The Right Words to Comfort Someone Grieving After a Loss

November 14, 2023

Seeing a close friend go through a difficult time can be gut wrenching. We at times find ourselves unfamiliar of how to navigate the waters when one is experiencing great sorrow. I recently had a grieving friend and noticed some of the discomfort that it brought up in me. She is usually one who moves through life with force and energy, but her typical swift movements turned into more of a slow drudge. I wanted to rescue her out of the pain and kept things if I just had the right words of comfort then we would be able to speed up the grief process.

Even as I write all of this I feel some discomfort come up in my body. Not necessarily from watching the deep grief take place, but from the fact that I was struggling so much to sit in the depths of pain with a grieving person. Especially being a therapist I thought I might have a few extra tools.

Luckily I was able to gain enough space to talk to my wife about this and let her know the process that was happening in my head. Logically, I knew there were no comforting words to use and purchasing a sympathy card would feel like a bandaid on a broken leg, but yet I still wanted to help her get to a better place. Sitting with somebody in the grief, just recognizing "this is hard and feels unfair" is so hard, but it is probably amongst the most important things that one can do to aid in the grieving process.

My hope is that after reading this blog you might have a slightly different understanding of how to comfort someone in times of grief or at least an extra tool or two to use.

Our Grief Journey

Grief is not necessarily a decision, but rather it is a summons. It's like going to your mailbox and opening a letter that says "you are summoned to the journey of grief." You didn't ask for the letter and may not have been expecting it, but you have been summoned.

My wife and I were summoned to the pain of loss a few years ago. My father-in-law had recently won a battle with cancer. If you've ever seen a family member go through that fight, it's a grueling one whether you are victorious or not. Even on the other side of the battle you do not emerge unscathed as the treatment wallops you with a series of blows. My FIL was no exception to this.

His cancer was gone but his immune system was shot. This came into full view when he began to get particularly sick one weekend. My MIL took him to the hospital after a number of coercing attempts to which he finally gave in. Upon admission and after some investigation, the medical team informed us that he had contracted West Nile Virus from a mosquito bite. There had recently been a number of cases of West Nile in Arizona and if you are reading this, there is no reason to be alarmed at the possibility of being stung by a mosquito. There's a  chance your body has encountered West Nile before as for the most part your body is able to take care of the virus. But like I stated before, his immune system was shot. It had given it's all to beating the cancer and the mosquito bite would literally be the straw that broke the camels back.

A mosqutio. What a bitch.

It was about a week before the doctor delivered the bad news to us. "The research shows that when things have progressed this far, people to not get any better." This is doctor speak for "he is not going to get better."

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlines the stages of grief as denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance. When you hear something like this you can move through those stages at warp speed.

Denial: He was fine just a week or so ago. His cancer is gone and this is just a mosquito bite. He till get better.

Bargaining: How old is that research? Maybe the research only took into account certain factor that he is outside of...

Anger: This isn't fair and shouldn't be happening.

Sadness: This is so painful, I don't know what to do.

Acceptance: This is going to be it.

And I'm pretty sure that's what we all did. And if you think the grief process is over because of that, it's certainly not. Kubler-Ross later said she regretted naming them "stages of grief" as it implied some sort of linear process that we go through. We start at denial and work our way to acceptance. Rather they are spaces that we occupy on different days, seasons, or hours. We might be fifteen years removed from grief and find ourselves experiencing bargaining in the middle of a Tuesday.

And just like that, he was gone. I remember his son saying at the funeral in one of the most beautiful speeches I've ever heard: "It feels like it's too soon. It is too soon." And it was.

It's in these tough times that we have the space to learn the most.

At the time, my wife and I had only recently begun growing our family. We were parents to a 10 month old baby boy who had already grown to adore his 'Papa.' My FIL wore a number of hats through his life but his family would probably argue that 'Papa' was the title that he wore the best. And it quickly became clear that the 10 months they had spent together were a fraction of the time we expected. We thought there would be years to come and a relationship to grow. And thus this became the saddest part of the worst thing that my wife had experienced in her time here on Earth. The knowledge that her kid(s) were going to grow up not knowing her dad.

I've always thought that grief was about the past. I have heard it said before that anxiety is about the future and depression is about the past, and grief seemed to fit a bit better into that depression/past category.

It makes sense. We grieve something that we once had. We remember the good times with somebody, we reminisce on the memories and reflect on how we will not have them anymore.

