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Grief can be downright awkward. There's a certain pressure to find the right words to say. It's common to default to apologizing. We blurt out sorry for your loss, scribble it into Hallmark cards, and paste it under social media posts, punctuated with a prayer hands emoji. We center ourselves even if we don't mean to. What are you sorry for anyway?

Over the last several months, we've asked you, our people, to share the words and gestures that have proven helpful after a loss; which ones hurt more than they heal? From those responses, we've created this condolences guide to parse through perspectives on how we care and show up for one another—even when we get it wrong. Accountability is an act of love.

This is not a manual on how to grieve—in fact, not all of our contributors agree with each other. There's certainly no cure-all phrase that eliminates grief. The consolation that resonates with you might trigger someone else; healing is not one-size-fits-all. 

This guide builds upon our ongoing series, grief & other loves, which we launched as a way to sludge through the muck of grief and its dovetail, love, alongside our communities. We tend to silo grief and its sorrow, when it requires solidarity. Our healing must be as interconnected as our freedom. 

We're releasing our guide alongside an essay about the limits of language. In her piece, "A grammar for grief: Love, loss, and the limits of language," Mele Girma compares grief to the inability to speak to her grandmother in fluent Amharic. No one is a native speaker when it comes to mourning either. In both cases, we stumble awkwardly for our words trying to connect with those we love. To borrow Girma's words, grief is then "another form of broken language we'll learn together." It's a process that requires trust, patience, and grace. 

This guide reckons with frustrations around being cast as fragile while mourning, annoyance with an emphasis on God's plan, and a rebuke of projections like "They would've been so proud of you." More than two dozen contributors from 15 states captured the power of grand gestures and shared stillness, as well as perspective on how we mourn the living—from past versions of ourselves to foiled friendships.

We want to keep hearing from you. You can submit to this condolences guide here (we'll review responses on a rolling basis) or pitch us a full-blown essay on grief.

Some of these responses have been edited lightly for clarity, conciseness.


On words that sting:

"Tell me if you need anything" is never helpful.

— Mandy Gallaway Lacey, Westerly, Rhode Island 

Most terrible responses are about trying to force the other person to cheer up or to feel better. They think that they're helping, because you don't appear to be sad anymore. Really, they're just proving that your sadness is not safe with them. A loss is a good reason to feel pain. Trying to force the pain away makes them feel better, more comfortable, and not beholden to attend to your real feelings.

— Leu Croll, Atlanta, Georgia 

"I wish I had the chance to talk to him." No shit. Me too. Don't put that back on me.

— Lovey Cooper, Durham, North Carolina

the phrase that many lean into in times of deep sorrow that absolutely does not provide me with any comfort is "healing isn't linear." on the surface, i guess that's true. healing is erratic, indiscriminate, chaotic, and arbitrary. it knows no bounds and follows no rules. and in its wake, i've found that it often puts your heart up as collateral—leaving one unwilling to feel as deeply as they once did, or love as earnestly as they once did, or exist as vulnerably as they once did. at least, that's true for me.

— Excerpt from Da'Shaun Harrison's essay "in Grief:"

I HATE "they would be so proud of you," "you look just like them," "they'd be so happy for you," etcetera. I lost my dad when I was 12. A lot has happened since then, and quite frankly I don't enjoy thinking or talking about him or it happening. It makes me uncomfortable and sick and queasy. When people say these things, it just makes me feel bad and sad, and it's always said at something you should feel happy (graduation, engagement). It's not like it was a bad relationship, because it wasn't, but I wish people would think that for some people, memories and death are really painful no matter how long it has been.

— Mary Anna Ball, Barboursville, West Virginia

I *hate* a one-size-fits-all approach to grief. Especially from those who do not know the experience of being multi-marginalized, and thus compounded, grief. Yes, there is communal grief. But even within community, we do not all grieve the same. Grief should also not have to act solely as a steppingstone to whatever's supposed to happen "after" it. Grief is not on a timetable. And those far removed from the multi-margins are more likely to treat it like it is. 

