What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving

 

So often we find ourselves stressing out about saying the right thing to a friend or family member who has experienced the death of a loved one.  We don’t want to make the griever sad, we really don’t want to make them angry, and we do so desperately want to make things better.  But alas, we aren’t all walking Hallmark cards and we don’t always know the exact right words to say. Pressures off, though, because grief isn’t something you can fix simply by turning an eloquent phrase.  In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better.

The good news is that grief isn’t something you can fix by turning an eloquent phrase.  In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better. So you can stop worrying about taking away your loved one’s pain because it isn’t going to happen. Instead, focus on keeping it simple and saying it with compassion – hopefully, if you do this, your loved one will see that you care.

Okay so, here’s the bad news.  I would guess most people who’ve experienced a loss can come up with at least 1 or 2 examples of something someone has said that d, in fact, 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 obviously the potential to say the ‘wrong thing’ does exist.

For this reason, we present to you a brief list of ‘what not to say’Obviously this list is not all-inclusive, everyone is different and our sensitivities are not all the same.  Your friend may get upset if you tell them the sky is blue.  Or you may have a family member whose feathers are never ruffled.  You know the individual, so it’s up to you to be the judge.

These are merely suggestions based on personal experiences and years of working with grieving individuals who have shared the statements that they find most ‘cringe-worthy’.


what not to say to a griever“I know how you feel”

A griever thinks: No you don’t

I know I know…you also lost a husband/daughter/son/grandmother/best friend/dog/cat/canary/whatever…it doesn’t matter.  You do not know how your friend feels, and even if you did, it is not what they need to hear.  No two people are the same.  No two losses are the same.  It is useless comparing grief.  I get it, you just want them to feel like you relate.  But at this moment they cannot imagine anyone knows how they feel.


“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.  It is 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 don’t want another child, 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 just better to say nothing.  Comments like these take away from the importance of the child 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 am still in love.  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? I don’t care if its God’s plan, it sucks.

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? Oh yeah? Easy for you to say.  Oh yeah?  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.  I can’t be strong.  You think I am a bad mother/father/son/daughter. 

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.

I bet some of you are thinking that this list is wrong because you’ve actually heard your grieving friend or family member say some of the things on this list.  It’s true!  Many grievers do often say things like “he is in a better place now” or “ at least she lived a long life.”  Sometimes it’s hard to know how someone will make sense of a loss or where they will find comfort, 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 of you who are feeling frustrated because you just really want to make things better, here’s what you can do: think of simple ways you can help make your loved ones life easier.  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.

Looking for some ideas of other things you can do and how to be a supportive friend in the weeks to come?  Click here.

Better yet, pick up our ebook on how to support a grieving friend (without sticking your foot in your mouth!). Don’t worry, it is cheap and jam packed with helpful info (no angels, rainbows, inspirational quotes, or fluff — just helpful tips). You can find it here.

July 12, 2017

26 responses on "What Not to Say to Someone Who's Grieving"

  1. I dated my husband for 4 years during high school, he died 2 days before our 43rd wedding anniversary. I have wonderful friends. My husbands best friend of 50 years and his wife were there, but also said things to me I’ll never forget. Stop being negative, since months after he died,. His friend said “oh you’re still wearing your wedding ring?” 6 months after he died of cardiac arrest. We’re still friends but nothing is the same, I also lost a work friend of 30 years, who just stopped talking to me. Then there’s the friend who has called me daily since his death, even when she and her family are away on vacation. I think our culture just doesn’t handle this very well. I always go with my gut, I talk, I’m there if you need me. I find it especially helpful to be able to talk about the person, they’re not dead to us.
    .

