When a friend dies, what do I say to the family?

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For a young person, attending the first funeral for a peer can be very difficult. You may be grieving yourself, but also worried about what to say to your friend’s family.

The death of a family member or friend upends the world of those who grieve; everything they knew of themselves and their environment is changed, foreign. Loss can be isolating and unfathomable — because absence is unfathomable.

By definition, to offer a condolence is to tell them you suffer with them.

Be sincere

When your words are honest and direct, stripped of pretense, you acknowledge the enormity of their experience. Avoid assumptions: “He has gone to a better place,” “Her pain has ended.” There’s no need to explain what has happened — who can? Confirm your compassion for those grieving and their importance to you: “I am sorry for your loss.”

It’s common for young people to post memories of friends on social media. But their parents and grandparents may not see those. Sometimes your post may be the perfect thing to say, whether in person or in a handwritten condolence note: “I remember how he used to crack us up with his songs when we car-pooled to soccer practice.”

Be brief

Don’t be long-winded; the death of a loved one can scramble people’s thoughts and consume their attention. “There is a sort of blanket between the world and me,” the author C.S. Lewis wrote in “A Grief Observeda year after the death of his wife, Joy. “I find it hard to take in what anyone says.” Nothing you say will diminish the space that grief is taking up in the grieving person’s heart or head. Grief is inherently selfish — we can’t help but dwell on what the dead meant to us — so resist the urge to monopolize the grieving person’s time or attention. Eye contact, your hand on their arm, or a hug, if appropriate, can often say more than words.

Be available

Don’t just say, “Let me know if you need anything.” Most people will never ask. Do they need groceries, their kitchen cleaned, their laundry done? Do they want you to recount your memories and stories? To listen to theirs? Let them know their well-being is important to you and check in periodically to see how they are doing. Hospice nurses talk about the importance of being present for the dying, but those left behind very much need your presence, too.

Be accepting

Don’t judge or criticize the way someone grieves. Rituals surrounding death — like wearing black, washing and dressing the dead, sitting shiva, even delivering casseroles to mourners’ homes — vary across cultures, religions and time. There has never been and will never be one way to grieve. What you say to people about the death of someone close to them should reflect this. When time and support provide them with the means to navigate their new world, they may thank you. But don’t expect it. Being a good human is its own reward.

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