But in this instance grief was about the future. I am not sure if it is always about the future and I am sure that life will teach me more about these great losses, but this time it was.

We were grieving something that never happened and was now never going to happen. We had imagined that Papa was going to be there at soccer games and be there to tell stories. That our kids would cuddle with him in their Christmas jammies and that he would teach them about airplanes. We had painted a picture in our heads, forecasted a movie, and in just two weeks those images and videos had been shattered. They would not be happening and that was what we were grieving the most. There's nothing easy about watching your best friend go through a time of sorrow like this. Watching her deal with this new reality was amongst the most painful scenarios that I can recount.

People would ask how she is doing and I would tell them that she's doing how she is supposed to be doing. She is not doing good. There is such a pressure to answer "good" to that question, because we want people to be good. We want them to move out of the forest of sorrow and see that there are good days ahead. And it is true that there are beautiful things that are yet to come. But humans have the ability to hold complex and multiple emotions at the same time.

I also wonder what "good" even means in these scenarios. Does it mean that we aren't crying? That we aren't affected? That we've moved on quickly? You cannot love somebody well without going through immense pain if you lose them. I might even ask if you would want to be "doing good" after the loss of a spouse or any loved one.

To Feel Loved

It was through this time that we experienced some of the deepest love from our community. A gift that you receive in these dark times is that you get to look around and see who has shown up. And by the way, not all people are going to be equipped to show up in the way that we need and that is okay. We tried to focus on the fact that people were showing up for us, even if they thought that their heartfelt message would land a bit differently than it did with us. I remember a friend showing up to drop off a gift and flowers just a week or two later. She immediately started crying and hugged us when we opened the door, but we weren't really in that place in the moment. You can't be crying and in pain 24/7. Our bodies just aren't really meant to handle that. And thus we felt like we didn't really need that in that moment. But that is okay. We received the love that she gave us even though we had been having a fairly average night. We'd spent a lot of moments in the pain throughout the past few days and were enjoying a few moments of reprieve. Once she left we were able to continue in that experience.

It can be tough to even look at the gift that such a painful event brings as the last thing we want to do is admit that there is any good news in such pain. But sadness is a good opportunity to be loved.

I saw the women that my wife was closest with show up. They said we just want to be with you in whatever you need. I remember a group coming over one night while I put our son down. They built a fire and sat on our patio sitting in the some of the hardest emotions that we can experience. I heard laughter erupt at times and knew there were times that tears were shared.

And this to me is the great paradox of finding those perfect and kind words to give to somebody. It is that they are not actually words at all. It is the ability to sit with the person in the midst of the pain. To look it right in the eyes and say "this is gut wrenching and I hate it too." We don't even have to understand what the person is grieving. We are so tempted to say I get it, but rather than getting it, the person who is in the intensity of grief just wants to be seen.

I've not been very successful in finding grief quotes that do a lot of justice to the process, but there is one that I have held near to my heart for the past several years:

Mirabai Star writes, "there is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where each item ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss. . . . The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back."

The imagery here is profound and I'm thankful to have had a great soul to put such poetry to the experience.

I spoke with a woman a few months back who had just lost her son to suicide. She asked me if she would every get over it, to which I replied that she would not. The limb never grows back, but we can find a new center of gravity. We can learn to integrate the pain and carry the pain with us. We believe that when our grief begins to heal, it will get smaller. But this is not true. It is that our souls get bigger.

How To Show Up

As I've grown in my understanding of life, I've learned there is no perfect sympathy message. We must accept that there are no correct words that will take the pain away from the person. But if you sit with them, they will not have to be alone in it. As you show up for your friends in hard times, you can ask yourself if what you are doing or saying is to keep them from feeling the pain or to be with them as they feel the pain. When it is the former we have to do some work on ourselves to recognize that we might be showing up to alleviate the discomfort that we feel around the situation. And if this it the case, that's okay. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this, I found myself doing the same thing recently with a close friend. We are going for progress, not perfection. So when we notice this about ourselves, we can slow the process down and work on showing up the way that we want to.


If you are looking for a support group to aid in your healing process, Thrive offers a Grief Support Group, as well as two different trauma groups in person.

Additionally I would recommend either our course on boundaries, the window of tolerance, or attachment as supplemental resources for your therapeutic journey.

Of course, if you are already signed up for Thrive's membership all of these courses are included at no additional cost to you.

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