It is, of course, all about them and not about us. It is a pity that our feelings of inadequacy and uselessness when faced with someone’s pain can often cause us to avoid them because we just don’t know what to say.
Acknowledge the loss
Try to do this right away. You don’t want the most significant aspect of your encounter to be buried in social niceties, tagged on to the end of your exchange, or worst of all, not mentioned at all.
All you need to do is express your sympathy for what has happened.
Use a brief phrase such as:
- I’m sorry for your loss
- I’m so sorry for your loss
- I’m really sorry for your loss
- I’m sorry to hear about your split
- I’m sorry to hear about Joe
That’s really all you need to say.
Don’t give an opinion
It’s best not to give your own views on getting over a death, divorce or similar event. Don’t relate it to your own experience. Don’t say you know how they are feeling — you don’t. You could say:
- ‘I can’t imagine how you are feeling /what you must be going through.’
You might be tempted to show your support by suggesting something like ‘It’s just as well.’ Resist the temptation.
Even if you think that someone will be far better off without the person who dumped them or divorced them, don’t say anything that rubbishes the deserter. Apart from other considerations, they might get back together again, and whoops, that’s awkward.
Get the right tone
A muttered expression of sympathy is better than nothing. You will convey your sympathy more effectively if you speak slowly and give each word equal weight. Use the person’s name.
Get the right body language
Look at the other person. Keep your body turned towards them, not at the kind of angle which suggests that you can’t wait to get away.
Depending on your relationship and where this encounter takes place, you could offer a touch on the arm or hand. Sometimes a hug says it all.
Take your cue from the person’s response
If they hurry to finish the exchange, don’t linger. If they quickly change the subject, follow their lead.
If someone wants to talk, be ready to follow up. Sometimes people under great strain feel an unexpected need to unburden themselves. If you can give a bit of time, do. If you really need to cut the conversation short, say something like:
- I’m glad we had this opportunity to talk
If you can offer more time to talk, do. Your offer may or may not be taken up — it doesn’t matter.
Offer concrete help or support
We all ask (and sometimes mean it) if there’s anything we can do. A concrete offer of help is often appreciated:
- I’ll do your school runs next week
- If you like, I’ll take the meeting for you
- Come round/let’s go out for a drink tomorrow evening
If you are at the receiving end
Please try to cut us some slack! You will hear lots of cliches and well-meaning advice. People will express themselves clumsily. They will say the wrong thing. But it’s not always easy to express sympathy, no matter how deeply it is felt.
When it comes to life’s sadnesses, we really are all in it together. Giving and receiving expressions of fellow feeling demonstrates our shared humanity.
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