My children lost their father five years ago. They were 13, 10, 7, and 7 when he died. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2018, the day before he turned 44, and he died four months later. There is a lot more to be said here, of course, but I wanted to explain this at the top, because once you mention the early death of someone so close to you, you will almost always be asked how it happened. Then you will be asked how someone can help.
Curiosity is normal, of course — as is the empathy we all feel for those grieving — but the desire to prioritize one’s curiosity and need to feel helpful over the feelings of grieving people is one of the ways that people can hurt where they hope to help. This is particularly true when it comes to children, who often feel more overwhelmed by those trying to help through their grief than they are by the grief itself.
Few of us are taught what to do with our own grief, let alone other people’s. And while I believe it’s never too early to normalize conversations about death with our children, I also think it’s never too late to know how to differentiate helpful from hurtful language when offering well-intentioned condolences as adults.
Here is my advice, based on my own experience and the experience of loved ones I’ve surveyed — specifically my kids — for navigating grief as a supportive friend or family member. Or even a stranger on social media.
Helpful: Sending, giving, and showing love without expecting reciprocation.
I know everyone has a fear of saying the wrong thing, and that can be enough to keep us from saying anything at all. Which isn’t right either. It sounds simple, but if you or your child ever wonders what to say to a child, friend, or family member in the throes of loss, “I love you and I’m thinking of you,” is all you need to know how to say. Whether those notes are written in a note, in a Sharpie on a hand, or whispered in their ear during a long hug, receiving love without any obligation to respond is such a gift for grievers of all ages.
Love is a salve. Always.
Not helpful: Expecting reciprocation.
Condolences should be one-sided. Never put a grieving person in a position where they feel like they have to reciprocate or show gratitude for the love you have shown. It just adds to the emotional labor of the grieving person.
Showing up for someone with love only to demand their love and attention in exchange is not showing up for someone. This also goes for sending food. Meal trains are a godsend but most grieving people do not want to entertain a different guest every night. Dropping off food with a quick hug and an even faster goodbye is usually the move.
Helpful: Making or purchasing tokens and talismans that honor the griever and their grief.
Tokens and talismans will always be my go-to gift for anyone who is grieving. They are also what I desire when I am in pain and often purchase them for myself for this reason. Homemade bracelets. A surprise delivery of someone’s favorite treats. A mix tape with songs about friendship and care. A book of poetry. A necklace acknowledging love or transition. A crystal that can be held in the hand or put in a pocket.
I have never aged out of making beaded bracelets — something my kids have always done with and for their friends and family members. We believe very strongly in the healing power of the friendship bracelet for people at all ages and in all stages of their grief.
Not helpful: Self-help books and unsolicited advice (aka trying to fix what is broken).
I am a big fan of books about grief, and I think giving books — especially if you have loved them yourself and can personalize the gift — is a lovely gesture. Just not right away. Instead, if you have a book to recommend, wait a month or two or three.
Here’s why: If someone has lost someone close to them and you immediately bring them a self-help book or a book about grief, you are sending the message that it’s time to heal instead of validating their very human need to feel all of the necessary feelings of brokenness.
The same goes for your advice about handling loss or personal philosophies on mourning. It is very human to want to fix people, to make them feel better. But when someone is experiencing profound loss, it is important to remember that they probably do not want to be fixed. They want to be validated, even — and especially — in their grief.
As a parent, this is the most important thing I learned about navigating my children’s grief. Supporting and validating their feelings of pain without trying to fix, help, or rush them into healing is always the right move. It is a gift to give someone who is grieving validation and safety within their feelings. It can be frustrating and painful to be on the receiving end of someone’s unsolicited therapy or recommendations.
Helpful: Sending memories of the dead person without glossing over the truth about who they were.
After Hal died, people sent the kids all sorts of stories about him. Old pictures. Letters. Pieces of memorabilia from his past. People wrote down memories, mailed old cassette tapes with his music, and emailed me stories to share with them. Some stories included details that painted him as a real person, not a saint, which we all appreciated.
It is a common misconception that when people die we must glorify them instead of talking about them like real people who we adored but who also pissed us off. Glossing over the truth and painting over a person’s humanity with cartoonish praise can make grieving families feel alone in their feelings, which are often quite complex. Humanizing the dead is a gift to the living and toxic positivity happens to grievers all the time.
Not helpful: Offering pity.
Being outcasted or labeled “the kid with the dead dad” was for all four of my children one of the hardest parts of that first year without him.
Pity prioritizes the feelings of the person expressing it over the person it was intended for. Always. When you say, “I feel so sorry for you,” you are talking about your own feelings. When you say, “that poor child” or “you poor thing,” you are disempowering a person — pulling them down as opposed to offering a hand to help them up. You are treating them like victims. And I don’t know a single person — regardless of age — who wants to be pitied, victimized, or felt sorry for.
I think this is a particular challenge that I faced as the mother of children who had lost their other parent. When someone would say to me, “I feel so sorry for you” or “this is my worst nightmare,” not only were they prioritizing their feelings over mine, they were making assumptions about my experience. People want widows to grieve in a very particular way that appeases public expectation and which may not be healing for them at all.
I know a lot of people who feel like they can’t laugh or have a moment of levity while in the throes of grief because people might misconstrue their joy as being a betrayal of their sadness. I also know that children can feel like they can’t make jokes or be themselves around their grieving peers. Most children want to be treated with normalcy, especially as tweens and teens, and they need space to be silly or joyful, even as they are grieving.
Other things that no one wants to hear:
- “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
- “This is my worst fear come to life.”
- “What a tragedy.”
- “How will you go on?”
- “How will they go on?”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
Helpful: Holding space (Not helpful: Taking space).
Grieving people often find themselves doing a lot of emotional labor for others. People meant well, but in the aftermath of Hal’s death, when they would express their own grief to us or their sadness at watching us suffer, they were unintentionally inviting us to support them.
There will be a time and a place to relate to the grieving person and tell your own stories about grief, but when the loss is fresh is not the time to offer them. And saying things like “I know how you feel…” suggests a level of understanding of a very specific experience that — in actuality — no one understands except the person going through it.
Instead, stay present. Allow for silence, warmth, words of affirmation and love — without centering your own experience.
Lastly, let’s talk about faith-based comfort. Just because you have certain beliefs about the nature of the afterlife or look for comfort in religion, it does not mean other people will feel the same. Saying things like “he’s in a better place” to people who do not believe in such a place makes for a lot of awkward and very forced thank yous. It is especially important that children know this when reaching out to other children.
I will always circle back to my first point: You will never lose by offering a grieving person your love. Love without advice. Love without caveats. Love without expectation. Love.
Rebecca Woolf writes Romper’s Sex & the Single Mom series. She has worked as a writer for more than two decades and is the author of two books, Rockabye: From Wild to Child and All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire. You can subscribe to her newsletter, The Braid, for more. She lives in Los Angeles with her four children.