  2. I’ll tell you one phrase I can’t TOLERATE. That is: “I can’t imagine how you feel.” Oh yes, you can, you just don’t want to go there! That phrase further isolates the grieving person. Here’s another that shouldn’t even have to be mentioned, but I can’t tell you how many times I heard this doozy: “I don’t know how you’re getting up in the morning.” Wait, do you mean I should have committed suicide by now? How is that helpful!? I found people who’d lost loved ones themselves to be the most helpful. They said things like, “I know exactly how you feel.” They knew every loss is different, but that pain in your chest, that confusion as to who you’re going to be now, etc. is universal. They also said things like “the pain is going to get worse as time passes because you would never have conceived of going that long without seeing the person.” I was glad to know that beforehand so I didn’t feel like I was regressing as time passed. Also helpful: “Your entire self is going to change as a result of this, and you will come to admire that new person very much. But It will take time and you cannot rush it. The best thing you can do is cry as much as you want.” Spot on. One thing that I told MYSELF when I suffered the biggest loss of my life was “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to get through this and be a good, healthy, happy person when this is over.” I didn’t force it, but I let that statement be my beacon as I grieved. Somehow (okay, I know exactly how, but it’s a weird, paranormal story) I knew that a door to absolute spiritual darkness was open for me to walk through at that time had I not recognized it as such. So I grieved hard, but for me, recognizing that grief can put you in actual spiritual danger if you don’t know what’s going on was a BLESSING. Don’t we all know people who got and stayed angry or depressed after the death of a loved one, ruining the rest of their lives? So this stuff is real. So perhaps when your grieving friend is in a lucid moment, encourage them to create a personal goal of who and how they’d like to be as the grief subsides. Remind them that this is not a to-do list or something to be worked on now, but merely kept in mind through the storm.

  3. Don’t mention God or anything religious unless you know (a) whether or not the recipient has any religious beliefs, and (b) exactly what those beliefs are.

    This is not the time to preach.

  4. My partner was an addict who died, only 41. I was told – well, I’ve no sympathy for them , they bring it on them selves. He knew what he was doing. – disgusting! Yes he was an addict. People don’t plan on ending up this way! The amount of pain he endured trying to kick the habit! I was so shocked by her cruel comment I just walked away. Some people have horrible opinions about addicts. So sad – there still people! Rip – mark. Xxxxxx

    • Clare — I lost my only son (33 years old) last year when he lost his battle with addiction. I am trying to learn to deal with what people say by assuming that they MEAN well. I have actually said to people “yes, my son lost his battle with addiction — but my son was NOT his addiction — he was my beloved boy, who fought a good fight with all the he had, but lost the battle.” For someone to tell you they had ‘no sympathy’ because the person ‘brought it on themselves’ flies in the face of YEARS of medical research. Addicts make a choice the first time they use — but very shortly after that initial use — the brain of an addict changes — and there is very little ‘choice’ anymore. I know that addiction can be conquered, but it is a VERY tough fight. Do not spend any more of your energy on anyone who could be so cruel as to tell you that the person you lost to this horrible disease “knew what he was doing.” Wishing you peace and hope that you will feel God’s love through your difficult journey.

  5. The response I got tonight has still & will always stick with me! I have no words to describe it except, mind blown, speechless, disgusted & are you kidding me!! My step dad died a week ago. My boyfriend says, and I quote ” it’s not the end of the world!” Yes you read that right! Unbelievable!

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Wow Scarlett, there is no accounting for the crazy things people say! I can only hope your boyfriend was looking for something optimistic or comforting to say. Unfortunately those can be the worst things to say. I am so sorry about your step dad. I hope you find support on our site. Take care.

  6. I know people mean well, but I am very sick of people giving me “permission” to feel sad. I am grieving internally and privately, and I don’t feel the need to dissolve into tears and hug every person I barely know. People keep telling me “it’s okay to be sad” and ” don’t be afraid to cry” and “I am sure it will hit you eventually”. Everyone is trying to tell me it’s okay to cry a lot (I never asked) and the underlying insinuation is that I don’t seem sad enough to match their definition of what a griever should look like. I have started to lie to people about how sad I am just to make them more comfortable. Because apparently telling people I am okay is unacceptable. People NEED me to be a crying mess in order to fit their definitions. It is driving me nuts. If a grieving person didn’t ask for advice, please don’t give it. I prefer people just say “I am sorry” and “I am here if you need me”. Please stop telling me how sad I need to be.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Haha…Stephanie…this isn’t funny but you’ve made me laugh! People are so funny and oddly it’s always up to the grieving person to tell them when they are being over the top. Interestingly, for a long time all we had were people telling others NOT to feel and now we’ve crossed over to the other extreme where people are policed into fully expressing their emotions. Ahhhh…sometimes it feels like there can never be any in-between where people are allowed to just be themselves.

