5 Things NOT to Say to a Grieving Person
I’ve been there too. You’re face to face with someone you care about who has recently experienced a loss. And you feel like you should do or say something – something that would take away some of their pain. We feel compelled to fill the silence and hope that it’s helpful. But sometimes we say things that we intend to be helpful that aren’t.
Let me be clear. I’ve said most of these 5 things in the past. So please don’t think that I’m judging you. But the most important thing you can remember is that simply being there is the most important thing. Being there in person. Being there by calling or writing or checking in with them in various ways – that’s the most important thing.
These 5 topics NOT to say aren’t hard and fast rules. Sometimes you can say these things and the person will be fine with it. So there are definitely exceptions. I’m also thinking about these as things not to say immediately after the loss or within the first few days and weeks.
1) “I don’t know what I would do if I lost ….”
So if you’re talking to a widow and you say, “I don’t know what I would do if I lost my husband” When we say this, we’re often trying to convey how seriously we’re taking their loss. What we’re trying to say is something like, “I realize this is a big deal and it will completely change your life.” Or something like that. The problem is that the bereaved person often doesn’t know what they’re going to do either. They already feel disconnected from their loved one by death, and this statement just reinforces how different they are and how different their life is from others.
2) “I know how you feel.”
When we say this, we’re trying to connect with our grieving friend or loved one. Perhaps your friend has experienced the death of their father and you have previously lost your father. And you’re trying to communicate that you have some sense of what they’re going through or maybe you’re saying, “I can help because I’ve been there”. But what we have to remember is that each relationship is unique – and therefore each loss is different – Even if you’ve both experienced the death of the same person. Two brothers who have lost their father will grieve him differently because each of their relationships with their father is unique. So when we say, “I know how you feel” – the person may feel like we’re saying “I know exactly how you’re feeling because it is the same as how I felt” – but that is making a huge assumption.
3) Avoid any statement that begins with “At least you…”
These types of statements are our attempt to make the person feel better by pointing out that there are still positive things in their life. We may say, “At least you don’t have to worry about money.” “At least they are in a better place.” “At least they aren’t suffering any more.” Our intentions are good – we’re trying to cheer them up or at least help them feel better. But pointing out the positive things in their life immediately after a loss will feel like we’re minimizing how significant their loss is – and it can also feel like we’re trying to rush their grief process. It’s OK to feel bad after the death of a loved one; and to suggest they should immediately begin to count their blessings can feel dismissive and uncaring.
4) Avoid questions about next steps
Sometimes we try to show we care by asking them questions about how they are going to adjust to life without their loved one. Questions like “how are you going to manage being a single parent” or “Are you going to keep living in your house?” are questions they may not know the answer to – and more importantly, these are not the most critical questions on their mind. Questions like this may simply be reminders of how much their life will need to change – perhaps they know or maybe they don’t. But its best for them to bring up the specific concerns that they want to talk about.
5) Avoid explanations of why their loved one died
Statements that fall into this category include “God needed her in heaven” or “His work on earth must be over” “Heaven needed an Angel” or similar statements. These statements may feel we’re being caring, but can often be interpreted as making assumptions about religious and spiritual beliefs. Even if you know them well and have some sense of their religious beliefs, the circumstances of their loss may cause them to question some of their beliefs. Unfortunately there are many different ways for these types of statements to be interpreted as unhelpful.
Just as a reminder, don’t beat yourself up if you’ve made these statements in the past. I’ve certainly said some of them. And it is quite possible that the recipient understood and appreciated your good intentions. I can completely understand if you’re thinking – great, so what CAN I say? In a different video, I’ll be sharing some statements that are more likely to be viewed as helpful and explain why they are better alternatives.