It feels like being on the telephone—the automated menu is telling me to pick 1 for a generalized grieving message, pick 2 to be transferred to the unalive hotline (who are on standby with the police), and I'm repeatedly pressing 0 for a representative because I'd just like to talk to another Being. The hold time is extensive (and ironic, since I am not, in fact, being Held), and every other ad between the scratchy toll-free music is an ad for BetterHelp. Like, congrats—I'm too annoyed now to grieve properly, *and* I'm leaving even more wound up than I began.

Jaiden Butler, Durham, North Carolina

I hated when people told me things like "time heals all wounds," because my wound was not "regular," nor did it have a way to fix itself. To be honest, no one really said they were sorry to me (besides my friends, etcetera) when my father died, and I kind of just wanted someone to say "that really blows. I'm so sorry." And leave it at that, you know? 

— Autumn Fourkiller, Stilwell, Oklahoma

"Sorry to hear that," and then completely moving on. This can seem like they don't really recognize the pain. At the same time, death can be very triggering. It can remind you of someone you have lost and how much that hurts. I understand it's an uncomfortable topic… (Grief) can come and go like rainy days. And just like how you can forget what the rain feels like on a sunny day, on a really good day, you can forget how deep it can hurt.

— Katie, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 

"I hate this has happened. I'm here if you need me." After my father passed, people treated me like I was fragile. It's okay to recognize that death is an unfortunate thing. Validate the person's feelings AND experience.

— Alisha, Birmingham, Alabama

"You have to stay strong." Let me accept and own this weak moment(s) without disregarding my current emotions in an effort to push through my grief to get to some proverbial next step.

Rachel Parker, Birmingham, Alabama

Instead of: "I can't imagine what you're going through," I wish people would say: "Losing someone you love hurts so much. I care about you and I really wish you didn't have to experience this pain. I will be with you in this."

— Kate Newsom, Brooklyn, New York

When I have experienced a loss, I dislike generic responses that comment on my relationship with the deceased, such as: "She loved you very much," or "He was so proud of you," especially from people outside of my family. I know that they intend to recall comforting aspects of my memory of the deceased, but I don't find forced recognition of what I've lost to be a salve to my grief. These responses seem to gloss over the pain I'm feeling in the moment and seem out of touch with the reality of death. They can also seem disingenuous, especially if the person saying them really did not know me or the deceased well, "I'm sure she loved you very much" rings especially poorly. These also don't land well when the bereaved person had a complicated relationship with the deceased—something most people could not possibly know; so I find it best to avoid these unless I know the bereaved person and the deceased very, very well, and can tell a story beyond a simple statement.

— Alyce Palko, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

"They're in a better place now."
"It's just good that their suffering is over."
"Let me know if there's anything I can do," from some random-ass person who has never done anything for me before.
"She was so brave/such a warrior/she fought so hard until the last second, etcetera."
"I heard you feel guilty/have regrets about how you handled things, you shouldn't," from anyone other than someone I'm VERY close to with whom I've already discussed those things.

— Lindsay Lee Wallace, New York, New York 

The "everything happens for a reason" strain of commentary is the thing I hate most. I very strongly resent the implication that good has to come out of every bad thing and feel like it both minimizes the person lost and puts way too much pressure on the people still here.

— erika owens, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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On mourning the living, yourself:

"Romantic love is not a fixture in my life. Platonic love and community will always be my most significant and most cherished non-familial intimate connections in this world. Living in a culture dominated by romance, this makes me an oddity. For people like me—whether we are seen as oddities, non-conformists, relational misfits, freaks of nature, inhumans, undesirables, or just romantic failures—our focus on platonic love and community leaves us too often grieving lost friendships and unrealized intimacies when romance ultimately, inevitably wins out."

"Being abandoned by friends, in one way or another, for their pursuit of romantic desires is a recurring loss for people like me. Cisheteropatriarchy (though queer romance is not immune to this phenomenon) and the culture of romantic domination require platonic relationships to come secondary, or even tertiary, to romantic ones. They require the relegation of friendships to the margins, and the perpetual centering of romantic relationships. They require the disposability of platonic love and community, and the measuring of our worth and desirability by our (in)ability or (lack of) desire to secure romantic connections."

