10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
When someone we care about is hurting following the death of someone close to them we often feel compassion and want to be helpful and supportive, and we want to say something to say to ease their pain. Sadly, sometimes in our attempts to be supportive what we say may not only be unhelpful, but may unintentionally add to the pain! Here is a list of things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving, with some suggestions on what you might try instead:
“I understand what you are going through.”
While you may be able to relate because perhaps you’ve had a similar loss, it’s never possible to fully understand the unique grief experience someone else is having. You can’t possibly fully know them, the person they lost, the intimacy of the relationship between them, the circumstances surrounding the loss, and all the ways in which the person’s life is affected by the loss. Oftentimes the death of a significant loved one leaves a person feeling alone, so instead of saying “I understand,” perhaps try a reassuring look, or a touch, or a hug... something that communicates that you care and that they aren’t alone in their loss.
“They’re in a better place”
Your beliefs are your beliefs, and even if you share similar beliefs, most people who lose someone will tell you that they’d rather have their loved one here with them, happy, healthy, and whole. This statement can feel a bit dismissive of their grief, or can make them feel guilty and selfish if they would rather have their loved one here. So instead of offering this statement, instead, trying something more affirming, like, “it’s ok to miss them and love them and still wish they were here with you.”
“You can find someone else”
Forget and replace- that’s what a statement like this feels like. It dishonors the memory of the person who died and suggests they are replaceable and forgettable. For parents who’ve lost children, sometimes they hear words like “at least you still have your other children,” or “you can always have another child.” If someone choses to start a new relationship, or if a parent choses to have another child, they will do so in their own time and when and if they are ever ready and wanting.
“At least they’re not in pain anymore”
While this may have some truth to it if the person was indeed in pain and suffering, not everyone suffers or has pain before death. Instead, simply acknowledge how hard it is to lose a loved one, whether their loved one suffered or not.
“Just stay busy and try not to think about it”
This is impossible. But it also says to shut out the memory of the person who died, which can feel like you are saying the person isn’t worthy of being remembered. It also leaves the grief unresolved. Offer to listen, offer to talk about the person. As the saying goes, a pain shared is a pain lifted.
“Other people have it worse”
When we experience a devastating loss, having our pain compared to someone else’s pain doesn’t make our pain less, and it can feel like we are being told that our grief shouldn’t be the way it is. Our grief is what it is, and comparing to others won’t make our pain less. This statement may be an attempt to try to comfort, but it can feel insensitive and judgmental. Instead, try acknowledging just how terrible a loss this is for that person.
“At least you have your memories”
Yes, memories can be helpful and comforting at times, but they don’t replace our loved one or stop our pain. Sometimes memories are painful and full of regret, and sometimes they remind us that no new memories will ever be made. Sometimes, because of the nature of the loss (especially in case of traumatic grief) the “good” memories can be blocked and the mind may only be able to focus on painful memories. Because we can’t know where a person’s mind is and what their memories are like, it’s best not to make a statement like this. Instead, perhaps offering to talk about whatever is on their mind. This allows them opportunity to speak about their loved one and can show you where their mind is at, allowing you to be a compassionate listener, which is often more valuable than trying to offer advice that may be unintentionally unhelpful.
“They wouldn’t want you to be sad”
Are you sure? Our grief is reaction to the loss of someone we love, and sadness is a big part of the experience of grief, especially in the early days. The deeper we love, the deeper we grieve. Instead of a statement like this, try something more affirming: “It’s ok to be sad, and I’ll be here for you as long as you need me,” –and of course, if you say it, mean it, and be sure to be there for as long as it takes!
“You need to let this go/ You need to move on”
“Moving on” and “letting go” feels like you are saying to someone to stop feeling what they are feeling. We grieve because love and have lost. You can’t just turn off love, and so you can’t just turn off the grief, either. Sometimes a listening ear is the best medicine and a compassionate shoulder can be hard to come by. Try saying, “I can see you’re really struggling with this. Would you like to talk? I can just listen.” And if they take you up on your offer, then by all means, just listen attentively. Don’t offer advice or your opinion unless they specifically ask you for it. Make the listening about them, not about you and your perspective on their loss.
“I thought you’d be over this by now?”
Usually a statement like this gets said to a person a little later in their process of grief. The process of grief moves at its own pace for every person, and in fact, it could be said that no one ever really stops grieving- the pain just becomes more bearable as we learn how to live without our loved one. Making a statement like this one has a feeling of judgment to it. So perhaps try saying something more affirming, like: “This is so hard and you can take all the time that you need.”