Supporting a friend in grief // Supporting a friend in grief - Sam Edwards|Getty Images(Sam Edwards|Getty Images)

Let's say something heartbreaking has befallen your friend. If you're like a lot of well-meaning women, you probably plan to ply her with ice cream and pitch-perfect nuggets of wisdom. But unfortunately, finding anything to say--and especially the right things--is no easy task.

"We're so phobic about aging and dying," says Joe Nowinski, supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center and co-author of Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss. "It creates anxiety and discomfort." But no matter how uncomfortable death makes you, saying nothing is off the table. And so are a few other things. So what should you say? We polled real women about what they liked--and didn't like--in the wake of their own losses. Here, what to say instead of the stuff you find in greeting cards--so your friend really hears you.

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1. Don't say... "I know how you feel."

The fact is, you probably don't have a clue. Even if you've lost someone of your own, grief varies enormously from person to person, and there's no way for you to know how your friend is being affected by the loss no matter how close you are.

Instead try... "I can't imagine what you're going through."

Sometimes when people grieve, they don't even know how they feel, so chances are good that you don't either. This acknowledges that you can be present and supportive for the person no matter what she feels, says Nancy Berns, associate professor of sociology at Drake University and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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2. Don't say... "He was such a trooper. He fought the good fight."

It makes sense that you would want to highlight how brave someone was in the face of illness, but statements like this imply that when someone dies, it's because they didn't fight hard enough, Nowinski says.

Instead try... talking about how he lived or how he coped

Nowinski suggests avoiding the "fight" or "battle" metaphor altogether. Instead, talk about how they "lived" or "coped" with the disease.

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3. Don't say... "He's in a better place."

Forgetting for a moment that your friend might not even believe in heaven, this kind of language doesn't address her feelings of loss, says Dee L. Shepherd-Look, a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge.

Instead try... "I'm so sorry for your loss."

Shepherd-Look suggests you avoid language that tries to make the person feel better and instead acknowledge her loss or celebrate the deceased's life with words like, "I hope you'll be comforted by the memories."

4. Don't say... "You're so strong."

When people suffer a loss, they sometimes regress to a child-like state, feeling helpless and in need. This is perfectly natural! But if you focus on how "strong" your friend is being, it might make it difficult for her to express those difficult feelings, says Berns.

Instead try... "You don't have to be brave right now."

Giving your friend permission to feel sad, scared, and a little needy is the best thing you can offer her right now. Just hearing those words might be enough for her to feel she doesn't have to shoulder the loss on her own or put on a brave face.

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5. Don't say... "She lived a full life."

This one's an accidental conversation stopper. Even if your friend lost her 109-year-old grandmother, the pain of loss can cut deep, Berns says--and she needs that validated by you no matter how long a life her loved one lived.

Instead try... "What did you love most about her?"

Spend less time talking and more time listening, says J. Shep Jeffreys, a grief therapist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Ask whether they would like to talk about the deceased, saying the name of the person who died, opening doors for the person to talk if they're interested in doing so.

6. Don't say... "Call me if you need anything."

Nice thought, but asking for help can be hard--especially for a person who's grieving. Chances are good that if you say this, your friend will not, in fact, call you. But if your friend does ask for help, thank her for leaning on you, then do your best to provide it.

Instead try... "I'll be by at noon to take you to lunch."

Jeffreys suggests being specific and taking control of the situation. Drop off dinner, offer to babysit, and call to check in whether you think she wants to hear from you or not. She does.

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7. Don't say... "How's your family holding up?"

This is a perfectly fine follow-up question, but by asking about someone else in her life first, you "disallow that person's grief and makes it seem unimportant," says Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of gerontology at the graduate school of the College of New Rochelle. This implies that some people's grief is more important than others. (Doka adds that this is especially common in the event of a miscarriage or the loss of a sibling--which is "the longest lasting relationship we have in our life," he says.)

Instead try... "How are you feeling?"

She's your friend and her feelings should be the most important thing you talk about.

8. Don't say, "I can relate. Did I tell you about my flooded basement?"

Sounds obvious, but discomfort around death--or just plain insensitivity--can cause people to say the darndest things.

Instead try... almost anything else. Just not the things on this list.

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