What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving
By Litsa Williams
So often we find ourselves stressing out about saying the right thing to a friend or family member who has experienced the death of a loved one. We don’t want to make the griever sad, we really don’t want to make them angry, and we do so desperately want to make things better. But alas, we aren’t all walking Hallmark cards and we don’t always know the exact right words to say. Pressures off, though, because grief isn’t something you can fix simply by turning an eloquent phrase. In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better.
The good news is that grief isn’t something you can fix by turning an eloquent phrase. In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better. So you can stop worrying about taking away your loved one’s pain because it isn’t going to happen. Instead, focus on keeping it simple and saying it with compassion – hopefully, if you do this, your loved one will see that you care.
Okay so, here’s the bad news. I would guess most people who’ve experienced a loss can come up with at least 1 or 2 examples of something someone has said that d, in fact, make them feel alienated, misunderstood, sad or angry. I’m sorry to say well intentioned people say the wrong thing all the time and grieving people are not always in the best place to see the good intention behind the comment. So obviously the potential to say the ‘wrong thing’ does exist.
For this reason, we present to you a brief list of ‘what not to say’. Obviously this list is not all-inclusive, everyone is different and our sensitivities are not all the same. Your friend may get upset if you tell them the sky is blue. Or you may have a family member whose feathers are never ruffled. You know the individual, so it’s up to you to be the judge.
These are merely suggestions based on personal experiences and years of working with grieving individuals who have shared the statements that they find most ‘cringe-worthy’.
“I know how you feel”
A griever thinks: No you don’t
I know I know…you also lost a husband/daughter/son/grandmother/best friend/dog/cat/canary/whatever…it doesn’t matter. You do not know how your friend feels, and even if you did, it is not what they need to hear. No two people are the same. No two losses are the same. It is useless comparing grief. I get it, you just want them to feel like you relate. But at this moment they cannot imagine anyone knows how they feel.
“He/she is in a better place now”
A griever thinks: Who cares!? I want him/her to be here.
Though many people find comfort in the belief their loved one is in a better place, immediately following a loss is not always the right time to say it. After losing my dad I heard this all the time and I remember thinking, he is supposed to be here—there is no better place.
“It will get easier”
A griever thinks: That seems impossible or I don’t want to forget the person I love.
Remember, this list is not about things that aren’t true. It is about things that aren’t helpful to say. Realistically, things probably will get easier. But when someone is in the unimaginably deep, dark hole of grief, they just want you to acknowledge the pain. What’s worse is that for many people this initial pain is deeply connected to the person who died and starting to heal will feel like they are forgetting or ‘moving on’.
“At least you have other children” or “you can always have more children”
A griever thinks: I don’t want another child, I know I still have my other children, but I lost THIS child.
Sometimes life just sucks. Out of desperation to find a silver lining we end up grasping onto whatever we can think of, but often times it’s just better to say nothing. Comments like these take away from the importance of the child and the loss. Not only this, it may make the parent feel guilty about devaluing their other children.
“You can always remarry”
A griever thinks: I just lost the person I planned to spend the rest of my life with. I am still in love. I’m not interested in anyone else.
Again, projecting into the future is useless. When someone is acutely grieving they may be experiencing symptoms very similar to depression, and depressed people often have a hard time imagining a future where things are better. They may date again in the future, but I promise you they can’t even consider this right now so there’s no point in talking about it.
“At least she/he lived a long life”
A griever thinks: Is that supposed to make me miss him/her less?
Again, this list isn’t about things that are not true, it is about things that aren’t helpful to say. Living a good, long life does not diminish the pain of the loss. Regardless of the deceased’s age, the hurt and pain may be unbearable. Share memories, reminisce about their life, but do not imply that it should make this loss easier.
“It was God’s will”, “God has a plan”, or “Everything happens for a reason”
A griever thinks: Why is this God’s plan? Why would God make us suffer? I don’t care if its God’s plan, it sucks.
Though many take comfort in a greater plan, a death can cause many people to question God, their understanding of God’s omni-benevolence, and their faith in general. This can be the case even for people who have extremely deep faith. For those who don’t, it can feel distant and alienating. So, better safe than sorry – steer clear.
“God never gives us more than we can handle”
A griever thinks: Oh yeah? How do you know? Oh yeah? Easy for you to say. Oh yeah? My [son couldn’t handle his addiction][daughter couldn’t handle her depression][husband couldn’t handle his cancer].
See comments above re: “God’s will” statement.
“Don’t cry” or “You need to be strong now”
A griever thinks: I can’t stop. I want to cry. I need to cry. I can’t be strong. You think I am a bad mother/father/son/daughter.
We all grieve in our own way – some people will cry. A lot. Some people won’t. There is no right or wrong way, and however someone is grieving they should feel supported to cry as much as they want to, and not feel they are being judged for it. Many will already be feeling a lot of anxiety about handling this the ‘right’ way with the children. You do not need to exacerbate it with the pressure of containing their emotions.
Another important note is that crying in front of children is not a bad thing. Children will take their cues from adults regarding when and how they can grieve the loss. Hiding emotions can be confusing for children and may make them feel like they have to do the same.
“It could be worse. I know this person who . . .”
A griever thinks: I don’t care! I am in the worst pain imaginable, why are you talking to me about someone else?
This is not a time for comparisons. Each person’s grief is relative and excruciatingly painful. Knowing someone has it ‘worse’ does not change the severity of the pain and it doesn’t make someone feel this loss any less.
“You can always get another dog/cat”
A griever thinks: My cat is not disposable or replaceable.
Do not underestimate pet loss. They are not replaceable and getting another dog/cat will not change the pain of this loss. They may get another animal, they may not. Either way, wait for them to decide.
I bet some of you are thinking that this list is wrong because you’ve actually heard your grieving friend or family member say some of the things on this list. It’s true! Many grievers do often say things like “he is in a better place now” or “ at least she lived a long life.” Sometimes it’s hard to know how someone will make sense of a loss or where they will find comfort, take your cues from them.
And if you read through the list and thought, “uh oh, I’ve said comment 2, 6, and 10 don’t beat yourself up about it. The good news is that many times grievers won’t remember a darn thing you said to them. It’s hard to support someone who is going through a tough time and like we said before, if you are caring and compassionate, this should shine through.
For those of you who are feeling frustrated because you just really want to make things better, here’s what you can do: think of simple ways you can help make your loved ones life easier. Watch their kids, organize people to collect funds for burial costs, pre-pay and have a couple of pizzas sent over to their house. I guarantee they are far more likely to remember gestures like these than the words you used at the viewing.
Looking for some ideas of other things you can do and how to be a supportive friend in the weeks to come? Click here.
Better yet, pick up our ebook on how to support a grieving friend (without sticking your foot in your mouth!). Don’t worry, it is cheap and jam packed with helpful info (no angels, rainbows, inspirational quotes, or fluff — just helpful tips). You can find it here.
By Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C Eleanor is a Program Director and Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Eleanor lives in Maryland and received a Master's in Social Work.
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