What Do we Say When we Don’t Know What to Say?

You arrive at a memorial service and don’t know what to say. You show up for someone facing a hard diagnosis and make it about you. Or, worse yet, you avoid a suffering friend entirely when you don’t know what to say.

We’ve all been there.

How can we be better? How can we show up for a loved one during the most difficult moment of their life? What’s helpful rather than awkward?

It’s a lot of pressure.

Here are positive statements for any difficult situation. It doesn’t have to be about illness or death. For example, it can be about a job loss. An unexpected surgery. Any situation when you don’t know what to say.

These words convey empathy, concern and love to those who need it most.

“I’m so sorry.”

Normally, if you’re starting a sentence with “I” or “My” an alarm bell should go off. This isn’t about you. Please stop talking and think for a moment before saying anything else.

I’m sorry is the one “I” statement that’s acceptable for these scenarios. Say it slowly, with meaning. Sometimes a hug or squeeze of the hand is acceptable.

Adding to I’m sorry, with “…you’re going through this”, “…for your loss” or “…this happened” is fine. But you don’t have to.

“I’m so sorry” is one of the sweetest, simplest, most comforting phrases. All by itself.

“May their memory be a blessing.”

This phrase has its origins in Judaism, but the meaning is universal.

Mourning any kind of loss hurts. Sometimes that pain lasts a while and feels overwhelming. The hope we have is that one day, his or her memory will bring more smiles than tears, more laughter than sobs.

When you don’t know what to say, this phrase can bring calming comfort.

“This cannot be easy.”

We all have an urge to show that we relate to the suffering of others. We want people in trying circumstances to know they aren’t alone.

Here’s the thing – telling people about something similar that happened to you, your husband or your third cousin twice removed doesn’t help. Period. Full stop.

However, we can truly relate by mirroring the person who suffers.

They don’t feel alone when we validate that what they’re going through is hard. When we nod along with them, holding space without the need to insert personal anecdotes.

“Would it help to talk about it?”

Some folks want to discuss what’s happening, while others find it helpful to keep details to themselves. Offer to listen without any attachment whatsoever to their response.

If they want to talk, then listen. If they don’t want to talk, then understand without taking it personally.

“You’re in my thoughts.”

A periodic text, phone call or email with these four simple words can make even the darkest of days a little brighter.

It also invites a conversation without demanding it.

Remember, this situation, this moment is about them. That’s why this phrase is better than “I’m thinking about you.” It reminds you and them – they are the focus.

“What would be most helpful to you right now?”

Offering help is tricky.

If you ask, “How can I help” it makes the request about you. It also requires the person to come up with answers they might not have right now.

We should also avoid questions that require a yes or no answer. “Can I help?” is too easily dismissed. Same with “Let me know if you need anything.”

On the other hand, we don’t want to pressure anyone into accepting help if they don’t want it.

Like I said, it’s tricky.

I have found that showing genuine concern when asking “what would be most helpful to you right now” works well. Saying no is easier for them, if you don’t phrase it as an “I” statement. By the same token, this statement also makes accepting help a little easier.

Sometimes, the person will sigh and say, “Pray for me or send positive thoughts.”

On the other hand, you might feel them hesitate or look unsure. Gently offer a few examples.

“Would it be helpful to run errands for you this weekend, like grocery shopping?”

“Would it be helpful to bring over dinner one night next week?”

Some people find it difficult to ask for or receive help. Try not to judge their situation or put pressure on them to go outside their comfort zone. Allow them to tell you what would be most helpful, or not, while continuing to hold them in unconditional positive regard.

Again, with no attachment to their answer.

“I don’t know what to say.”

Admitting you don’t know what to say is perfectly acceptable. And understandable. We all know what that feels like.

It’s also refreshingly honest. This is the only other “I” statement in this list. If all else fails, admit that you’re lost for words.

Then sit quietly with them until they feel like talking. There is a peaceful and healing quality in silence.

Those who are comfortable not talking are sometimes exactly what a person in pain needs the most.

As a matter of fact, after every example listed above, don’t be afraid of the silence that follows. Rather, hold that space and breathe with your loved one, providing comfort without words.

What not to say

As a death doula who regularly sits bedside or organizes funerals, I hear some cringeworthy comments. When you don’t know what to say, try to say nothing at all rather than:

  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “You’ll get over this.”
  • “I want to feel helpful.”
  • “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
  • “I went through something like this.”
  • “Here’s what I would do.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “People have been through worse.”
  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “Shhhh, don’t cry.”
  • “He/She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
  • “God only gives us what we can handle.”
  • “You’ve got to get over this and be strong.”

Let’s remember we are there to serve someone in a difficult situation. To help with whatever they need.

When we don’t know what to say, sometimes the best thing to do is to stop talking and listen.

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