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What to say to someone who lost a loved one

Posted 2:09 p.m. Thursday, June 16, 2022

When people need support it is difficult to know what to say. UW-La Crosse Associate Professor Dena Huisman advises people to focus their support communication on the specific individual instead of resorting to commonly used condolence messages.

Communicating social support isn’t about generalities, it is about personalities

The following information is based on an April 2022 TEDxUWLaCrosse presentation from UW-La Crosse Associate Professor of Communication Studies Dena Huisman 

Dena Huisman heard all of the cliché condolence messages after her mother's sudden death at age 61. Huisman was 35 years old and remembers standing in line at the funeral. Phrases like “Everything happens for a reason,” “She is in a better place” and “Where she is she wouldn’t come back — even if she could” became the go-to messages nearly every friend and family member used as they greeted her.  

While well intentioned, eventually these blanket phrases for the grieving began to set Huisman’s jaw in a clench. She recalls lashing out at one of her mother’s friends. 

“I didn’t want to hear about better plans and better places,” explained Huisman in a May 2022 TEDxUWLaCrosse presentation. “So, by the 500th time I heard it, I lost it. My mom’s friend very kindly said, ‘Just trust that God has a plan.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you know what — Then God’s plan really sucks!’” 

Since the encounter at the funeral, Huisman has spent more than nine years researching grief and social support. She advises people to skip the blanket statements and, instead, cater their support communication to the individual person and the specific relationship. 

Huisman shares what she has learned through lived experiences and research to help others create social support that demonstrates true care. Watch her full TEDxUWLaCrosse presentation.  

How to help someone who is grieving a death

Huisman advises people to avoid generalized condolence messages. Instead, they should focus their support communication on the individual.  

“We all have our own values and beliefs and ways of being in the world, but when it comes to social support, we forget that,” explains Huisman. “We tend to offer support not to the individual, but for the situation that the person is in or for the broader category of who a person is.” 

But there is hope. The human brain has what psychologists call a schema system that allows us to neatly store information about every close relationship we have. This filling cabinet is the greatest resource in these moments of not knowing what to say to someone who is grieving. Go to the file drawer of the specific friend or family member and open it, says Huisman. Looking inside, you’ll find folders containing all the information you’ve learned about this person over many years. Use the folders — the artifacts from your relationship — for clues about the types of messages your loved one would need to hear.

Huisman suggests starting out by asking yourself some questions. 

  • Which friend? 
  • What do I know about this friend? 
  • How do they organize their world?  
  • What is their belief system?   
  • Have they experienced anything like this before?  

There is no category of what to say for the specific type of relationship –no category of what to say to a dad, or a brother or a best friend. This would greatly reduce the complexity of the relationships we have. Instead, communicating support to individuals takes work. It takes time to understand the person, the relationship and what they need.  

How can I know what to say in the moment? 

You may be thinking: Well, this sounds fine, but it is way too complex for me to come up with something to say quickly in the moment. Remember, your brain moves quickly. It starts sorting through that filing cabinet the moment it knows it needs to go into action. And you don’t have to go right out of the gate with a support message. Consider asking your loved one more questions: 

  • What led to this happening? 
  • How are you feeling about what happened? 
  • How are other people helping you?  
  • Ask yourself: What do I need to know more about this situation to deliver a message that will ultimately resonate for us right now? 

What is social support?

Social support is verbal and non-verbal communication that we use to help people in our lives who are going through some sort of trouble. Those troubles could be little things like a bad day at work or a fender bender or the huge things like a serious illness diagnosis (such as COVID), divorce or death of someone close to them. 

Social support is not a moment. It is a conversation, says Huisman. 

Why don’t we typically get the social support we need? 

Research tells us that most people believe themselves to have a really broad network of people who they could call on at any moment who could provide social support to them. But research also tells us that the enacted support that people actually receive is not seen as very helpful. Most people will say it is only moderately helpful or harmful. People want emotional validation, but instead they get advice that makes them feel dumb or small, says Huisman.  

The gap is where the opportunity lies. Huisman offers a renewed toolkit to help support friends and family in need.  

About her book 

Huisman recently completed a book, “Social Power and Communicating Social Support: How Stigma and Marginalization Impact Our Ability to Help” with a proposed publication date in late 2022.  

The book focuses on how we communicate within larger cultural systems, norms, and beliefs that can complicate social support. Stigma and marginalization are problems that we talk about in the media, but we often neglect how those problems are also features of our daily communication. The book highlights how social stigma and identity marginalization must be factored into our communication of support for issues around health, race, gender & sexuality, as well as grief. 

The book will be available at or   

About Dena Huisman 

Dena Huisman is an associate professor of Communication Studies at UW-La Crosse where she studies grief and social support. Classes include “Communicating Effectively” and “Communicating Social Support.”