      • This is so true Eleanor – I am being smothered by well-meaning people who are trying nothing more than to ensure I have a safe space to grieve – and they are driving me nuts! Hahaha it is actually really funny, thanks for the perspective 🙂

  7. Although the person I just lost was not in my life for any length of time and yes, he had a major illness on Earth, I was advised last night not to put people on a pedestal just because they passed away (this friend claimed he would say that to most people). I was not elevating the lost one to a pedestal, but the loss was still a personal and devastating one anyway, especially as he was only 24 years old! Not cool…

  8. It’s nearly 30 years ago, and I still remember (with irritation) the people telling me to “be strong for your mother and hold your mother up” when my grandmother died – as though I weren’t just as close to my grandmother! She lived around the corner, she was here nearly every night for supper, she taught me my most treasured skills – but I should be strong for my mother! And it wasn’t strangers – these were family members who should certainly have known better.

  9. The worst thing that was said to me after my mom died was ” well, you know, everybody got to died sometime” I wanted (and still do) to punch this person in the face.

  10. Worst thing ever said to me was the night my father died. Someone said “at least he’s in a better place now” and then a further friend responded, “no, there is no better place, because there is no afterlife. He is but a memory held in your mind, cherish that.” The complete wrong opportunity to push an atheist belief.

  11. What not to say: Thank goodness you didn’t have any children.

  12. What not to say: what did the child die from? It’s important because you’ll need to know so it doesn’t happen if you have another baby”

  13. This is great. I love this list.
    I have a similar list that gives helpful advice to people in our lives as to how they can deal with us without pissing us off in our moments of intense grief. I have found these to be much more helpful to me than telling someone off, or pushing them away.
    1. I know that it is hard to see my hurting, but someone that I love has died and I am going to hurt.
    2. Crying is a healthy reaction to grief, and grief is a healthy reaction to losing someone that we love – Please let me feel my feelings as they come.
    3. Please don’t limit the time that is “OK” for me to grieve.
    4. It sounds like a cliché, but be present. Keeping me connected with friends is important.
    5. Call, email, facebook, send letters or cards, even if I don’t respond. I will know that you care and that will help.
    6. Don’t try to understand, don’t try to compare my loss, just understand that you don’t understand.
    7. I am not going to “find closure” or “get over it,” but one day I will begin to reinvest in life. I just need time.
    8. Pain and joy can coexist; when I laugh one day it doesn’t mean that I wont cry the next.
    9. I really am not crazy. I might cry in the cereal aisle, be unable to make coffee, buy presents for someone who isn’t here, or visit the cemetery every day. I am grieving, and that makes a lot of what I do seem crazy. If I am not hurting myself or others, please just accept that what I am doing is ok.
    10. Memories and stories are important to my healing. Please talk about my child/spouse/sibling/grandchild/parents – I will tell you if I cant handle them.
    11. Grief can be fickle… Some days I can conquer mountains, and other days I cant conquer a shower.
    12. Forgive me for the insensitive things that I’ve said or done. I don’t mean to be hurtful – sometimes I just cant think about what I’m doing.
    13. I might seem strong, but I don’t feel strong.
    14. My spouse/child/sibling/grandchild/parent will always be part of my life in many different ways. Please help me include them.
    15. Invite me to dinner, parties, and other events, and continue to do so even if I say not for a very long time. One day I will be ready.
    16. Love me as I am now, and know that if you ever experience a similar loss that you will have a friend who understands.

  14. Sometimes the best thing to say is to admit that you don’t know what to say. Runner-up: “I am here for you as much as you need, and I will call you every day to see how you are doing.”

  15. Its crazy all of the stuff people say in the name of being ‘helpful.’ We have lost friends and/or distanced ourselves from people who were unable to walk with us after our son died. I have been asked by tons of people what to say after tragedy. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is the best, universal response. After that, shut your mouth and listen. Offer a hug. I tell them that if they don’t have the power to bring back my son, they don’t have the power to make me feel better or give me advice. Great post.

  16. What about “what TO say?”

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Meghan, that’s a good question but unfortunately the answer is tricky! Individuals, relationships, losses, they are all different. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple, “I’m so sorry for your loss” “My deepest sympathies” “Can I do x, y, or z for you?” It seems so small but more often than not people don’t need you to say something great, they just need to know you’re there for them.

  17. I could watch Schindler’s List and still be happy after reaindg this.

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