What NOT to Say to a Grieving Person
Have you ever thought this before you call a friend who has just lost someone to death?
I’m pretty sure most of us have.
Especially if you haven’t experienced grief yet, it can be awkward and nerve-wracking trying to say the “right thing” and steer clear of something that will make the person feel worse. However, many times the very things we think will comfort the person only end up hurting them.
Let’s look at some ways you can help your friend start the slow bounce back from grief.
A few ground rules
First, some ground rules about being with people who are grieving:
1. Always address the loss. Although a common (but misguided) approach is to avoid painful issues to spare the person’s feelings, not saying anything about the death can lead the griever to believe that her loss is not important.
2. Allow feelings of all kinds to enter the conversation. A grieving person’s emotions may vary widely during the course of a conversation. This is normal and you can help by creating a safe place for him to experience his feelings.
3. Remember that each person’s path of grief has its own length and curves in it. Honor the person’s unique journey. It may be longer or shorter than you think it should be, but remember, it’s not your path, it’s hers.
Show yourself some compassion
We all have good intentions when we want to help a friend who is hurting. However, if you happen to say something that ends up being “wrong” for them, give yourself a break. You are doing the best you can and your friend will understand this.
So be kind to yourself.
Good intentions gone awry
Let’s look at some things that people often say to a grieving person with intentions that are good but have gone awry. I’ll follow them up with an example that might work better.
Awry: “I’m sure it’s what God intended.”
This has the possibility of creating anger toward God or a higher power in the grieving person. Also, it’s very important to know the person’s belief system before mentioning anything about God or a higher power. Don’t assume the person has the same faith or belief that you do.
Better: “I’m so sorry.”
Simple, heartfelt, and true.
Awry: “He’s in a better place” or “Just be happy he isn’t in pain anymore.”
The place she wants him to be is with her, no matter how much pain he was in or how difficult the care-giving was.
Better: “You must miss him terribly.”
Awry: “I know exactly how you feel.”
This is very tempting to say, but be careful: Even if you have experienced a loss, each person has their own unique path to travel so you can’t know exactly how he feels. Besides, you didn’t lose this particular loved one, he did.
Better: “I can’t imagine how you feel.”
Awry: “You’ll feel better soon.”
Ouch! It’s so hard to watch a friend or family member grieve… we often want her to feel better so we’ll feel better! Remember, she may be thinking she’ll never feel better so presuming how she is going to feel in the future may be very frustrating for her.
Better: “I’ll be here for you as long as you need me.”
Awry: “Don’t you think you should be over it by now?”
I don’t usually classify something as completely wrong, but this question is completely wrong. Most grieving people feel like they are never going to “get over it,” and it’s not very accurate to say that losing a loved one can be “gotten over.” The pain will likely diminish and the memories become sweet again rather than sad, but the loss will always be in the person’s life in some way.
Better: “I know this is still really painful for you.”
Awry: “You shouldn’t be sad in front of the children.”
Children are often more upset by what they don’t know than what they do know, so sometimes it’s appropriate to model normal grief for the children.
Better: “How are the kids taking this?”
Awry: “She wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.”
This may engender guilt in the grieving person. Losing someone is sad, even if the loved one who is now gone did not want it to be that way.
Better: “I can see how sad you are and how much you miss her.”
Awry: “Let me know if I can do anything to help.”
In many instances, the grieving person either doesn’t know what help she needs or it’s too hard to ask for help. Making specific suggestions and then asking her if it would be okay is much more concrete and useful. And respect her right to say that she doesn’t want any help right now.
Better: “I think it’s garbage day. Is it okay if I take your garbage out for you?” or “I know it takes a lot of energy to do the kids’ laundry – how about if I throw some of these clothes in the washer for you?”
Death and grief are taboo subjects in our society, so we often don’t know what to say or how to act around people who are grieving. I hope that these ideas on what to say and not to say will allow you to help others bounce back through their grief.
This post was derived from an article I wrote called, But I Don’t Know What to Say . . . For more on helping a grieving person, please take a look at the complete article.
What are other things you’ve heard that may be good intentions gone awry? Do you have an idea for something better to say?
Emel, B. (2012). What NOT to Say to a Grieving Person. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bounce-back/2012/08/what-not-to-say-to-a-grieving-person/