The Case for Unscripted Grief Support: Why we no longer advise people what not to say

Supporting a Griever / Supporting a Griever : Eleanor Haley

For further articles on these topics:

When we first started WYG in 2012, we leaned heavily into a category of grief support advice that we no longer endorse. To be more specific, we did that thing where we told people looking to support grieving people what "not to say" and, to a lesser extent, offered ideas about what to say.

Whether grieving or supporting someone, you've likely encountered this kind of advice. It's probably the most common type of advice, which may mean our opinion is unpopular, but we have our reasons for advocating for unscripted grief support tips, if you'd allow us a few moments to explain.

Some "Don't say..." advice is okay

First, I want to clarify that we don't believe all "don't say" advice is wrong. There are a few things that are, hands down, objectively ill-advised. For example, we'll always wholeheartedly stand by the advice not to say things that begin with "at least." 

Though I cannot guarantee the person you're speaking with will dislike the statement, typically, sentences that start with "at least" are minimizing attempts to find a silver lining at a time when silver linings feel irrelevant. The intent is usually good; you want to provide comfort by focusing on something other than the person's pain, but efforts to bypass or ignore the pain of grief often cause people to feel unseen and uncared for.  

I think we can also stand by black-and-white advice that tells people not to say things that blame the grieving person or the deceased, stigmatize the people involved, or outright dismiss the gravity of their pain. So, there are some obvious "don'ts" - many of which I can summarize by saying, "Don't be an a-hole." But it's usually not the a-holes who are online looking for advice on how to help.

Why We Stopped Using this Approach

Interestingly, we've seen plenty of instances where "dont say/do say" advice has resulted in people offering worse or no support.

[For example, check out Litsa's Instagram story below on "How Instagram Made Me Scared to Support People Grieving" and the 300 comments people left in response.]

This type of advice is meant to educate people, but it often confuses them further when they see posts telling people to say or do (or not say or do) the very thing they have just heard someone say they hate and vice versa. And maybe this infomation is even imparted in a way that imposes shame on the person who's done (or thought to do) something contrary to the advice. 

Suddenly, the person who cared enough to seek advice feels uncaring and insensitive, as though they should have known better. But they didn't know -- and they still don't know -- and now they're even more confused. If you fear saying the wrong thing to someone you care about, it's paralyzing -- and we suspect it does paralyze some people into saying or doing nothing.

Unscripted Grief Support: Unique Grief Requires Unique Support

The longer we work in this field, the more grieving people we talk to. And the more grieving people we speak to, the more we know about what we can never know. A true "grief expert" may understand concepts and theories and can bust grief myths, normalize, and validate -- but they also know that when it comes down to understanding anyone's individual grief, they know very little.

A few years back, we did an informal survey with our readers about the "best" and "worst" things said to them in their grief, and here's what we found:

We recently asked WYG readers about the best and worst things anyone has said to them in their grief, hoping for some specific examples that we might then be able to offer as guidance to all those seeking answers. And though they provided some amazing insight, things still remain, well, complicated. In fact, we found that some of the EXACT SAME PHRASES were listed on both the best and the worst lists. 

For example, one person will say, "I prefer people to acknowledge they "can't imagine" the gravity of my loss." While another person will say, "I appreciate someone saying they're at least trying to imagine what I'm going through." Or one person may like hearing "they're strong," while another hates the statement because it makes them feel pressured and unseen. The examples are endless.

If we can acknowledge that each person's grief is incredibly unique (and this is a fact we must acknowledge), then it has to follow that the types of support that will be helpful to the individual will also be unique to who they are as a person, their loss, their relationship with the person who died, and many other factors. Therefore, a singular approach or vocabulary for providing grief cannot exist. 

Take advice with a grain of salt

Knowing so many differences exist is also scary -- and this is why the idea of "don't say/do say" scripts can feel enticing. But remember, this advice, though often stated as an absolute, is also predicated on preference.

