There are a lot of myths about grief and a lot of misunderstanding about what grievers need during the early periods of grief. Naturally, those who don't have a recent loss are confused about what to say to someone in the depths of grief. So, what do you say? What do grievers really need? What comfort can friends and family provide that communicates love and care for the griever?
The Grief Recovery Institute has done a great job of explaining what things unintentionally hurt grievers. Appeals to intellect are not what the person needs. In grief, the person is swimming in emotions, many times deeply conflicting. Occasionally they have to "surface" and operate in the intellectual world for short periods of time to deal with funeral details or financial things, but this is a deeply emotional time for the griever.
In the TV cop shows we hear them say "I'm sorry for your loss." Having lost my son almost four years ago, I learned to hate this statement. It communicated a lack of concern to me, a lack of forethought for what I needed. I didn't judge the person that said it. Frankly, it was said by so many people, I cannot tell you exactly who said it. I was in a fog. This statement hurt.
Things like, "they're in a better place" or "they are watching from heaven" all seemed quite bizarre to me. How did they know? These statements while intellectually interesting were also not helpful.
I'm watching the OJ Simpson miniseries on my DVR. I'm a little behind. Last night there was a scene where Marcia Clark is talking to Ron Goldman's father and she said, "I know how you feel." As the words poured from her mouth, I was already objecting. Mr. Goldman handled it the way most grievers would with pure anger and doubt. It was quite a good example of what not to say to a griever.
So, what do you say? Well, my first thought is, if you know the person that you are talking to is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Reach out your arms, hold them, cry with them. It is emotional, so be emotional (that includes men also). Nothing made me feel better than the love exhibited through those lovely hugs, caring tear filled eyes, knowing looks, and no words.
Since being certified with GRI, I also learned that words that appeal to the emotions are best. One such statement is "I have no idea what you are feeling." This statement is almost always followed by a description of the griever about how they are feeling. It is also very true. Every relationship is uniquely unique. My relationship with my mother is different than that of my brother, therefore our reactions to that loss will be different. So when you say this, you are telling the truth, explaining your feelings, and giving an opening to the person to talk, cry, hug, etc. etc. etc.
"I don't know what to say," can also be a nice start to a conversation. I would always hug the person, because frankly, it is another truth. It is not a contrived response.
In our family, when we wanted to sum up the volume of emotions in the whole situation, we said, "This sucks!" which was code for "I feel so bad I can't even express it, and I need some hugs right now!" For us, this worked, albeit a little crude.
One final idea is instead of saying something, do something. Grievers are not good at eating, sleeping, cooking, shopping, functioning, etc. You might simply ask if you can mow the lawn for them on Tuesday (be specific on the day) or come to the house and clean the bathrooms the day after the funeral (usually the family is heading out and the griever is left with laundry and a bit of a mess). Tell them that you plan to go to the grocery store today or tomorrow and can pick up what they need or invite them to go with you. By all of this, I do not mean that you should plant a tree or do something symbolic. Do something of service for the person.
All in all, grief is emotional, so communications need to appeal to emotion. Not your emotions necessarily, but theirs. They need to be heard without judgment or criticism. There are no quick fixes for grief, so don't try to fix them. Be emotional, be genuine, be loving. Hugs speak volumes.