What to Say When Someone Dies

Avoid pat expressions, says Valerie Brown. What a grieving person needs is loving presence.

Valerie Brown
9 June 2024
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Photo by Olga Murzaeva / Stocksy United

Have you had that awkward, uncomfortable moment when a friend’s loved one has died, and you’re at a loss for words? Do you struggle with what to do when you’re with someone who’s grieving? If so, you are not alone.

Over a twenty-six-month period, I navigated a profound, life-changing series of losses: death, divorce, and destruction. Over and over again, I heard from well-meaning people who struggled with what to say and how to be with me, with themselves, in the throes of my grief. 

When my eldest brother, Trevor, died in February 2020, friends offered “sincere condolences.” When my husband, Paul, moved out and our marriage ended in divorce in 2021, they said, “You can start over again.” That same year, when my house flooded, nearly destroyed by Hurricane Ida, they told me, “Your insurance will make this right,” and “You’re such a strong person.” When my younger brother, Milton, died in 2022, they said, “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear.”

“There is no ‘fixing’ death; instead there is a being with, bearing witness.”

Their words, again though well-intentioned, landed flat, felt perfunctory, like squeezing a one-size-fits-all response into what felt like a unique, oversized, and singular grief. I’m not sure that I could have even received whatever words were spoken, or that there is a “right thing” to say in those moments.  

There’s something about our collective culture around grief that feels unsettling, almost shaming for the grieving person. If I’m grieving, it’s like there is something wrong with me; it’s as if I’ve got a communicable disease that you’ll catch if you come too close. With time, I became curious about the process of grief and how to be with those who are grieving.

Grief, especially early grief, feels visceral, unruly, and unpredictable. It shapeshifts and has its way with you. It’s not an orderly or linear process. There’s a sense that early grief is insurmountable; it’s like being upside down in a spiral.  

With the passage of time, I saw grief as a kind of vulnerability that can open the heart to love. To grieve is a natural and normal response to a heart broken open by loss. Like loving, grieving felt porous and intimate; everything reminded me of what I’d loved and lost. At other times, when grief felt distant, it would catch me unexpectedly when I heard a song on the radio or ate something that reminded me of Trevor, Paul, or Milton. There was no escaping grief. 

For a long time during and after my seemingly unending string of losses and deaths, I felt like an oddball, as though I walked around with my clothes inside out. My friends, all very reasonable people, would say, “Things will get better, eventually.” They seemed to be repeating the popular notion of a kind of linear, tidy progression of grief. Other well-intentioned friends kept reminding me of the redemptive nature of suffering: that suffering makes you a stronger, empathetic, and more relatable person because everyone suffers.

Being a dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition founded by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, I have taken training on how to speak and listen to myself and others in order to support healing. As taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, the essence of the ninth mindfulness training on truthful, loving speech invites us to become aware of not only the intent, but also the impact of speech and to “speak truthfully, lovingly, and constructively.” This training encourages us to “speak and listen in a way that can help ourselves and others to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations” and to “speak only with the intention to understand and help transform the situation.” In other words, the ninth mindfulness training offers a path of loving and supportive speech to those in grief.  

Grief and loss call for confirmation and validation, not solutions or a fix-it mentality. Sometimes validation or confirmation looks like saying, “I’m here for you,” or “What you are feeling is so understandable. This loss is so very hard and this is such a difficult time.” When we confirm and validate from the perspective of the grieving person, we make space for complicated emotions. We recognize the universal quality and shared humanity of grief, loss, and mourning. We stand with rather than apart from others. We meet each other in our mutual fragility and mutual resilience.

There is no “fixing” death; instead there is a being with, bearing witness. The practice of bearing witness is to see all, including your beliefs, attachments, and judgments, and to not turn away from any aspect of a situation. When you bear witness, you allow yourself to meet whatever is arising and become acquainted with it just as it is. When combined with the Buddhist practice of nonjudgmental, open awareness, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity to be a nonreactive, spacious presence for grief and sorrow. It can strengthen your capacity to listen to another’s suffering without the urge to “fix it,” disappear, minimize, or bypass. Grief emerges from the shadows and is held in the light of tender witness.

Mindful listening and loving speech can support you when you don’t know what to say or how to be with someone who is grieving. Mindful listening and loving speech help heal the uncomfortable spaces so that maybe you dare to be silent with the grieving person. Sometimes the thing to say isn’t saying anything. Instead, you can offer loving, tender, nonjudgmental presence: not turning away, not denying, not whitewashing. Being there, right there.

Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown is a dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. She’s completing her forthcoming book: Braver Things: Fearless Living for Broken-Open, Pulled Apart, and Turned Upside Down Times.