4 Tips to Deal With People Who Say the Wrong Thing When You're Grieving

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa

People say and do the wrong things so often when we're grieving. It can be annoying at the best of times and deeply hurtful at the worst of times. It can feel like a total failure of empathy from the people trusted to be there for you. We spend a lot of time trying to educate people on how to do and say the right things. But we don't always spend enough time talking about what you can do when they do or say the wrong thing in grief.

As usual, a disclaimer: There is no "right" or "wrong" way to deal with your support system. It will vary based on the situation, you, your bandwidth, and the person or people in your life. In any instance, you'll want to assess who the person is, how close you are with them, etc. Assuming it is someone whose relationship is important to you, we have a few tips to consider.

#1 Note Their Intentions.

When people say or do the wrong thing, they often have good intentions—they just screw it up. They rush you because they don't want you to be sad or suffering anymore. They look for a silver lining. They're trying to connect with you but make it about themselves. When someone says the wrong thing, take a minute to reflect on their intention. It can help you to have a little more empathy for them—hard when they have just said something awful, I know—and that will make some of the upcoming tips just a *little* bit easier.

#2 Remember That Good Intentions Are Not an Excuse.

If you felt hurt by someone, that is a valid feeling—whether they meant to hurt you or not. On the one hand, we want to be empathetic to people having good intentions and screwing up. On the other hand, that doesn't mean you need to give them a pass. You might know that they didn't mean for what they said or did to be hurtful, but that doesn't change that it was hurtful. Letting it slide because their intentions weren't malicious doesn't help them to become a better support person to you or others. Imagine if you said something, even with the best of intentions, that was extremely hurtful to a friend or family member who was already suffering. What would you want them to do? Let it slide, leaving you unknowing and likely to hurt them or someone else again, or let you know so you can have your behavior match your intention next time?

#3 Provide Feedback.

When you're already suffering and just want support, giving someone feedback that they weren't helpful or supportive doesn't sound easy. But there is real research that shows it can help! More than one study has found that grieving people who have found ways to give their friends and family feedback about both what they need and also when the person has said or done allows people to feel their support systems are more supportive. And that would be nice, right?

Now, we have heard ALL the reasons people don't want to do this. Things like... I don't have the energy; the person isn't worth it if they didn't know how to be a good friend without instruction; I don't want a friend who I have to help learn to support me; etc. If that's where you are, that's where you are. We're big believers that just a little bit of effort giving feedback to a well-intentioned friend can go a long way, so we always suggest giving it a go at least once.

#4 Create Boundaries.

When you're grieving, you may find that people try to insert themselves into your grief in ways you don't want. Perhaps it is giving you advice. Maybe it is asking you questions you aren't comfortable with. Maybe it is coming over to check in unannounced. Whatever it may be, remember that you can set boundaries. Boundaries can be tricky, but in a most basic way the process looks like this:

  • Self-reflect and determine what your boundary is.
  • Name your boundary in a simple, concrete sentence.
  • Be aware of the thoughts and feelings associated with your boundary.
  • Share your boundary with the person or people who need to hear it.
  • Stick to your boundary and, when appropriate, give feedback to someone who knows your boundary and continues trying to violate it.

Boundaries look different for everyone. They will often differ at different times and when you are with different people, so we can't exactly give you a boundary checklist... but one example is that, on some days or with some people, you might not want to talk about how the person died. If this is the case and someone asks, you can hold this boundary by practicing responses.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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17 Comments on "4 Tips to Deal With People Who Say the Wrong Thing When You're Grieving"

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  1. Sandy  March 12, 2024 at 11:19 pm Reply

    My son just texted : how am I feeling ? It’s been 4 months since mark died -my husband , his father . I’m a nurse -Mark died at home in hospice . I know I’ve talked to our 3 adult kids about the question not to ask “ How are you feeling “ . I had emailed him things seemed sadder , maybe the shock has worn off , I’m crying more -and he didn’t read that -it was like a slap in the face . He’s an adult , we’ve discussed this . I feel a question like “ is there something I can do for you “ , can i you something to eat , etc , is more appropriate . I see a grief social worker -I told her things seemed worse . She agrees about that question -the question my son asked tonight was a trigger -one I didn’t need.
    I work , see friends , I check in on our adult kids to see what they are doing but never ask “ How are you Feeling?”

    • Litsa  March 14, 2024 at 11:10 am Reply

      Hi Sandy – I’m sorry that you and your son are having a hard time aligning on support. So many people grieving desperately want others to ask how they are feeling (your son may be one of those people, or known it as something others want). So I imagine it might make it hard for him to remember that what you want and what he or others want is different. That doesn’t change that it is frustrating that you asked him not to ask that question and he asked anyway. I’m glad you’ve provided him the questions that would feel more helpful to you. I hope in the future that he can work with what is supportive to you. As always, it is hard that it isn’t in our control – we can only ask. I imagine you and your social worker may have talked about this, but being asked how you’re feeling is such a common question in grief support – one that many other grievers want or default to. So it might also help for you to explore what about it is so activating for you and how you can regulate your emotions when it is asked, knowing it is a question that you might face in other instances from well-intentioned people who aren’t yet aware of your preferences.

