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.
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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
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.
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