If someone tells you there is a black-and-white rule, I encourage you to test the statement before accepting it as truth because many of these pieces of advice are well-intentioned but biased. They are the things that work for that person or their friend, or perhaps they even have a consensus from a group of people. No disrespect to anyone else because we've made these statements ourselves, and when we did, they were biased by us, our preferences, and our experiences.

Here's an example: we've seen a lot of consensus online about the advice "just show up (literally) and hold space." Okay, yes, but realistically, is that a hard and fast rule? Is that going to be helpful for everyone? Are you the one who should be doing the thing suggested? 

Maintaining some type of presence and availability does matter, but take some time to think about how that advice applies to the person you're supporting. Because I will share with you that Litsa and I have a consensus that very few people could get away with "just showing up" to quietly sit on the sofa in our hour of need. And if they say they're there to hold space, they better mean it sarcastically.

Perhaps I've now scared someone out of taking this advice, but that's not the point. The point is that it works for some and not others, and this is why instead of giving people rules, we need to be helping people rely on their interpersonal strengths, what they know about the person grieving, and, worst case scenario, believe in their ability to recover and repair if they do make a grief support mistake. 

Shifting the Grief Support Paradigm

We will share an article in the next week or so that suggests a paradigm shift in how we conceptualize grief support and grief literacy, so I encourage you to stay tuned. In many ways, moving away from a scripted approach to grief support seems to create more unknowns and ambiguity. But those unknowns were always there. In interpersonal relationships, they are always there. We need an approach that acknowledges each situation's uniqueness and helps people think more specifically, critically, and creatively about who you are, your strengths as a grief support person, who the grieving person is, and what they might want or need. 

In the meantime, here are a few other articles from the archives that may be helpful.

Let’s be grief friends.

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17 Comments on "The Case for Unscripted Grief Support: Why we no longer advise people what not to say"

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  1. Patti Shaffner  February 28, 2024 at 9:02 pm Reply

    Complex yes. I became a Certified Grief Educator through David Kessler in ’21 and just finished a five month course with Francis Weller on Grief Tending and Ritual.

    My husband died in ’19 and it was the MOST profound grief I have ever experienced…which is what led me to the training I have been doing.

    I am pondering and feeling into the truths you are working to reveal here.

    Kessler told us to follow the griever. Reflect their language. Listen with an attentive ear and here is the ‘do not’: Do not try to fix. I realize that that can leave someone feeling like they have nothing to offer to a grieving friend….yet….if we can ask those wanting to be support to take a sacred pause before saying anything…offering words of care and concern without minimizing with the ‘at least’, as you pointed out…our responses can be more thoughtful and reflective of how we ourselves might want to be supported.

    Personally…I could not stand to hear “Sorry for your loss” for a looooooong time. It felt like the way we casually say ‘How are you?” when we really don’t want to know. For me…with those in grief I usually say ‘How is this day?’ or ‘How is this moment for you?’ and I truly want to know. Then I can reflect back to them what I’m hearing and ask if there is anything that I can do in that moment.

    Yes…it’s nice if someone comes and takes out the garbage for you when the weekly pick up is….or….maybe not….because maybe it is the only thing I can do that makes me feel oddly normal in that moment. People left unlabeled jars of food on my porch…..I wasn’t eating. The thought was nice…but it didn’t make me feel supported. Someone else might welcome that.

    I realize that often in early grief we do not know what we need….so friends and others reaching out can certainly ask with the caveat…”May I?” (bring you food, invite you out, visit, call you once a week…etc.) knowing they may not get a yes…and that that is ok.

    Personally…through whatever grace or personal practice before his death…I became very clear about what felt supportive and what did not and said so. I am certain I offended a few folks. I also asked for what I felt I needed. I asked a group of friends to call me once a week to check in on me. Not everyone has that wherewithal.

    As much as possible, when I sit with people or facilitate groups, I encourage grieflings to do the same. To become their own best advocates. Again…realizing that the uniqueness of grief brings me back to Kessler and “No fixing.” and “Follow the griever’s language.”

    Encouraging Grief Literacy….Thank you for your ongoing dives in this arena.


