Every now and then as I scroll through Instagram or Facebook, I come across a sad type of post ― a friend or acquaintance sharing the news of a loved one’s death. Just this weekend, a former college classmate announced the passing of her mother after a long experience with cancer. Last month, it was a family friend’s father who died unexpectedly in an accident.
In these moments, I want to show my support and send love to the grieving person and others affected by this loss, but I quickly start doubting every word I type as I try to share a message in the comments.
“It is really hard to say something ‘perfectly’ in person to someone who has suffered a loss, let alone write something to express your condolences,” Dr. Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told HuffPost. “I am trained in psychiatry, and when I come across these posts, I still question what to say and if I said it correctly. It’s OK to take your time and reflect on what to post, and not post immediately when you see something. It is better to be thoughtful than first.”
Although there’s no perfect combination of words to share in this situation, there are some good guidelines to keep in mind. Below, Gold and other experts share their advice for responding in the comments section to a death announcement or other post about loss.
First, assess your relationship and motivation before commenting.
“Check your relationship and your motivation before commenting,” said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.” “How close am I to this person? What does this relationship call for? If you’re close friends, a direct message or text might be better. If you’re casual acquaintances or ‘social media friends,’ keep your response simple. If it’s a celebrity or other public figure, a simple ‘we love you’ or similar is fine.”
Ask yourself who your comment is for ― yourself or the person receiving it.
“Are you commenting to make yourself feel like you did something and feel better or because you know the person well, and genuinely want to express your care for them?” Gold said. “The reason for posting is important. You don’t need to respond to every memorial you come across. Consider your relationship with the individual and the deceased.”
If you’re close to the person, remember there are other ways to acknowledge what they shared and connect with them outside of social media comments.
“Ask, ‘Do I want others to see that I’m being supportive?’” Devine said. “Am I tempted to leave a long, thoughtful comment so that others see how Great I Am At Supporting? That’s not the best reason to comment. Performative support isn’t really support.”
Try to avoid cliches.
“Avoid all the standard cliches and platitudes,” Devine said. “Things like ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ ‘They’re in a better place,’ ‘You’re stronger than you think,’ ‘They wouldn’t want you to be sad,’ or any statement that starts with ‘At least … ’ No one likes to be talked out of their pain ― and that’s what these statements do.”
The statement “they’re in a better place” can be particularly tough.
“This makes assumptions about how people perceive things like the afterlife, and their loved ones and their loss,” Gold said. “It also can feel offensive ― ‘Death is better than being with me/us?’”
Express genuine and sincere thoughts.
“Being genuine, sincere and even brief is OK,” said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “Just say something that is kind. Always think to yourself before you write your comment: ‘What would I want to see if this were me?’”
He recommended something simple like “I am thinking about you and your family during this really difficult time.” If you didn’t know the person who died, don’t act like you did.
“I think it’s important to respond with a genuine expression of sympathy when you choose to comment,” echoed Diane Brennan, a grief counselor at Life & Loss Mental Health Counseling. “If you knew the person who died, you can offer a comment to share a memory or remembrance about them, you can comment about how you will miss them or miss something specific about them. If you did not know the person, I would stick to offerings of condolence to acknowledge their loss and the pain they are experiencing in this moment.”
Don’t make assumptions about how they feel.
Gold recommended showing support without making assumptions about how someone feels.
“I prefer something like ‘I can only imagine what you are going through’ instead of ‘it must be really hard for you,’” she said. “I often express my desire for them to have space to feel and heal and to do whatever they need: ‘I hope you have time and space to do whatever it is you need in this time.’”
If someone had a long, painful illness, avoid statements like “at least they are free from pain now,” “now you can move on with your life” or “at least you had a chance to say goodbye.”
“That makes assumptions that their death eliminates a burden or that saying goodbye and preparing for death was a consolation,” Gold said. “Even expected deaths are still deaths and have emotional reactions to them.”
She added that if you’re stuck on what to write, you can even be honest in saying something like, “It’s hard to find the right words ― or there are no right words ― to express support in moments like this, but know I’m here and thinking of you.”
Share a memory.
“Share a memory of the person, if that seems appropriate,” Devine advised. “For example, ‘Your mom was always at your soccer games. I remember how happy she was to be there.’”
