How to Talk to Someone Coping With Death and Loss

Have you ever struggled with what to say when someone dies?  Lisa B. Marshall ,aka The Public Speaker, shares her recent struggle with how to talk with someone coping with the death of a loved one.


Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #299

I  understand that—especially now, in these past few weeks. What could I possibly say to an 18-year-old boy who hasn’t even graduated high school yet, who has suffered through significant hearing and eye sight loss, who is now dealing with type 1 diabetes, and most tragically, who lost his mom and dad within a span of a year? I could’t find words.  No words seemed to be enough to express the depth of my feelings. Every time I rehearsed some words in my mind, they seemed to trivialize the magnitude of this tragedy. On the day of the funeral, I still hadn’t found any words for Sean. I just hugged him and as I struggled to say anything, he said to me, “We just need to stay positive, Aunt Lisa.”  Somewhat stunned, I whispered a one word response, “Yes”.

I was ashamed of myself. After I sat down in the pew, I promised myself that I would find words, and I would find a way to share them with him and to keep sharing them with him. I owed it to him and I owed it to his mother and father.  

I was ashamed of myself.  After I sat down in the pew, I promised myself that I would find words and I would find a way to share them with him and to keep sharing them with him. I owed it to him and I owed it to his mother and father.  

The Worst Thing You Can Do

I believe the worst thing anyone can do is to not say anything at all—any words or actions, even fumbling inarticulate words, are better than nothing at all. Everyone needs to hear that their loved one's life meant something. Every person that experiences a loss needs to have that loss recognized, and we need to let them know we understand that the void hurts. And it our responsibility, our job, to find the bridge to that person’s broken heart, so we can help by taking on a very small part of their grief. And the way we do that is through our words (and actions). 

But the hard part is that everyone experiences loss differently. And it’s even likely that same person experiences the pain and loss differently from day to day, or even from moment to moment. So, we need to listen, I mean really listen, and respond to what the other person is experiencing in that particular moment.  There are no quick and dirty tips for this, becasue there is no one right way to talk to someone who is going through the grieving process.  

I remember having to tell people it’s OK to talk about John. It’s OK to ask questions. Particularly as more time passed, I noticed that some people were careful not to bring it up—I think that perhaps they thought I finally might be “over it,” and didn’t want to upset me all over again. But, the reality is that the loss of a loved one is never far from our minds, and by sharing your words and sharing your stories, you are making a connection. For me it, it helps to feel closer to those I have lost and closer to the person that shared the story. Hearing the stories often made me smile, or made me proud.  

Don't Disappear

So, don’t disappear. Even if you don’t know what to say. Even if you are uncomfortable. Even if you feel like you are not sure how the other person is going to react, just listen to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions being shared in the moment and do your best to acknowledge the loss, offer your support, and share your stories.   

In an effort to follow my own advice, I have been sending Facebook and email messages to Sean. I bought him a book on grief, hoping there might be some words of wisdom to ease his pain in some way. Today, I even worked up the courage to ask him if it would be OK for me to attend his graduation in two weeks. My heart swelled when he replied, “That would be awesome.” 

P.S. While I was writing this article, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, posted about her experience with grief (her husband died of a freak accident at age 46). If you haven’t read it, you should. She shares what she learned going through the grieving process. It’s very moving. 

This is Lisa B. Marshallhelping you to lead and influence. If you'd like to learn more about compelling communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk. As always, your success is my business

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.



About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.