Hello! I’m sorry for the recent silence (not unusual, I admit) but I’ve been taking a few days off to process the shock of my lovely, wise and apparently not immortal dad passing away unexpectedly last month.

The reason I mention this is partly by way of apology – with Unexpected Lessons in Love still very much out there in the shops, I should have been all over the socials, celebrating it – but also because I wanted to write something (short, don’t worry) about the awful dilemma of what on earth you say to a friend who’s just lost someone they love. It’s not something anyone teaches us anymore. At least the Victorians – for whom Death in its many forms was prime time entertainment and a whole year’s wardrobe – had a handy social code for such occasions. Now, even when we desperately want to offer  sympathy we often freeze, for fear of making it worse.

So. What are you meant to say? It seems trite to say anything at all. What good can words do? They can’t bring the lost human being back; they can’t take away the pain of a broken heart. And you didn’t even meet the deceased: doesn’t that make it seem even more insincere? Hmm. Now you think about it, you’re not sure whether the friend even got on that well with their father/sister/cousin. Ngggh, this is so awkward. Maybe you’ll just give them a hug when you next see them. Yeah. They’re probably really busy anyway, they don’t want you poking your nose in.

All of the above is true. No one wants to put their foot in it, especially not when your friend’s already deep into their emotional overdraft. But, as someone in the thick of this, I can tell you that – for this bereaved person, anyway – getting over the temporary awkwardness means so much. The clue is in that cliche: ‘Sorry for your loss’. If you focus on your sympathy for your friend’s grief, you can’t go far wrong. I was surprised, when grief ambushed me, how much genuine comfort there was in knowing friends were thinking of us, and of the painful, shocking emotions rushing from every angle. Their thoughtful cards and emails were like walls out there in the darkness, solid and strong, just outside my peripheral vision, while the storm raged on inside. People who’d stopped for a few moments to hold me and my family in their hearts, sharing this inescapable human experience.

It’s not about the words – words are just containers for the feelings you’re trying to share – so don’t worry about saying something poetic or brilliantly original. Don’t try to ‘fix’ it; mention of ‘better places’ or heaven isn’t always welcomed, and even ‘at least they’re no longer in pain’ is a risky tactic. Grief isn’t a simple emotion: mine was a toxic cocktail of shock, sorrow, guilt, anger, relief. You can’t hope to find an appropriate quote to deal with that. Just stretch out a hand and acknowledge your friend’s pain. ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this.’ ‘I don’t know what to say, but my heart aches for you.’ If you knew the deceased, then a few kind words about a nice memory you have of them can be really comforting, especially in the days after the funeral when the family have time to sit down and read cards. I knew my dad was a real gentleman; I’m proud that so many other people thought so too, and took a moment to tell me.

If you’re more of a practical person, and can offer something you know is helpful – pets looked after while the friend’s dealing with the funeral director, a casserole dropped off so they don’t have to think about shopping, children collected from school – then make the offer, or just turn up and do it. ‘If there’s anything I can do…’ puts the onus on the griefstruck to think of something. But if you can drive through the worst floods in living memory to drop their dogs off at the kennels, you might just be saving them from losing it entirely. (Thanks, Bill and Hannah.) Obviously don’t march in and start interfering, but the annoying thing about death is that life  goes on regardless while you’re dealing with it, and if you have dogs, they need walking just when you’ve run out of energy.

This is how I felt. Everyone’s different – some might need to carry on as normal, others might be only just holding it together. Play it by ear. Give bereaved friends space to tell you how they feel; cut them plenty of slack over the weeks to come, as grief can strike at unexpected times and make you say weird things. (I’m so sorry, every shop assistant I informed of my dad’s death over the last few weeks.) But if you’re struggling to find the right thing to say and you’re wavering on the side of  ‘urgh, maybe I won’t say anything’, I can only tell you this from experience: even a sympathy card with your name and a kiss in it feels like a hug. Just be there. Losing someone you love jolts your whole world off its axis; knowing friends are still where you left them means more than words.