— Excerpt from Sherronda Brown's essay on platonic grief:

"Reconciling who I've been—the scholar, the artist, the lover—with who I want to be has been some of the hardest work I've done, made harder by the icy cloak of grief. I get dressed from a laundry basket on a dining table I haven't used, and I buy groceries for one. Nanny's pantry was stocked for two, and somehow even that feels desperate for me to model. I have barely touched another person in almost three years, not just in the way of intimacy, but of comfort and warmth—a handshake, a hug, a cuddle from a sticky-fingered toddler, or kisses that smell like White Diamonds from rouge-lipped church mothers."

— Excerpt from Maya Miller's essay on losing her Nanny and forging a new sense of self upon inheriting her home:

"It wasn't just that she was gone, but the safety I felt in her presence, to be my full self, without judgment, was gone too. She knew me to my core, she had studied me as I studied her. Who was I without her, knowing me? Without her understanding?"

— Mele Girma, Georgia, in her essay on connecting with her grandmother beyond language:


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On showing up, community:

I find it helpful to remind folks there are no words adequate to express grief or condolence, so warm accompaniment, pure presence is enough.

— Leaf Seligman, Hancock, New Hampshire, by way of Tennessee 

Psychologist here. People in acute grief struggle with decision fatigue. Instead of saying "how can I help?" offer options! For example, "I would really like to help ease your burden right now. Would it be more helpful if I take the dogs for a walk or go pick up some groceries for you?" And (obviously), be ready to follow through!

— Samantha Mladen, Richmond, Virginia

Saying "how are you?" is the worst question to ask people when they have lost a loved one. And don't say "what can I do for you?" Instead, you can say: "I'm sending you $$$ today and I'd like to bring dinner by sometime this week. What day and time is good for you?" "I love you and I'm here for you" goes a long way when you actually do something.

— Teresa Ervin-Springs, Mississippi 

Just being present helps. Allow the bereaved some space. Assure them that what they feel matters. Let them know they are cared for.

— Alisha, Birmingham, Alabama

I've lost a lot of people—grandparents, friends, a parent—and I really believe there's a kind of company in grief, once you get through to the other side of it. The experience changes you. I find myself fiercely protective of people when they're in the fresh throes of it, even though I'm not normally a caretaking kind of person.

— Olivia Waite, Seattle, Washington

I can't think of any condolences specifically, but I remember being taken to get a coffee or a snack and my friends laying in bed beside me, not saying anything. I am most supported by the help that doesn't insist upon itself, but is simply gentle and practical.

Autumn Fourkiller, Stilwell, Oklahoma 

I usually say something along the lines of: "I am sending you love, light, and healing during your time of grief. The memories you have will live on forever, and will continue to honor the bond that you had. Please take care of yourself." I usually also try to check in with the person a week or two later, to see if they need anything. Grieving people often won't say what they need or don't know, and I hate saying "let me know if you need anything" because it puts the burden on them.

— Janelle O'Dea, St. Louis, Missouri

"I hope you can be with your family/people you love/people who loved [NAME] right now." When I lost my mom it almost didn't occur to me that connecting with other people might make me feel better (even though I realize now it's kind of obvious), so it's kind of a gentle nudge.

— Lindsay Lee Wallace, New York, New York 

My immediate response is to let the person(s) grieving know that they are loved. I know that for me, as a person who struggles with the idea of me inherently being a burden, what helps me in times of grief (where I often feel too cumbersome/non-effective for mine or anyone else's own good), it helps to know that I'm not alone and that I am loved—since, in those times, that is when my mind is the loudest about its assumptions that I am neither of those things. Thus, as a person with friends who hold similar self sentiments, I try to be that for them, in whatever fashion that looks like for them.

— Jaiden Butler, Durham, North Carolina


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On silence, stillness:

After my father passed away unexpectedly, the responses I valued the most were the quiet ones—a short memory, an expression of shared heartbreak, an acknowledgment that they do not, in fact, know what I'm going through—without an implicit ask for details, without a lingering offer that put the ball back in my court. No expectation. The ones that reassured me the most were those that came with some semblance of clarity: "I miss him too." "I'm bringing you bread." "This is all so fucked up." 

— Lovey Cooper, Durham, North Carolina

Sometimes silence is better, and honestly I'd prefer that. I don't want to think about *that* past. My fiancé's dad passed away last year, and that was an awful experience. I swear, if at our wedding someone brings up not having a memorial table or anything for either dad (my fiancé is fine with not having anything because he knows they're both upsetting to me, he's found acceptance a bit easier), I *will* fight someone.

