What to Say to a Grieving Friend instead of "How are You"

If you're grieving, the question "how are you?" is pretty miserable to answer. Whether we want to or not, most of us feel a pressure to respond with "great"  even if we're anything but great. When I was going through a tough time, one of my best friends used a different phrase to ask me how I was doing and it was perfect. I felt acknowledged and invited to share authentically and now I often use it instead of "how are you."

The magic phrase is "What has this week/today been like for you?"  It has the same intent to invite someone to share, but something about this different wording makes it feel more inviting to be like "well honestly, things aren't so great" if things aren't so great. It also is posed with gentleness acknowledging that each day is different than the next. I've found it really helpful because by swapping out a few words in the question, you can still easily ask your friend how they really are and invite an authentic response.  

It can also feel really helpful to hear “I’m here for you.” That statement is great because it makes the griever feel like you’re there to listen. I know it can feel really awkward to listen without giving advice to a grieving friend, because the desire to do something (anything) to help relieve their pain can be so strong. But, the reality is that oftentimes what a grieving person needs more than anything is a friend to sit with them and listen. Many times, the platitudes that we are tempted to say can cause more harm than help. We recommend people avoid saying statements like, “they are in a better place,” or “God needed another angel,” as words of comfort, because those statements oftentimes feel like they are minimizing the loss or deflecting the reality that their absence is very painful. Listening truly is oftentimes the best thing you can do to help a grieving friend.

We also love the idea of asking your friend to share stories about their loved one. If you knew their loved one well, you can also bring up specific stories that you remember. After my grandfather passed away, it was really helpful for our family to sit together and remember some of the funny memories we shared of our grandfather. My grandpa had a habit of falling asleep in the middle of group gatherings, no matter how loud the room, so we laughed remembering how he snored in his reclining chair.

"May I give you a hug?" is another way you can encourage a hurting friend. Sometimes just being hugged can convey more than all your words can. It lets them know you see and recognize their pain without putting any pressure on them to react in a specific way.

And if you're worried about how to reply when she shares her heart, let me free you of some of the pressure, because the key to good grief support is actually pretty simple. You don't need to give her advice or provide her with answers. You don't need fancy phrases or long awkward pauses or profound words. You just need to be willing to consistently listen and encourage her to share. Many women are verbal processors, so if you can give her a compassionate listening ear as she shares the same details of her story, you are giving her a beautiful gift. This blog post from a few years ago is a great resource if you need some more guidance.

And we'd love to hear from you! What phrases helped you during your loss? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!