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What to Say to a Coworker or Acquaintance When Their Loved One Dies


We have close friends and significant others, and when those special people are going through something devastating such as a loved-one passing away, it may come as a natural instinct to immediately provide unconditional support and additional love to them during that time, but what about when it is an individual that we are not that close to such as an acquaintance like a classmate or a coworker that discloses they recently had a loved one pass? Do we provide the same kind of support to them that we do to our close friend or significant other? Considering that we share a different, deeper relationship with our significant other or close friend, the short answer would be no.

When our significant other's or close friend's mother dies (for example), we are most likely going to be one of the first people our partner or friend tells, and we may even go to the funeral with that individual, however with an acquaintance, we are likely not the first to find out and likely will not attend the funeral, therefore making the circumstances quite different which leads me to the question at hand.

Everyone grieves in their own way so the way they may react to condolences may be different (i.e. emotional or unemotional), but in general, responding with a genuine and authentic statement like, "I'm sorry to hear about you losing your dad" is a good start. It provides empathy, acknowledgement, support, and simplicity. Depending on how much that acquaintance is willing to share, talking more about the loss will vary. The rule of thumb is to keep it supportive and natural. If the acquaintance starts to provide more details about the death, than allow them to talk and respond as necessary. Otherwise, if they do not continue to talk about the loss, than usually good not to push for information.

Things to NOT say:

"They are in a better place now."

"God wanted them with him."

"He/she is in heaven now."

"You will meet again some day."

"I know exactly what you are going through."

"This happens to all of us."

"This is probably what they wanted."

Why are these things NOT to say to an acquaintance grieving or anyone grieving for that matter?

Not everyone is religious or some may have very specific religious views that may be contradicted by heaven or God responses above. The bereaved may feel that you truly do not know what they are going through and the rest simply are not compassionate statements and will not make someone who is grieving feel understood or supported.

Even if you do not know what to say and saying you are "sorry for the individual's loss" feels odd, you can always be truthful about that and state something like, "Anne, I don't have the words right now, just know you're in my thoughts". Again, authenticity and simplicity is key. If the bereaved is truly just an acquaintance than you're probably not going to do house calls in the late hours or early mornings or help them with child care, so by saying something like, "I can help take care of little Johnny at 2am" is just not authentic because it may not be true or something either of you feel comfortable with, so stick to the simple and genuine feelings and statements.

Loss and death can seem like a taboo thing to talk about with those we are not close to, however we can start to break down that barrier and provide bereavement (on a spectrum!) to our different relationships.

Thanks for talking it out with me,

Melissa