lot of feel-good things.

From pillows with maps of the lakey bliss of Muskoka and coat hooks in the shape of birds, to cheeky door mats (If you aren’t a dog, don’t bother knocking) and small decorative wooden signs that you stick into plants (the one that says I wet my plants is my favourite).

It’s the perfect place to mull around in when you’re feeling bummed — also my first destination when I am looking for a little something for a friend who needs a boost.

I was there this week, breathing in summer scents of citronella candles and hyacinth sprouts, looking for a gift for a sweet friend whose 55-year-old husband just passed away from pancreatic cancer. A wonderful guy, a great dad to three beautiful kids, a devoted husband, a big believer in philanthropy — from the hundreds of people who lined up to pay their respects, it was easy to see that his life had touched many and his loss was felt far and wide.

And if you know anything about this insidious, ruthless type of cancer, it’s fast and unforgiving most of the time. I can only imagine the blur the last eight months have been for his family, and how it must feel now — that awful hollow feeling that comes when a person you love is there and then suddenly not.

It took me awhile to settle on a small plant — a jade, which is symbolic of luck and renewal. The colour of the pot it sat in matched my friend’s living room perfectly.

When bad things happen, it’s hard to find the right words to say

I struggled with finding a card too. “In deepest sympathy” sounded too stiff, “Thinking of you,” was a little too trite, and then there was the one about lemons and making lemonade, and well, I’m not sure who thought that was a good add to the sympathy card section. I spent almost an hour trying to find one that said exactly what I felt — but of course, nothing came close.

It’s not just death that leaves us scrambling to find ways to express our sorrow and support that feel like enough. A painful divorce, a scary diagnosis, the illness of a child, even the loss of a job — when bad things happen, it’s hard to find the right words to say.

How do you comfort someone who has received a terminal diagnosis? Or whose true love has left them for someone else? Or whose wife has had to move into long-term care? Words just never feel quite right.

And when we do take a shot at saying something, we desperately hope we don’t say the wrong thing.

A friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago had a “What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer” list that she either laughed about or simmered over depending on how she was feeling. At the top of the list was, “Everything happens for a reason,” with “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” coming in at a close second.  When a neighbour told her that he would pray for her, she joked that what he really meant to say was, “I hope someone will help you other than me.”

On HelpGuide, a website that provides free mental health support, authors Melinda Smith, Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal list other things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving, such as, “It’s part of God’s plan,” and “Look at what you have to be thankful for.” Instead, they suggest using words of acknowledgement that show you are open to talking about it, like “I heard your sister died,” and “Do you feel like talking?”

Smith, Robinson and Segal also talk about making space for them to tell their story which helps to lessen the pain. Be honest if you don’t know what to say, and also be willing to be silent, offering no words, but instead, a hug or a touch on the arm.

Stories can help with the sadness

Being on the “losing” end of things a few times in the last few years, I have watched those around me struggle with trying to find the “right” things to say and others who avoided the conversation altogether. One of the things I found most helpful when I lost my dad and brother was hearing stories about them — how they touched the lives of others helped me feel connected to them. And when I was faced with figuring out how to live with cancer, normal conversations about diapers and dogs, and deliveries of chocolate and wine were welcome — it didn’t take away my fear, but the moments of normalcy helped me escape it for awhile.

And yet, though I know all of this in my heart, instead of knocking on my friend’s door, I left my little green token of support in its fancy bag on her doorstep behind an enormous planter. It still had Christmas ribbon tied around tired brown sprigs of evergreen — a sign of how consuming the last few months must have been for her, someone who prided herself on keeping up with the seasons.

I didn’t knock because I worried about intruding, or that I would cry and make her more sad, or that maybe she wasn’t up to visitors (which, of course, if this was the case, she just wouldn’t answer the door). But when I got to the sidewalk, I turned around, went back and rang the doorbell. She wasn’t home, but I had the chance to talk to her sons briefly about their dad — with tears — but also about their new puppy, school and how much they had grown. Their faces were pale and tired, but there seemed to be some relief in stepping away from their grief for awhile.

Still though, it felt like there was more that could have been said. And yet, words also seemed useless.

Perhaps Noble prize-winning author Toni Morrison said it best when she was asked about mourning the death of her youngest son, Slade, who also died of pancreatic cancer at age 45.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t,” she said. “Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’” she told The Guardian. “People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”

The hug for my friend didn’t come until the funeral, and though all she could muster was, “I just gotta keep breathing,” that I was able to hold her up when she leaned into me said more than anything I could have communicated with words.

For my friend: you wouldn’t want me to mop your floors — I’m terrible at it — but I’m here for hugs. No words required.


Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing. She can be reached at
This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.
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