  2. Imran  August 24, 2023 at 5:56 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing these invaluable tips. Dealing with insensitive comments while grieving can be so challenging. These strategies offer a compassionate and constructive way to navigate such situations, helping us protect our emotional well-being during vulnerable times. 💙 [link removed by admin]

  3. Jessica  July 2, 2022 at 7:39 pm Reply

    I lost my daughter to leukemia. Ten years later, I lost my son to lung cancer (they were both adults). One of my former students, after drawing me into speaking with her openly, told me I must have been a “terrible person in a past life” to lose two of my children! Can you imagine? Especially since I had spent time teaching my students that “karma” is not about “punishment.” She has been re-positioned to the outermost circle of acquaintances in my life, and I refuse to teach, counsel or mentor her ever again.

    • Litsa  July 4, 2022 at 10:04 am Reply

      Oh Jessica, I am so sorry she said this to you. Sometimes I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what people are thinking!

  4. Beverly Rickell  March 30, 2021 at 12:25 pm Reply

    I lost my son 9 weeks ago he was 23 he took his own life .
    I thought he was at work as we worked different shift. I find him after 3 days when I opened his door and the smell.
    Had a month off work , went back full time( mistake.) Keep breaking down at work .
    They not interested. I live alone now .
    So many of my so called friends ” iam there for you ” never see any one . Cry most nights .
    Just want to pain to stop . Want to sleep and never wake up so I can join him .
    Hate my life now .

    • Sylvia  June 4, 2021 at 8:48 pm Reply

      I’m so sorry Beverly, my son was almost 40 and I am grateful that I was not the one who found him, but have found other loved ones. I am 6 years out and these are the things that helped me: finding a survivors of suicide group (SOS) (I know, covid…. maybe online for now, but the physical presence helps once we can do that again) and therapy. The SOS was what pulled me out of the black hole. Others further along in this awful journey can be a lifeline till you get your sealegs back. Please reach out and take care of yourself. You never know what your life is meant to accomplish…. maybe it’s to lend a hand to another, as I am trying to do. Bless you and keep you safe.

  5. Barbara  March 23, 2021 at 11:42 pm Reply

    Harriett – that person was never a friend. I am not a therapist but I can tell anyone who would say those mean things about you and to you is no friend. I am so sorry about the loss of your daughter and other tragic things that have happened to you. I do hope you find some peace and happiness. You should have some days of contentment after everything you have endured. Will be thinking of you and sending good thoughts your way.

  6. wendy  December 17, 2020 at 6:00 pm Reply

    i need help lost a fiance 3months ago im hopless,&,,helpless i dont know wat to do next

  7. Jane  December 6, 2020 at 10:49 pm Reply

    So…one thing…there is a pandemic, we were told at one point to shelter at home. As a widow and empty nest, why would people say “I hope your not alone”. Who do they think I am with? It hits me as the nastiest thing a person can day to a widow.

    • IsabelleS  December 7, 2020 at 10:13 am Reply

      Jane, I definitely understand how this can come across as rude and inconsiderate. People really don’t understand the impact of their words at times! I hope this article has provided you with some tips on how to manage these situations. All the best to you.

    • K  October 30, 2021 at 8:58 pm Reply

      Maybe they meant sheltering with a pet of some sort: small dog, cat, bird, fish,
      or on line classes, zoom meetings, social media cam, phone check in’s, pen pal’s…

      • Jane  July 5, 2022 at 6:37 pm

        K, And if you have a pet and start saying ‘we’ ? I don’t think that qualifies as not being alone, as much as having a pet can help.

  8. Harriet  October 26, 2020 at 5:09 pm Reply

    After my 20 yes old daughter got murdered, a few months after that I met a new partner+my way of dealing with the tragedy was focused on him,ie, days out,meals
    out, he was kind generous understanding. But my so called long term friend used
    to come out with us. It was only toward end of our friendship I was told by partner
    so called friend used to say to him,”. I keep going on about it!” This was reg how could I cope, +”why are you helping her?!” Also to my face she says ,after I said I really can’t cope
    anymore, “but it’s been18 months,shouldv got over it by now!!” +”don’t go on about it”in very early days.
    Yet I carried on being her friend+,finally came to my senses 4 years ago+cut her off.
    These comments from some1 age 67 who still had both parents alive,+in good health
    +both her children.+same husband of 30 years,good childhood etc. Yet I’ve had traumatic poverty stricken
    childhood, dad died at age 6 ,mum nursed him as well as looking after 5 kids under age 6.
    Then a sexually abusive violent stepfather appears from age 10-16 when I left home+fended for myself whereas so called friend always had parents help+ relied
    on them until she left home to marry at 26. I could go on reg my ongoing trauma s but
    the fact that I never got to say goodbye to my girl+the fact that she was found
    after 6 wks +ID by teeth? How can people be so cruel+understanding.?Not to mention the
    victim support lady who encouraged me to go to the funeral,I really didn’t want to.
    I had to have a few whiskeys+take some with me+that was my 1st funeral+il NEVER
    ever go to another. The VS lady didn’t even have any children +after a few wks she says
    to me, “now I think you should start getting out+about!!” How about a separate
    section reg child loss as its unique +always far more complicated than losing a parent
    as your children are not supposed to go before you,even if 1 is prepared, ie, cancer.
    Thank goodnes for compassionate friends online support+murder online support groups.
    My life is still hell after 14 years, gets worse, no better, +il put on my mask each day at work, shops etc,
    to make others feel better until the day I die. Harriet

    • IsabelleS  October 27, 2020 at 10:47 am Reply

      Harriet, I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter and for the trauma you have endured. You are so strong to have gone through all of this. I want you to know that you are not alone, and that what you are feeling is all normal and valid. It may be helpful to seek out the support of a counselor trained in grief, which you can find here: https://grief.com/grief-counselor-directory/. My heart goes out to you!


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