— Mary Anna Ball, Barboursville, West Virginia

When I lost a child, a friend came to sit with me. He said, "I don't have sense enough to know what to say, and so I'm going to sit here. You don't have to say anything either unless you want to." Twenty-five years later, his silence is the only consolation I remember in those first weeks.

Nicole Sarrocco

I've honestly been trying not to react to specific language. The worst response is silence, and I try really hard not to judge people for at least attempting to say something, even if it does make me wince.

— erika owens, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When I experienced the loss of my grandmother recently, a friend said to me: "I hope that in this time you can find some moments for rest." That really spoke to me, because immediately after and in the days and weeks following, it seemed like there was so much to do. Death is characterized by stillness, but we don't talk about all of the tasks that have to be completed (at least in the U.S.) afterward. I also appreciated that the same friend and others said that my grandmother's obituary was beautiful. I wrote it, and it was comforting to know that this glimpse of her life was resonating with people. It was also a sign that people were invested enough to sit with me in my grief by reading the obituary.

I've now adopted the same practices. I also sometimes say something like, "Holding space for you in this time." To me this is a version of offering help that doesn't seem so obligatory; I know that it can feel pressured to receive extensions of vague help, e.g.: "Let me know if you need anything." With the version I use, I intend to offer comfort in the form of seeing the person and being with them in their grief. I hope that people who hear this feel my empathy more than they could with a sympathetic response like "I'm sorry for your loss" alone.

— Alyce Palko, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


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On religious clichés:

"God will never put more on you than you can bear." As a woman that subscribes to the teachings of Jesus Christ, this is NOT helpful. It's invalidating. 

— Alisha, Birmingham, Alabama

I adore the Jewish consolation "May their memory be a blessing," even if I don't use it myself. It speaks to the sadness of loss but also the joy of experiences shared. I grew up in a large, talkative Catholic family so funerals are all about offering stories of the people we've lost, and helping them live on a bit through people's remembrances. I find something similar in Terry Pratchett's line, too, that no one is truly gone so long as one person remembers their name. (But), any variation on "This is all part of God's plan" makes me want to spit nails. It's what people say when they are desperately trying to downplay grief, and it's especially infuriating when they do it to someone at the center of the storm (widows, parents who've lost children young).

— Olivia Waite, Seattle, Washington

"Thoughts and prayers." Most of the time those thoughts are fleeting and those prayers are never uttered. It's a surface "good thing" but in reality, it doesn't mean much, and actually doesn't happen. 

J Renee, Durham, North Carolina 

Anything beginning with just "sorry" is bad. At least put "I'm" in there, my lord. It sounds sanitized and careless otherwise. "May his/her memory be a blessing" is too trite, too, and what does that even mean? Say something meaningful and honest is my rule of thumb. 

— Janelle O'Dea, St. Louis, Missouri

I do not find phrases such as, "They are in a better place," or "They're much happier now," to be helpful. Regardless of one's religious or spiritual beliefs about an afterlife, the grieving person is the one in front of you who needs your support. The one feeling the loss is looking for something to ease their pain, a pain that is visceral and deep.

Corwin Malcolm Davis, Atlanta, Georgia

I sincerely hate hearing that someone is "in a better place." They were fine where they were. Some folks have also said that suffering is beautiful and it's what my mother wanted as a Catholic, because they believe suffering brings them closer to God. That's indescribably offensive. 

— Lindsay Renner-Wood, Frostburg, Maryland

I've always thought, especially since losing my mom, that the Jewish condolence, "May their memory be a blessing" was much more meaningful than "Sorry for your loss." I'm not Jewish though, and I know it has specific meaning I might not fully grasp, so I've also found less specific but similar things to be resonant, like, "I hope your memories of them are a comfort to you right now."

— Lindsay Lee Wallace, New York, New York


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On grief and time:

Stray comments can be extremely emotional when it comes to grief. My mom asked me once if I thought we'd see my deceased sister again in heaven someday, and I just offhandedly was like "no, of course not," and my mom was VERY hurt. It was years after my sister died, it wasn't like a "grief and mourning" conversation, and I was not thinking of the implications of my reply. This also probably falls under the mourning isn't just in the first days/months/year category too. 

erika owens, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

One of my go-to phrases is: "I'm sending you strength and courage for the coming days." Loss is difficult, and there's no reason to ignore that or to downplay it with platitudes. Grief—particularly in its onset—has to be met by so many with strength and courage for that which is unexpected. I also find helpful those phrases that express some sense of solidarity or collectivity. A simple "How can I best support you?" allows for the one grieving to name their needs, rather than to have external needs thrust upon them. In a period where so much is uncontrollable, this offers a space of agency.

