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The Do's and Dont's of Sympathy

By Jocelyn M. DeGroot

You're ready to extend your sympathy to a friend or family member. Here is a primer to navigate common pitfalls and avoid awkward conversations that can potentially hurt your relationship.

Don’t assume someone else is supporting them.

Because of the bystander effect, we often presume others are taking care of the griever, so we sit back without offering support. But grievers notice those who are absent in times of need. It’s not uncommon for them to report surprise in the aftermath of a loss: friends they hadn’t spoken to in years appeared at the funeral or sent heartfelt messages, while those they perceived as close were missing.

Do reach out to someone who has experienced loss, regardless of the closeness of your relationship. A kind word, handwritten card or even a social media post—if you can’t get their mailing address—is all that’s necessary. 

Don’t make it about you

Don’t bring up your own experiences with personal loss, at least not right away. You might think you’re being empathetic, but it can come across as disregarding the other’s loss or one-upping their grief. Right now, it’s all about the person you’re trying to comfort. A friend reminded me of the time after her father died and a co-worker compared it to the recent death of her own dog. My friend resented having to feign sympathy for a dog on the same level that she expected it for the loss of a parent.

Do acknowledge the other person’s loss, and give them space to talk about their loved one. Everyone experiences loss in an individual way, and it’s important to respect the person who is grieving in this regard.

Don’t expect the bereaved to follow the 5 Stages of Grief

The well-trodden Kubler-Ross model places the stages of grief into five neat and clean boxes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (There's also a book on the sixth stage, Finding Meaning.) However, the grieving process is more accurately described as feelings of shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization and recovery. It's important to note that grief is not linear, nor are the phases mutually exclusive. Each phase blends into the next. A grieving person might experience several phases at one time, or they might oscillate between different phases. 

Do allow people to grieve in their own way. There is no prescribed path. 

Don’t ignore the loss

The death happened. You don’t have to worry about inadvertently reminding your friend of the death because odds are they’re already thinking of their loved one. If they aren’t, they’ll be happy to know someone else is thinking about them.

Do talk about the person who died. People like to talk about good memories of their friends and family. Sharing a positive story about a loved one is some of the best comfort you can offer. Even better, if the story can make the bereaved laugh.

Don’t assume grief has an expiration date

Grief is messy and can affect the duration of one’s life. Pangs of grief are often triggered by events or places. That’s why the holidays or birthdays can be particularly difficult for bereaved people even years after the death. Further, after the first month or two following the death, support tends to wane as people get back to their lives.

Do maintain communication with your friend or family member. Offer sympathy and an ear during unexpected bursts of grief. (You never know when an old picture or favorite coffee order will act as a trigger). And remember the deceased at birthdays and holidays. A phone call, message, or card to the family is a good way to let them know that you still think of their loved one.

If you do break a rule, don’t despair. It’s better to do or say something awkwardly with good intentions than to say nothing at all. Any effort, even if misguided, is better than no effort at all.

Dr. DeGroot is a professor of applied communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She works with Wishbar to craft grief messages.

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