In our lives as faith leaders, we are commonly confronted by questions like, “What do I say to someone whose loved one has died?” “What is my role as a friend?” “Are there any words to provide comfort?”

All too often, people are at a loss as to what to say, and avoid the reality of death by trying to distract the mourner by speaking about the news or other matters. Even worse, people may say trite comments such as, “It is all for the good” or “You will get over the loss.” These kinds of statements do not diminish the pain; they increase it.

From our soul perspective and years of serving in the clergy, we would like to share some time-honored suggestions that will not only offer comfort for the moment, but create an eternal impact for the family.

In general people are scared to be “real” with a person in their time of grief. We are paralyzed by thinking we cannot find the right words and so we avoid the conversation. True story from Rabbi Cohen: For the first time, I heard of a fellow who has not visited his ailing grandmother because he possesses a “death phobia.”

This may be extreme and tragic, but all too often we see the folly in such an approach. For instance, shiva homes or wakes may be transformed into mini parties. People are eating and drinking and talking about everything under the sun except about the deceased. Such a spirit may ease the discomfort of the guests but does little to offer meaningful comfort to the mourner.

What should you say to a mourner?

Express empathy. Letting someone know how sorry you are about his or her loss, looking him in the eye and sharing in his pain is helpful. As the saying goes, sharing in a celebration doubles the happiness and sharing in sad occasions halves the pain.

  • Be present. Do not try to distract the person. Ask her about the deceased’s life. “Can you share some memories or stories with me?” “Where did she grow up?” “What kind of person was she?” These questions will likely unlock a stream of consciousness and allow the mourner to process, remember, laugh or cry…and, most importantly, feel more connected to the person who passed away.
  • Communicate in writing. You may not have words that can ease the pain, but do share a memory. These notes will be cherished forever. From Rabbi Cohen: My mother passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm almost 30 years ago, and I find more comfort by hearing new stories about her, which I, in turn, share with my family and friends. Her soul never dies and can always be a source of blessing and inspiration.
  • Offer a prayer. Whatever your faith, we find that invoking God as source of strength is powerful. Saying “I hope that God gives you strength during this time, and each day enables you to put one foot forward” offers a path for healing. People are often overwhelmed by the prospect of “how will I go on.” Reminding them to take one day a time, that you after here for them and that, God willing, they will find the strength is helpful.
  • Ask “What do you need?” All of these suggestions do not work for everyone who has lost a loved one. Just listen. Simply asking, “How can I help you during this painful time?” is one of the best ways to start a conversation. You may be surprised to discover that sometimes silence is the answer. Just being present with someone in silence, or taking a walk, may be the most effective and everlasting expression of support.
  • Never forget that each of us possesses the power to heal a hurt and offer light in places of darkness. Embrace the moment to truly offer comfort. And always remember that you are carrying the spirit of the loved one with you—in thought, words and deeds—which enables the soul to truly live forever.

Click here to purchase Rabbi Daniel Cohen’s book, What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone?