What Not to Say to a Griever: Illustrated

People mean well (usually), but sometimes well wishers choose the worst possible things to say after a death.  So many of the commonly used platitudes aimed at providing comfort actually have the opposite effect by minimizing a person’s grief. Please allow me to literally illustrate my point for all you non-believers.

1.  “Don’t cry” or ” You have to be strong now”.

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2.  “God never gives us more than we can handle.

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3.  She’s in a better place now.

better place1better place 2

4.  “At least he lived a long life.”

long life 1long life 2

5.  “It was God’s will.” or “God has a plan.”

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It’s no wonder grievers sometimes learn to brace themselves whenever they see a sympathetic head-tilt approaching.  For those hoping to support a grieving friend or family member, we have a ton of advice on offering thoughtful support here. We’ve also create an eGuide for supporting a griever which you can find in the What’s Your Grief Store.

Leave a comment and let us know what you would add to this list.  Also, don’t forget to subscribe.

March 28, 2017

35 responses on "What Not to Say to a Griever: Illustrated"

  1. Oh this is a good post and the comments are all too familiar! The worst ones for me were the “I remember when my -second cousin twice removed died, I know how you feel.” Not sure how that compares to my mothers loss, but thanks, no thanks. Or “She was so young.” Yes thanks, I’m aware. Or the, “At least she’s not in pain anymore.” Well I can guarantee she’d rather be alive and in pain than dead you idiot! The very worst was from my otherwise sweet and kind uncle who had a temporary case of foot in mouth disease, “Good thing you don’t live close, you’re already used to not seeing her that often!” What?!
    Its awkward and people are mostly terrified and clueless, I wish they would choose not to say anything!

  2. I’ve heard them all. Why do people think they’re helping in any way by saying some of the things they say?
    What I would want, and what I do is this…a big hug and say “I’m so sorry” or, along with a big hug say, “I have no words”.

  3. My fiancé died 16 months ago. We were widowed when we met, and only had 4 years together. During the last year 1/2, I’ve gotten a lot of the questions and statements listed above, and some unique ones. The worst thing said to me during this time is, “Well, you had your time with him, and now it’s over.” Very matter-of-factly. And this was always said as a way for the person to end the “So, how are you doing?” inquiry. You know, like I shouldn’t want to talk about him any more. Or, that our relationship didn’t count as a “real” one because he was 30 years my senior, and we hadn’t married before he died. It cuts like a salt covered knife, and they don’t get that they are being rude at all.

    I’ve also gotten the “So, are you looking/dating, yet?” Question. That one cuts like a knife, too. I am very supportive of fellow widows who wish to start dating again. But that is their choice. It doesn’t happen to be mine.

    The question I still don’t know how to answer is, “How are you?” I just can’t seem to find the words to answer that one truthfully.

    I have also spent time working PR for an actor who died of suicidal depression. The most insane and unfeeling comment I’ve seen from people around the world is, “I can’t believe he did that to me.” Really?! Would you take his death personally if he had cancer? It takes everything I have not to respond with, “WTF is that supposed to mean?!?!”

    Thank goodness I found a fantastic grief support group last year. Some of us still meet for dinner once a month. I can’t wait to share this article with them. Thank you so much for posting it.

    PS: the last drawing made me laugh and cry. What a fantastic response! I’m pretty sure I’ve shouted that to the universe more than once during this time.

  4. It’s been almost 12 years since my husband passed. I am angered by married women who tell me they would never date/remarry if they were widowed. How in the heck do they already know what they would do and why are they in effect trying to make me feel guilty for dating and yes I am getting married in July!

  5. The most unbelievable was:
    Me: “I don’t know whether you realize, but my son was murdered last year..”
    Answer: “Yes, we’ve all had our problems.”

  6. I got pregnant soon after my mom died and I felt like people jumped on the joy bandwagon and willfully ignored my grief. I absolutely despised hearing, it’s the circle of life, comments.

  7. how about “a parent should never have to bury their child”…Um, yes, my son crossed into the light before me…and yes, parents do sometimes have their child cross before them. How about I just stay away from people who say anything. I know my son is with his daddy in the light but don’t tell me how to feel about him finishing his work here before me as a bad thing. he was done. he is in joy now. i am not done, i am still waiting to finish my time here.

  8. The most devastating statement to me was from a representative from my church. She claimed to have been receiving messages from my loved one on the other side. They were completely generic messages, I did not ask for them and I was absolutely dumbfounded that anyone would assume it was okay to act as a medium. I thought I was going crazy and it completely alienated me from my church. After alerting the church board and minister, there was some apology but because this was a beloved (albeit demented) older member there was no decisive action taken. Now that I have completely broken all affiliation with the church I see that she has been reinstated as a “spiritual counselor.” This experience compounded my grief exponentially as I not only lost my dear friend – I lost my spiritual community as well.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Beth,

      That sounds like a horrible experience! I can’t imagine how I would feel if someone told me that. If you do believe her or don’t believe her, both realities seem distressing! It is really too bad that she is still counseling people. Yikes. Sorry you experienced this.

      Eleanor

  9. Mine include after the death of my sister:

    Do you have any other siblings?

    Losing a child or spouse is the hardest loss. (Oh so I guess I’m ok then, great!)

    What happened?! No, really what happened?!

    This too, shall pass.

    Time will heal all wounds. In time, time, time time…

    and my LEAST favorite of all…
    “It’s not fair.”
    My response, show me what is fair. I actually don’t believe “fair” exists. Nor does closure or perfection.

  10. Are you going to stay in that big house alone? You should sell it and move into something smaller.

  11. Here’s a real award winner that still has me reeling 7 months later. Five months after my adult son died from suicide, my “friend” thinks I should just pull myself up by my bootstraps, because “It’s not like he was a genius who helped alot of people in the world or anything”. Those were his exact words. I just lived thru the first anniversary of my sons death and am still shattered.

  12. Anything comment with god or heaven in it makes me want to scream !
    Oh and ” she’s still with you ” NO SHE’S NOT ! She’s DEAD !

  13. I especially dislike: “God must have needed another angel.” Bad theology; dismissive; insensitive….

  14. They didn’t say “God has a plan” to us, they said “It was God’s Will,” which IMO sounds even WORSE than He has a plan. And one day after it happened, or a minute after you tell them about it they’re already saying you have to “accept” it.
    I was so numb when it first happened I thought that WAS acceptance. When realization of what had happened and that our loved one was involved in it started setting in, it felt like someone had hit me in the side of the head with a sledge hammer. Which incidentally felt like the opposite of coping with it.
    I think telling my daughter was the hardest thing to do. It’s her dad and she was really close to him.

    Also, I don’t think people should tell my friends their son is “in a better place” when he died being shot by a gunman and he was 15 when it happened.
    I’d still like to know HOW a victim of murder is “in a better place.” Wouldn’t that seem to imply that murder isn’t that bad?

  15. “God had other plans for him” umm, I kinda think me and my two boys (5&11) needed him more at this point

  16. Add “It’s okay” and “You’ll get over it” to this list.

  17. “How old’s your mum? You never know, she might remarry!” My dad’s been gone for less than two weeks. This is not something I am thinking about right now.

  18. Oh, where to even begin?! I seem to be a magnet for the “worst of the worst.” Aside from some of these classics, here are some other doozies I’ve been handed from the toxic, ignorant, empathy-less, outright cruel and insensitive bozos in this world:
    – From a (quasi) SIL: “Don’t you think that’s rather SELF-INDULGENT of you to be grieving your mother for so long?” (a mere 2 months after her death) Then rationalized away by, “Well, after all, she was old.” (in her 80’s)
    – From the same SIL, and because my brother and I been estranged for several years, BUT had reconnected (due to our mother’s illness, then death) for a few months before HIS death, and regarding this brother’s sudden death right on the heels of my mother’s, “Do you actually CARE that your brother died?”
    – “Oh.” Not even an “I’m sorry” in tandem, and rapidly followed by a recounting of their own worries about someone THEY love. Zero acknowledgement, period.
    – “Are you STILL grieving?!” (only 3 months in)
    – A derisive snort, followed by, “NO one grieves that much over a CAT!” That last word cruelly SPAT out. (my cats were my very FURCHILDREN, not merely or “just” animals)
    – The dismissive “I’m sorry to hear that.” As if they’ll give a perfunctory nod to your pain, but it’s really all about them and how you’ve now ‘disrupted’ their own life with your “news.” They’re not that sorry about your specific grief so much as about having to bear the burden of HEARING about it from you.

    Even in discussing ANTICIPATORY or imagined grief or worries about how I’ll do if someone dies while I’m still alive myself, I’ve gotten these unbelievable responses:
    – In a vulnerable state, and considering I’m basically all alone without any friends or family where I live, in sharing how I’d feel or what I’d likely do if I lost my spouse, no offer from a distance friend to even BE there for me in any capacity, but simply a glib “oh, you’ll do whatever you have to. You’ll be fine.”
    – And when innocently asking how he’d react if I died first, even my spouse said he’d be “upset,” but still “wasn’t sure” he’d even CRY if I died before him!!!

    There have been far more, including the “you’re so strong” one, but I’ve come away so additionally damaged and hurt from all these insensitive responses, I’m now not just afraid of losing someone else I love, but of all the extra cruelty that is likely to follow my loss!!!

  19. I will never ever forget how many people said to me “You are so strong, I don’t know how you did it !! I could never manage it” What did they think – someone knocked on my door and said, “You’ve won a sick kid” and I said “Bring it on” Nobody gave me a choice !! I did what I had to do for my little girl, to keep her alive for 25 more months, No more and certianly NO less !! I wasn’t given a moment to decide if I wanted to do it, or even if I could do it !! You can only play the hand you are dealt !! I am sorry for your loss !!

  20. I actually got so fed up with people telling me how amazing I was after my daughter died. They’d just look straight into my eyes, get all teary and sincere, and say,’ but Henrietta you’re so amazing I don’t know how you do it’ And I’d think, every time…do what…shout at my kids still and sometimes feel too frozen to cry and have a row with my partner and not have time to even feel let alone grieve….
    I really hated that. And people still say it.

  21. My 33 year old son killed himself. You would believe the people that gave ask me why. I ask myself that everyday but it is not what I want to hear.

  22. My 7 yr old died 31 years ago and I still get this and yes it still hurts !! So VERY many people said “you’ll have more children” , but I wasn’t that lucky !! Besides it wouldn’t have changed how much I loved and still love her !! How could she be in a better place, she doesn’t have her mom !! And no I will never get over it, time does not heal all wounds and God may have wanted her, but I needed her !!

  23. Thanks for the post. I heard all of those when my dad died eleven years ago. He had a heart attack at 76 years old and everyone told me he had a good life which made me so angry. Finally, I figured out I would look them in the eye and say, “Yes, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.” People usually backed off right away.

    When my 34 year old niece, Rachel, died very suddenly in December from septic shock it was totally different. People didn’t know what to say because they were so stunned. So they either just hugged us, said how sorry they were or best of all shared wonderful stories about her.

    I am convinced that people say these ridiculous things to make themselves feel better because they are so uncomfortable facing the emotions tied to loss. I had a friend lose her boyfriend in a car accident and I just sat with her and listened to her talk and held her hand. She said later that the fact that I would just listen to her helped her process so much of what was going on or we would just sit quietly. It wasn’t my job to make her feel better but to be a caring friend.

  24. I hate when people tell me how strong I am, especially when they follow it up with ” I think I would just die if this happened to me.” But my least favourite is, ” you have to remember you have other children”. Like I forgot or they somehow take the place of the child I lost?

  25. I wrote “post” but I meant “most” apparently my dyslexia is in full force today… sorry.

  26. Oh can I relate to this one… I mean, most people repeat these less than helpful classics (or variations of them) because they really don’t know what else to say. I get that, I experienced it this past winter when my friend’s dad died, having been through a terrible loss myself in the past, with a less than helpful but well meaning support system, I knew to try to stay away from those… mostly what I found myself doing was listening and when she needed it to maintain her sanity, I tried to provide a distraction from what was going on. Sometimes being the listener, the hugger, and the shoulder to cry on is the best you CAN do.
    Grief is an intensely personal thing, to truly understand someone’s grief you need to intimately understand their relationship with the departed loved one in question, but it can’t really be done without being inside another person’s head.
    In a response to a previous comment I made on a different post, you offered condolences for the loss of my brother (thank you), which is accurate, Matt was my brother, but not by blood, we were best friends, probably closer than post little brothers are with their older sisters. I think part of the problem with these phrases is they are another person imposing their own inclinations onto another person’s feelings, on another person’s relationship with someone else. It’s just not accurate to try to put relationships of any kind into a solid box, outside of which nothing is understood or considered valid, 99.8% of the time they are just more complicated than such simplistic ideas can sustain.
    The worst “comfort” statements I ever heard we’re ones that just completely invalidate the person they’re said to. Similar to “Don’t Cry” I used to get “life is for the living” or my personal “favorite” (sarcasm), was a variation of your #4: “We kept him alive for seven years…” which, is longer than Matt was expected to live because of 2 major health problems one of which did eventually do him in. At the time though, my response when people at his visitation or at his parents’ house would say that was always “Yeah but…he was just a little boy…I’m 9 and still have my whole life ahead of me… He got 7 but he should’ve had 80!”
    As for the “he’s in a better place now” or “It was God’s will”, those…are…true…but the person in grief needs to reach a point emotionally when they can accept them on their own…it took me five years…having that said in the first weeks, months, or even years isn’t just unhelpful, but can actually be really harmful. If a person is a spiritual or religious person it can really mess up their ideas about God from something that can be a huge comfort into something toxic. There are some things we just need to work out for ourselves.

  27. how about life goes on, at least you had him, cherish the memories, what would henry want for you, you are young you will find someone else, there is lots of good men in the world, get over it, you need to get out and date again, i could go on and on, fyi, im only 10 months in, aarrgggghhhh, people are DUMB

  28. How about, “you need to get a hobby.”

  29. Those are perfect. I have a friend who does Hospice work and she will appreciate those so much.

  30. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” What?!? All that made me think of was jumping out of one!!

  31. I love this one. How about “I know how you feel.” There’s a big plug for you in my “Death Happens” blog. http://www.tadrn.blogspot.com

  32. I’d like to add “just take things one day at a time” to this list… Because if “time heals all wounds” then I’d like to take many more days at a time than one. Maybe 7 at a time.. The process would really speed up then, huh? And where are all these people that take multiple days at a time? I’d like to join them!

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