  2. Karen  February 27, 2024 at 10:38 am Reply

    It drives me crazy when people try to force friendship on me that I don’t want just because my husband died 9 months ago. For example, the other night a neighbor called. I didn’t answer the phone because I wasn’t in the mood to talk to her. The message said that she was with a half dozen other neighbors and I was required to call back because this was a “wellness check”.

    I didn’t call back, because I’d been about to go to bed. I went to bed and this group of neighbors suddenly showed up at my front door. I didn’t answer the door because I was dressed for bed and wanted to go to bed.

    I’ve lived in this small community for over 20 years and if there is one thing people here know about me, it’s that I’m a loner and very private. I know where to find all of them. I know they want to help if they can. But I also know I take walks around the neighborhood every single day and there’s no way I needed a wellness check. I say hi to neighbors on the street everyday.

    The other thing that’s been driving me crazy since my husband’s death is that people try to use his death to convert me to their religious beliefs. I have strong beliefs about life after death and I resent it when people tell me those beliefs are wrong and that only their beliefs are right.

    It’s like people are taking advantage of my husband’s death to try to use me to fill their own social needs and to bolster their own beliefs about death. But I am in great pain and I do not want to be used right now.

    Here are some nice things people have done. A neighbor left an orchid at my front door. She didn’t knock. She didn’t force interaction. She left an orchid and a sympathy card. It was such a perfect gesture that I walked over to her house to thank her and spent half an hour with her.

    Another neighbor left food at my front door. She had made a delicious stew and left a container of it for me. I greatly appreciated that because I didn’t have the energy to shop and cook at that time, so after I ran out of Cheerios I basically stopped eating. She got me eating again.

    Other neighbors have just said hello on the street and said they were sorry to hear about my husband’s death because they had liked him so much. They asked if there was any way they could help and let me know I could call on them if I needed anything. What I liked most about that was hearing how much they had liked my husband. I felt like my husband could hear them and their words were making him happy.

    Anyway, great article.

    • Denise Lara Mangalino  February 28, 2024 at 3:41 pm Reply

      Hi Karen, I’m sorry to hear about your loss of your husband. While there are people in your community that will drive you crazy in your loss, I’m glad to hear there are others that have given you support and care while respecting your boundaries.

    • Tara Harvey  March 3, 2024 at 4:31 pm Reply

      I know your frustration. In my experience, I was so overwhelmed and “touchy” about things that I was annoyed if people ignored me and annoyed when they didn’t. Your interfering neighbour’s aggressive behaviour was completely inappropriate. Since it is intrusive to offer unsolicited advice, may I instead share a few observations to you and the other contributors?

      For those who wish to support me, here are my needs and wishes:

      ASK don’t tell. If your input is needed I will ask for it.

      People grieve in their own way and NOT according to your beliefs or perceived time schedule. Back off!!

      If you reach out and are not accepted, please try again. I’m still here and still bereaved.

      If you wish to visit, please call ahead for permission for if I am huddling under a blanket and using sleep as an escape, your banging on my door is extremely unsettling.

      NEVER justify your neglect with “I didn’t know what to say.” Why do you think so many stores sell sympathy cards? If everyone were that selfish I would have NO support.

      Cards can be sent via the funeral home so “I didn’t have an address or phone contact” won’t work either. There is also a tribute section on the obituary site.

      Don’t pass me on the street and look the other way. A simple “I am sorry” is fine. If I appear too tearful to converse, then respect that. If I able to converse, say something nice about my loved one. Remember! IT IS NOT YOUR COMFORT YOU SHOULD PRIORITIZE. IT IS MINE!

      I don’t want your sermons or favourite bible verses. I have my own bible to read when and if I choose.

      Read the room. Telling me about your latest jolly family occasions is a hurtful reminder of the spouse and/or family you know I don’t have.

      Please know the difference between feelings and opinions. When I tell you how I am feeling, don’t correct me. They are not subject to your adjudication.

      And the best one is one I saw on a poster years ago: “KINDLY ENGAGE BRAIN BEFORE OPENING MOUTH!” That’s pretty simple.

      My best wishes to all of you.

  3. Gil Hilleard  February 27, 2024 at 5:01 am Reply

    A very difficult subject very well described. Congratulations. It makes grief support even more complex. But in such a grief averse society here in the UK) such insights are gold dust. Thank you both for your work and courage in producing in WYG top quality articles. Big hug.

  4. Laurie Nelson  February 26, 2024 at 11:48 pm Reply

    When I had a miscarriage, early on I came across a book that listed “dumb” things well-intentioned people might say. At church, a women rattled off four of them in a row! It really helped me that I had already first encountered them in a book. Then instead of crying or giving her the stink eye, I could treat it as an i-spy game – oops, there it is. It was obvious that she meant well and felt sad for me. I ignored the words, and received the comfort.

    People barely acknowledged miscarriages 30 years ago, so it was hard for them to know what to say.

  5. Linda  February 26, 2024 at 11:28 pm Reply

    Ohhhhh, now I am kinda understanding why when I send an email to family or friends about how I miss my husband so much or a memory of my husband that most people do not reply or if they do reply it is not about missing him or the memory but about the weather or about something in the photo background. Maybe they don’t want to say the wrong thing so they say nothing. I have had some people say stupid things like the “at least” things but it does really hurt when there is no response.

    • Denise Lara Mangalino  February 28, 2024 at 3:48 pm Reply

      I think you’re right about not getting a response hurting the most, Linda. Not getting an acknowledgement that can be simple is the worst because we’re literally being ignored- which isolate us more with the grief.

  6. Heath  February 26, 2024 at 10:26 pm Reply

    I think that it is extremely difficult for people to know what to say, what not to say, or they do a mixture of each. As such, I feel that the best advice we can give to people who are looking for ways to say the right thing is simply this –

    Just sit with the person, allow them to speak, rant, voice whatever they are feeling, and if they cry – let them.

    Just sit with them and simply acknowledge what they are saying (from time to time) but offer up no suggestions, alternative narratives, or try to “Fix them.” Do not say the obvious things like, “Their in a better place,” or “You will get over this; just give it time.” I’d even go as far as saying, do not even offer the grieving person a tissue as this can give a subtle message that maybe you do not want to see their tears (of which they may need to express). If tissues are nearby you may just put them near the person’s reach (on the coffee table or floor but try not to be tempted to personally offer them one). A grieving person will appreciate being able to cry with someone they feel can be supportive and not uncomfortable with them crying.

    If people can do these things, it can be a huge support as the person will feel heard and not judged. And if they ask you for your opinions, just be gentle. For example, if they say that their love one was selfish in taking their own life (looking to you for validation), best not to say, “I agree…suicide is selfish.” Either say nothing or simply say something like, “Suicide is such a sad event and I am sorry for what you are going through.” Why? Because this person will most likely eventually drop the notion that their love one was selfish and your response (as suggested above) will help them in not feeling guilty for what they said at a time when they were hurting and no doubt simply deflecting. We feel things when we lose a person that can alter our judgment but as we move forward, and the clouds start to dissipate, we often will see things differently.

    Trusting that this helps someone. Having gone through a loss to suicide, I have heard good things from people, as too bad things. People have offered me unsolicited advice or tried to interpret what I am saying or should feel. And believe me, none of this is helpful….but those who have sat with me, allowed me to cry, and have listened to me as I shared my own narrative as to why things occurred (a narrative which has changed over time), such has been the BEST and MOST HEALING SUPPORT that I have received.

    It may take you some practice to sit there for most of us would like to stop the person’s pain but if you can sit there in relative silence as the person talks and maybe cries, you will do them the world of good. It is this genuine connection that gives birth to our healing.

