When someone you love suffers a painful loss, it’s hard to know what to do. These deep thinkers offer sage suggestions.

By Rebecca Webber
Updated January 10, 2017
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Illustration: heart envelope
Credit: Ben Wiseman
Illustration: heart envelope
Credit: Ben Wiseman

Say Nothing at All.

A good friend of mine recently lost his mother. Everybody was reaching out to him, concerned. I texted him, “If you just want to hang out and not talk, I’m here.” He took me up on it. He came over, and we ended up talking about college football, life, our kids—everything but his loss. At times we just sat there and didn’t say a word; guys have that ability. Guys could learn from women about opening up and sharing feelings, but there’s a happy medium. Sometimes we need a moment that feels normal and reminds us that there are still things in life that have always made us happy, like time with friends.
—Noah Galloway, veteran and motivational speaker

Fall Back on a Heartfelt Cliché.

So many of my grieving clients say people avoid them or don’t step up the way they expected. It’s common to become frozen, paralyzed with fear, worried you will say the wrong thing. Don’t be afraid of speaking in clichés. People aren’t counting on you to provide the brilliant gem that will fix things. Your presence and your caring are what they appreciate. You can just say, “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m thinking of you.” Early in my career, I was working in a hospital, and I remember going to my first funeral for a child. I just looked into the eyes of the parents and said, “I’m so sorry,” as we all teared up. I was with them, expressing my sorrow. I wasn’t presuming to have their sorrow. I had my own sorrow. To me, that’s the essence of what this is about—being present, witnessing, caring, and not running away from people when they’re hurting.
—Robert Zucker, grief counselor

Acknowledge Specific Pain.

I used to work in human resources at a large corporation. My primary job was to lay people off. During that time, my husband was laid off. One thing that really struck me, from seeing both sides, was the shame people felt even when they were let go solely because of the company’s financial situation. While we should be wary of playing counselor or psychologist, I think it’s good to acknowledge that your loved one might feel embarrassed if he’s lost a job and to remind him that he has nothing to be ashamed of. By attacking the shame head-on, you can take away its power and prevent it from lurking over everything.
—Laurie Ruettimann, human resources specialist

Open the Door to Conversation.

One of the big fears people have when they lose someone is that, some way or another, their loved one will be forgotten—that if they don’t keep the conversation going, the person will disappear. Give people the option to continue talking. I would ask about the person’s treatment. They usually get right to the point: “I was so worried about him being uncomfortable.” And as time passes, it’s good to keep the dialogue going. What I usually do is wait two or three weeks, then get back in touch. I ask, “How has it been going? If you want to talk, just let me know.”
—Don Schumacher, psychologist

Say (or Text), “Dinner Is on Your Doorstep.”

I’m a raging introvert, so when I’m in pain, the last thing I want is to sit there and chat. When my marriage fell apart, my best friend texted me and said, “There’s Chipotle and a milkshake on your doorstep.” I was like, “Hell, yes.” I didn’t have to see her, I didn’t have to take a shower. All I had to do was open the door and stuff my face with her love. Another friend came over and did my laundry and didn’t make me talk to her. These were lovely gestures because my friends weren’t trying to make themselves feel better by seeing me. They were completely and totally unselfish. They took a minute to think, “What would actually make Glennon feel most loved?” They didn’t do it their way—they did it my way. It was a one-sided love offering. —Glennon Doyle Melton, author

The Experts