The question of what to say to someone after a death is more common than you realize. So often, people find themselves stressing about saying the right thing to a friend or family member who has experienced loss. And sadly, people aren’t walking Hallmark cards. Finding the “right” words to say to someone who’s grieving can be incredibly difficult (why do you think Hallmark is so successful?).
What supportive friends and family most want to do is make things better. No one wants to add to the pain of someone who’s already grieving or, worse, make them angry. Unfortunately, though, most people who’ve experienced a loss can come up with at least 1 or 2 examples of something someone said to them after their loved one’s death that did make them feel alienated, misunderstood, sad or angry.
I’m sorry to say well-intentioned people say the wrong thing all the time, and grieving people are not always in the best place to see the good intention behind the comment. So, the potential to say the ‘wrong thing’ does exist. We won’t pretend it doesn’t.
We wish we could tell you the “right” thing to say, but we can’t. All we can do is suggest that you chose simple, thoughtful, caring words and speak them with compassion. Hopefully, if you do this, your loved one will see that you care. Beyond this, there are a few phrases and statements we recommend you not say after a death. That said, these are only guidelines, not hard and fast rules. You know your loved one, so it’s up to you to be the judge of what is appropriate to say and when.
What Not to Say After a Death
“I know how you feel”
A griever thinks: No you don’t
I know, I know–you’ve experienced loss too–and that does help you have compassion for another person experiencing loss. BUT your loss is unique to you, just as your friend’s loss is unique to them. So, therefore, you do not know how they feel. And, at this moment, it’s likely your loved one cannot imagine anyone understands the complex web of thoughts and emotions they are caught in.
There may come a time, in the future, where you share your personal history with loss as a way of saying, “Though I don’t understand your pain, I understand that loss is terrible.” However, sharing this information right off the bat risks the other person feeling as though you are (1) comparing your losses or (2) making things about you.
“He/she is in a better place now”
A griever thinks: Who cares!? I want him/her to be here.
Though many people find comfort in the belief their loved one is in a better place, immediately following a loss is not always the right time to say it. After losing my dad I heard this all the time and I remember thinking, he is supposed to be here—there is no better place.
“It will get easier”
A griever thinks: That seems impossible or I don’t want to forget the person I love.
Remember, this list is not about things that aren’t true. Instead, it’s about things that aren’t helpful to say. Realistically, things probably will get easier. But when someone is in the unimaginably deep, dark hole of grief, they just want you to acknowledge the pain. What’s worse is that for many people, this initial pain is deeply connected to the person who died and starting to heal will feel like they are forgetting or ‘moving on.’
“At least you have other children” or “You can always have more children”
A griever thinks: I know I still have my other children, but I lost THIS child.
Sometimes life just sucks. Out of desperation to find a silver lining we end up grasping onto whatever we can think of, but often times it’s better to say nothing. Comments like these take away from the importance of the child who died and the loss. Not only this, it may make the parent feel guilty about devaluing their other children.
“You can always remarry”
A griever thinks: I just lost the person I planned to spend the rest of my life with. I’m not interested in anyone else.
Again, projecting into the future is useless. When someone is acutely grieving they may be experiencing symptoms very similar to depression, and depressed people often have a hard time imagining a future where things are better. They may date again in the future, but I promise you they can’t even consider this right now so there’s no point in talking about it.
“At least she/he lived a long life”
A griever thinks: Is that supposed to make me miss him/her less?
Again, this list isn’t about things that are not true, it is about things that aren’t helpful to say. Living a good, long life does not diminish the pain of the loss. Regardless of the deceased’s age, the hurt and pain may be unbearable. Share memories, reminisce about their life, but do not imply that it should make this loss easier.
“It was God’s will”, “God has a plan”, or “Everything happens for a reason”
A griever thinks: Why is this God’s plan? Why would God make us suffer?
Though many take comfort in a greater plan, a death can cause many people to question God, their understanding of God’s omni-benevolence, and their faith in general. This can be the case even for people who have extremely deep faith. For those who don’t, it can feel distant and alienating. So, better safe than sorry – steer clear.
“God never gives us more than we can handle”
A griever thinks: Oh yeah? How do you know? Easy for you to say. My [son couldn’t handle his addiction][daughter couldn’t handle her depression][husband couldn’t handle his cancer].
See comments above re: “God’s will” statement.
“Don’t cry” or “You need to be strong now”
A griever thinks: I can’t stop. I want to cry. I need to cry. If I cry people will think I’m weak.
We all grieve in our own way – some people will cry. A lot. Some people won’t. There is no right or wrong way, and however someone is grieving they should feel supported to cry as much as they want to, and not feel they are being judged for it. Many will already be feeling a lot of anxiety about handling this the ‘right’ way with the children. You do not need to exacerbate it with the pressure of containing their emotions.
Another important note is that crying in front of children is not a bad thing. Children will take their cues from adults regarding when and how they can grieve the loss. Hiding emotions can be confusing for children and may make them feel like they have to do the same.
“It could be worse. I know this person who . . .”
A griever thinks: I don’t care! I am in the worst pain imaginable, why are you talking to me about someone else?
This is not a time for comparisons. Each person’s grief is relative and excruciatingly painful. Knowing someone has it ‘worse’ does not change the severity of the pain and it doesn’t make someone feel this loss any less.
“You can always get another dog/cat”
A griever thinks: My cat is not disposable or replaceable.
Do not underestimate pet loss. They are not replaceable and getting another dog/cat will not change the pain of this loss. They may get another animal, they may not. Either way, wait for them to decide.
Some of you may think this list is wrong because you’ve heard your grieving friend or family member say one or more of the things on this list. It’s true! Many grievers often say things like “he is in a better place now” or “at least she lived a long life.” But it is up to them to find this kind of comfort and meaning, not anyone else. Always take your cues from them.
And if you read through the list and thought, “uh oh, I’ve said comment 2, 6, and 10, don’t beat yourself up about it. The good news is that many times grievers won’t remember a darn thing you said to them. It’s hard to support someone who is going through a tough time, and like we said before, if you are caring and compassionate, this should shine through.
For those who feel frustrated because you just want to make things better, here’s what you can do: think of simple ways you can help make your loved ones’ lives easier. For example, watch their kids, organize people to collect funds for burial costs, pre-pay and have a couple of pizzas sent over to their house. I guarantee they are far more likely to remember gestures like these than the words you used at the viewing.
We talk with our community on Instagram about helpful grief support tips and ideas, so check us out there for further discussion and ideas.