  7. Robyn Rowe  February 26, 2024 at 8:53 pm Reply

    The hardest part I have found is people who say nothing at all, because they do not know what to say. I can understand how they feel but I would prefer they acknowledge the grief I am going through. Since 2009 I have lost firstly my adult daughter to breast cancer, in 2015 my
    Husband to renal cancer & in 2022, one of my adult sons to interstitial lung disease caused by onset of Covid. Some close to me say people just cannot comprehend how anyone can get through such losses & they have the fear they will upset me’
    Some say how strong you are which annoys me…. Maybe I’m resilient but I’m still crying inside.
    I’m learning to live with my grief. I’m making cushions around it. I don’t want it to go away as it’s the lives of my loved ones & will always be with me.
    Always be part of me.
    Doing things that are all engrossing are helpful, such as cooking, gardening. painting & drawing and joining a choir. Music is a wonderful support for you!

    • Heath  March 4, 2024 at 3:16 pm Reply

      Dear Robyn, I feel the same way when people tell me that I am strong because then I feel that I then need to be strong and that anything less is proof that I am weak. As such, I wrote the following that made into a little poster and I use in our Suicide Loss Support Group. May it help you to find the right words. One of our members has put the poster on her fridge (which is nice).


      When people tell me I am strong, they inadvertently take away my strength to be authentic and the need to be vulnerable in my grief.

      They take away the strength that I need by which to cry with another person; my strength is gone and I have to put on the mask of being strong, of being resilient.

      Far better if a friend says, “It must be so terribly hard and lonely for you now,” for then the tears well up and I begin to cry. But for others they see my tears as a weakness or something to be denied.

      Yet in the flowing of my tears do I find the healing of which I so desperately need and crave. Tears are not a sign of weakness – they are a necessary part of healing, they are a way of helping us to grow stronger.

      Cheers for now

  8. Denise  February 26, 2024 at 5:36 pm Reply

    Two days after my husband died as I sat on a bench in my church, a women/widowed herself, walked past me, got clear across the room from me, turned and announced…”your grief is NEVER going to get better, it will always be painful” all I could do was just look at her and shake my head. I wish I could say this is the worst thing that has been said in the last 3 years, but its not.

    • Tara Harvey  March 3, 2024 at 5:50 pm Reply

      I am sorry to read this, Denise.
      I have come to a decision about how I will handle these incidents because I have found, after decades of suffering fools, it is best to speak up. If I don’t, the resentment just festers and I am a firm believer in the importance of self care and self advocacy.

      I can respond to some platitudes by saying “This is not helpful to me” or, if I’m feeling more empowered, challenge them and ask them to clarify. Those who spout silly platitudes in an attempt to sound knowledgeable or important often have no explanation for their words because there is no thought behind them.
      Some will say this is not a gracious approach but I am the injured party, not them.
      Kindest regards.

  9. Sally McQuillen  February 26, 2024 at 3:05 pm Reply

    Right on. As a grieving mother what I would like in the form of support is very different than what my husband would like. It’s a unique journey with the only requirement in my opinion being seen.

    I’ve noticed too that since losing my son eight years ago, the world is attempting to de-stigmatize grief as it has mental illness but often inadvertently over-simplifying and over-generalizing advice and backfiring. Thanks for being a thoughtful resource.

  10.  February 26, 2024 at 2:59 pm Reply

    thank you for your time and effort in what you do. you have been very helpful to me now and for the past two years. after 51 years my wife passed two years ago from pancan and i can truly state that i did not know this level of sadness existed. at my age i had already experienced close losses but losing her has been and will always be a part of my life that is and can be both sad and joyful.

  11. David  February 26, 2024 at 2:47 pm Reply

    I’ve (and still do) for my mother who died nearly 4 years ago . I’ve had counselling but to no avail I just feel a great void in my life it has no purpose and nothing makes me feel happy it is just one dark cloud . As a gay man no one I feel understands I have no friends and no motivation to interact in the world . It’s such just an unhappy lonely existence

    • Denise Lara Mangalino  February 28, 2024 at 3:58 pm Reply

      Hi David, it may be beneficial for you to look into therapist who reflect your identity and preferences for counseling to help you navigate the loss of your mother. Accessing a counselor specializing in grief and service to LGBT+ community could make a difference for you.

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