If you have lots of memories or a longer story to share, consider sending that directly to the bereaved in a personal message, email or card for posterity. Explain how the person they lost impacted your life.
“Happy memories and ways someone supported you can be uplifting in times that can feel sad,” Gold said.
Don’t hijack the post with your own experience.
“It is not the time for comparing grief,” Gold said. “Avoid focusing on your own grief about the person’s death. It is not about you.”
She also recommended avoiding comments like, “When my so-and-so died, I … ” in this context. This is about their experience, not your similar situation.
“Avoid hijacking their post with your own stories of loss, illness, etc.,” Devine said. “Keep the focus on them, or share a memory of their person. If they’re sharing that they’re ill, or someone close to them is ill, avoid offering advice ― ‘Have they tried green juice?’ ― or your experience with the illness ―‘My dad had that and he’s fine now!’”
Similarly, Gold advised against saying “I know how you are feeling.”
“Grief and loss is a deeply personal experience and everyone’s loss is unique,” she said. “And avoid ‘I don’t know what I would do if my husband/spouse/friend died.’ It does not comfort the person, it makes them feel isolated in their experience.”
Resist the urge to be a cheerleader.
“The biggest thing to remember is that most people don’t want to be cheered up, they want to feel heard,” Devine said. “That’s a very normal human impulse to make people feel better ― and a tendency for people to give unsolicited advice. Just not telling people to look on the bright side puts you way ahead of most messages and comments of support. Just not flooding them with advice makes you a more skilled supporter than the average commenter.”
She shared an animation she made that breaks down the problem with trying to cheer up a grieving person and shares better ways to offer support. Unless the person specifically asked to be cheered up, that’s probably not what they want, so save your funny cat videos for another time. Acknowledging their grief and sitting with them in their pain are more helpful.
“Don’t make assumptions about timelines for grief,” Gold added. “Don’t say, ‘I hope you feel better soon’ or ‘It gets better every day’ as there is no timeline for grief, so don’t pressure them to feel like they are OK faster.”
Refrain from asking for personal details.
“Avoid asking for personal details in a social media post,” Devine said. “One, if they haven’t shared personal information, there’s probably a reason. Two, if you’re close, you probably already know the details.”
Shut down any speculation you may see about how the person died. It’s particularly crucial to be mindful in situations that may have involved suicide.
“It is important to avoid perpetuating myths and misconceptions about suicide,” Reidenberg said. “Don’t speculate about what might have been happening around the death, and absolutely do not repeat rumors or even factual information such as a method or location of a suicide. The other best practices would be to avoid talking about the person who died as a ‘hero.’ These will help reduce the risk of suicide contagion.”
Be specific in offers of help.
“Don’t say ‘I’m here if you need anything,’” Devine said. “Not because they don’t need things, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then reaching out to ask is light years beyond their energy levels, capacity or interest. If you’re close friends or not close, but want to help, make tangible, concrete offers of support ― things that lessen the burden of everyday life are helpful, for example: walking the dog, picking up groceries or helping with other tasks.”
She suggested contributing to their GoFundMe or a similar account if such an option exists. Ask if there’s an organization you might make a donation to in their memory. Don’t start a crowdfunding account without their permission if there isn’t one, however.
“Lead with your willingness to support them and be there for them as needed,” Gold said. “For example, ‘I am here if you need anything and will text to check in next week to see if you need food.’”
Devine shared a list of long-distance grief support tips for those who don’t live near the bereaved person. Sending care packages or little gifts is one option.
“Be specific in your offers of help, and be reliable ― only offer things you will actually do,” she said.
If you’re close, follow up.
When a close friend or relative experiences a loss, your social media comment is far less important than all of the other ways you can and should show up for them. Focus on the IRL actions you can take, whether it’s attending the funeral, sending flowers, visiting their house or helping out with logistics.
“Maybe send a text message or contact them by phone a few days or weeks after you saw the post to check in on them,” Brennan said. “You can also send a personal note or condolence card as well. Many times people post to social media because they feel it’s the quickest or easiest way to get the word out, but you don’t have to offer your condolences via social media. Taking the time to personalize and reach out to someone who is grieving is the best way to offer support.”