My heart and prayers go out to those who lost loved ones in the Boston Marathon explosions this week. This tragic incident prompts the question-when a friend’s loved one passes away, what is the best way to console him or her without saying something that further compounds the pain? If you are the one grieving, how should you respond when others’ comments are more hurtful than helpful?

Recently, my colleagues and I asked the more than 200,000 readers of our Crucial Skills Newsletter to share their personal experiences and advice. Combining their comments with my study and life experience, I will touch on three main questions:

  • What do people want when they’re grieving?
  • What don’t they want?
  • What should you say when people say or do things that don’t help?

1. What do people want when they’re grieving? They want your heart, not your brain.
Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say. We think we need soothing poetry laced with wisdom of the ages to spill from our mouths in order to soothe their pain. Don’t wait until you can think of just the right words, just make contact, grieve alongside them, and share the moment.

Consider this advice. When someone you love is going through shock and pain from some precipitating event (like death, job loss, etc.), put a reminder on your schedule two weeks, two months, and six months out. People often get a flurry of support close to the incident, followed by a long time of nothing. By going to lunch or spending time with them in these intervals you can support them at times when loneliness or self-doubt can be most profound.

2. What don’t they want? They don’t want to endlessly retell the details or receive assignments.  
Many people don’t want you to force them to review the facts of their situation for the hundredth time. They also might not want to give yet another emotional health report. Be aware that asking, “So what happened?” or “How are you?” can put a burden on them.

One of our newsletter readers recommends you offer condolences and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and/or praying for you.” A simple, “I don’t know what to say” or a hug is far better than a question a griever has to respond to such as, “How are you?”

And, don’t give them an assignment. When we’re at a loss for what to say we often end with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.” If you really want to do something, think. Stop and think about everything you know about their life. Where do they live? What little chores do they have to do to make it through a day? What extra tasks will now fall on them because of the loss? Do they need help with the kids? Do they need someone to do laundry? Empathize as best you can until you find some proactive task you can do to communicate real compassion. It won’t matter if it’s the perfect idea; it just matters that you take initiative rather than assign them to involve you. They rarely will, so the offer rings hollow.

After my colleague’s neighbor lost a loved one, the neighbor’s wonderful friend showed up to mow his lawn for the next three months. Did the man want his lawn mowed? I don’t know. I do know that he felt more love from that empathic gesture than if his neighbor had said, “What can I do?”

3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
When you know you’re feeling very sensitive, tell people what you do and don’t want. For example, simply say, “Thank you for your concern, but I just don’t want to discuss that right now.”

If you need to give others boundaries in what they say, do it quickly before you build up too much resentment. It’s perfectly fine to politely, but firmly, let people know what you don’t want.

Another one of our newsletter readers offers this advice: When faced with insensitive comments, perhaps you could respond, “We all wish circumstances had not led to this end. I am not focusing on how my husband died, but that he is now gone. Your comments on how and why he died do not change the fact that I have lost my husband and my world has changed.”

Realize as you grieve that even those who make annoying comments are trying to deal with real emotions-yours and theirs. Let them be imperfect. When others are insensitive, don’t take it personally. Try to understand that they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what to do.

Finally, consider a caveat.

There is another group to consider, in addition to friends we know from a secular setting-what about people of faith?

I did a few interviews with LDS folks and found the advice I had received from our newsletter readers applied to this group as well. There was, however, one significant difference. Though most do not want a sermon or a judgment at a time of loss, people of faith did appreciate a witness or a simple testimony.

When I attended the funeral of my 22-year-old brother, a middle-aged next-door neighbor hugged me and said softly in my ear, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m going to miss your brother too. But know this, your brother still lives and I know you will be with him again one day.” I felt a flood of the Spirit and a profound peace, and I knew the words he had said were true. I can’t think of any single gesture I was given that day that was more comforting or meant more.

I hope this is helpful in providing ideas for how to offer greater and more useful love and support during one of life’s most poignant experiences.

For additional helpful advice from our Crucial Skills Newsletter readers, download our free e-book, How to Talk About the Loss of a Loved One: Dos and Don’ts of Comforting Others.

About Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 900,000 people worldwide.