Living Columns & Blogs

Amid grief, ‘right words’ matter less than opening our hearts

It seems like I’ve been sending a lot of sympathy cards lately.

I find myself selecting multiple cards at the store, trying to find several that seem to convey the appropriate tone, so I’ll be sure to have some on hand when I need them. And, sadly, I’ve needed them fairly often in the last few months. Sometimes the prompt in the cards, the offer of sympathy, support and caring helps me find the words I want to say, the thoughts I want to convey. But sometimes, it does not.

All too often, I struggle to find the right words, words that will sooth the pain, comfort those who are grieving, make things better. It is at those times that I come face to face with the reality that there is nothing I can say that will make the grieving stop, nothing that will take away the pain of losing a loved one, nothing that will fix things. And that is hard, because I like to fix things.

It is not unusual for us to struggle to find the “right words.” We struggle because we believe that there actually are “right words” to be said – words that will make things all better, fix the problem, heal the wounds. Anyone who has ever talked with someone in crisis, someone who is grieving has searched for those “right words.”

The reality is, however, that there aren’t any “right words”; there are only caring words, compassionate words, words offered in support and friendship. The offer of sympathy and support, encouragement and love, when another is grieving, is not about finding the “right words.” It is about our willingness to be present, to say something, to reach out in compassion, to offer tangible evidence that the one who is grieving is not alone and is loved.

Sometimes the words are of faith, prayers offered on behalf of the one experiencing the loss. Sometimes the words are simply “I’m here for you” or “I care,” and that is enough. What is most important is that the words are expressed, that the connection is made.

Several years ago, family friends experienced the tragic death of their teenage son in a car accident. As excruciatingly painful as that loss was for them, it was compounded by the reaction of several of their closest friends who pulled away at that most difficult time. Those friends who pulled away were likely wrestling with their own fear and anxiety; perhaps they were overwhelmed by the grief of their friends, or they just did not know what to say. Those who pulled away, however, made a terrible and tragic situation even worse.

In any healthy relationship, there will come a time when the one we care about suffers grief and loss. As partners or friends, parents or colleagues, our responsibility is to realize two things. The first is that nothing we can say will stop the grief. And the second is that we must say something; we must be present.

We do not have the power to protect those we care about from experiencing the grief that comes into all our lives. We do, however, have the power to reach beyond ourselves, to offer comfort and support, compassion and love. Ultimately, it matters less that we find the “right words” than it does that we offer what is in our hearts. “I’m sorry” and “I care” are always the right words to say.

Anne K. Ard is the executive director of Centre Safe, Centre County’s domestic violence/rape crisis center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at