— Corwin Malcolm Davis, Atlanta, Georgia 

It's really helpful when someone can understand that the grieving changes, but it may never completely go away. That it helps to talk about it instead of ignore it or use toxic positivity. 

Mandy Gallaway Lacey, Westerly, Rhode Island

A few weeks after my dad died, a friend said something like, "I hope you know that however you're grieving right now—even if you feel like it's too little, or too much—is exactly right." I had in fact been feeling simultaneously like I was grieving too little and too much, and her words really helped. I've repeated it to countless friends in the midst of their own grief and it always seems like it is exactly what they need to hear. One of the things I like about that phrase is that it works in all different time periods. It makes just as much sense, and is just as true, in the first days after a loss, or years later on an anniversary.

Eileen Webb, Buxton, Maine

I don't like "it gets better" or making someone feel like there is a timeline on grief. I also don't like admonishing people for grieving *things* and not just people. It's okay to feel sad and to mourn the loss of something that meant a lot to you. I'm never a fan of policing people's emotions and how they process things

 — Tiffany Graves, Charlotte, North Carolina


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On words that soothe:

Since losing my mother last year, I've tried telling folks that I'm here for them, whatever they may need. I emphasize that if that means being left alone to process, I'm fine with that too. Some folks like to be surrounded, and some prefer to quietly process alone, and there's no wrong approach. Grief is often as unique as the life lost. I also remember being told that grieving isn't a linear process, and it ebbs and flows like a tide. That was incredibly helpful on days where I felt like I might drown in the waves: It helped me keep my head above water. 

— Lindsay Renner-Wood, Frostburg, Maryland

"I hope that you are surrounded by love and the space and grace you need to grieve continuously. Be gentle, patient, and compassionate with yourself. It's ok to be sad, angry, lonely, and the full range of emotions. Your loved ones deserve all of the grief you feel, through your tears you honor them, with your life you continue their memory and legacy."

It's always helpful to be reminded that people important to us deserve the emotions their loss evokes. It's helpful to remember that grief is a process and to take the time to be gentle and compassionate understanding the ebbs and flows of the process continue long after others forget.

— J Renee, Durham, North Carolina 

I tweeted recently about overhearing someone say this to a person who was grieving: "I'm not going to say it gets easier, because it doesn't. But it gets softer. It takes time, but it gets softer." I think that is one of the most compassionate ways to empathize with someone who has suffered a loss. Losses can take many forms—a person, a pet, a treasured possession, a job, an opportunity—and I believe we have to allow space to grieve them, whatever the form, however long it takes. 

— Tiffany Graves, Charlotte, North Carolina

"I am holding you in your grief, surrounding you with love. If you want accompaniment, be it in silence or walking or just weeping, I am here."

Leaf Seligman, Hancock, New Hampshire, by way of Tennessee 

Less of a condolence, but a balm nonetheless—what has helped me in my trials likening grief is an exercise my friend did with me once. When I said I knew I wasn't in a good headspace, but I did not have the words for it yet, they asked me: "If you had to describe how you feel as a weather phenomenon, what would it be?" As a writer and a visuals person, employing symbolism in that manner opened *worlds* for me. Because sometimes "sad" or "aggrieved" doesn't cut it, but "under the current of a hurricane, at the farthest point from the eye" does. And I'm forever thankful to them for helping me form the language for that.

 — Jaiden Butler, Durham, North Carolina

Writing "Life and Death in Strawberry Land" kind of reoriented me. There are a thousand little things I would change about it, but that is because I am obsessive when it comes to The Work, my work. All in all, though, I am proud of it. I am most proud that people connected with it. That they looked at it and thought, yes, this is my kind of grief. Yes.

— Autumn Fourkiller, Stilwell, Oklahoma, on penning the inaugural essay for Scalawag's grief & other loves series:


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