What to Say and Not to Say When People are Grieving

Let’s face it; whenever someone we know has suffered a loss or is going through a difficult time, we all struggle with what to say.

Some of us can be so uncomfortable dealing with our own feelings and insecurities that we may go out of our way to avoid being in contact with our grieving friend, colleague, or acquaintance. Those of us who do take the plunge, often end up saying things that provide little to no comfort to those who are suffering, and sometimes can make things worse.

Amy Florian has written an excellent book on this subject entitled, “No Longer Awkward.” Here are some of her golden nuggets of advice:

13 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving:

  1. I’m so sorry.” First of all, everyone says I’m sorry, so it just becomes a perfunctory thing to say and it loses its meaning, sort of like, “Have a good evening.” Saying, “I’m sorry,” implies you are apologizing for something, and invites responses from the grief-stricken like, “That’s okay, you didn’t do anything, “or, “Not half as sorry as I am.”
  2. “You have my sympathy.” While this does convey that you care, the phrase is very much overused and there are much more effective ways to convey your feelings.
  3. “I know how you feel.” If you really want to alienate a grieving friend immediately, say this. Actually you have no idea how they feel, even if you have suffered a similar loss, and people universally resent it when you say you do. So don’t!
  4. “Time heals all wounds.” This phrase simply isn’t true. Time creates distance from the event, but doesn’t heal. It is what you do with the time that heals. Telling them otherwise implies that they can repress or deny their grief and it will just go away on its own, which is the worst thing they can do if they want to reclaim joy in their life.
  5. “At least…” or “You should be grateful that…” Sure, grievers do have things to be grateful for, including the fact that their loved one is no longer suffering. But when you concentrate only on one side of the equation, you telegraph that you don’t understand their swirling jumble of emotions. They learn that you are no different than everyone else, more comfortable with the “happy” side of the experience and intent on cheering them up. This makes it unsafe for them to be honest with you about their pain and sadness.
  6. “Call me anytime.” Everybody says this and few mean it. They’re not going to call you, because all their energy is likely sapped by their grief, they are worried about becoming a burden, and they probably don’t want to intrude or impose on you, so saying this is meaningless.
  7. “You look good.” Seriously? Nobody looks good in these circumstances (even if they do, who cares?) and it’s better not to place any focus on outward appearances at a time like this.
  8. “There’s nothing more that we can do for you.” Even if said to a terminally ill patient, this is just false. There’s always something more you can do for them.
  9. Anything that attempts to explain their loss or tells them their loved one is in a better place. Even when mourners do believe their beloved is in heaven, at that moment it is hard to imagine a “better place” than right by their side here on earth. You risk unintentional alienation by your confident assertion of the deceased person’s happiness.
  10. “Should.” It’s common for people to tell grievers how they should feel and how they should be handling their grief. These well-meaning “shoulds” come from an unconscious ignorance of people who are simply not in the bereaved family’s shoes.
  11. “Be strong.” This admonition tells grieving friends they are “weak” when they show anger, sadness, or tears. People need permission to embrace the full range of their emotions, both positive and negative, and to have them honored and respected. Telling them to be strong is contrary to healing, wholeness, and regaining joy.
  12. “How are you?” Grieving people have trouble responding to this question because grief is such a volatile process and they may feel differently from hour to hour. They often just reply, “Fine,” because they realize most people really don’t want to know. Unfortunately, this answer does not open the door to more dialog about how they are really doing and it prevents them from receiving effective support.
  13. “Put it behind you and get on with your life.” Grieving people get offended when they are told the way to move ahead is to forget. The path to healing involves creating a memory out of what can no longer be and taking it with them into the future.

Now that you know what not to say, what should you say instead? Some of the following are useful during any transition. For others, you can often modify the language to suit other transitions or losses. Florian says that regardless of the situation, every one of these statements/questions offers comfort and helps build trust that will last.

18 Things To Say to Someone Who Is Grieving:

  1. “I can’t imagine what this is like for you. Would you like to tell me about it?” This is an honest acknowledgement of the truth. It doesn’t try to tell them you already know how they feel. Instead it allows them to tell you about their experience so you might understand.
  2. “…How is it different?” Share a similar experience you had and ask if that is how they are feeling. Example: “If I were in your shoes, I think I’d be in shock and walking around in a fog. Is that your experience, or how is it different?”
  3. “I know your grief won’t be over in a week, a month, or even a year. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep breathing. This will take a long time and I’ll be here for you.” Most people go away right after the funeral, and stop calling soon after. Let grieving friends know you won’t go away. They can count on you for the long haul, but if you say this, make sure you live up to your promise!
  4. “Healing doesn’t mean ‘getting over it’…” The greatest testimony one can give to a loved one is to live a full life enriched by their memory. Tell them, “You will never forget, and you wouldn’t want to. [Name] will forever be a part of you.”
  5. “Expect more volatility than the stock market.” The grief process is unpredictable and doesn’t move forward in linear fashion. Instead it is up and down, back and forth, and often feels like two steps backward for every three steps forward. Reassure your friend that recurring sad times and vacillating emotions are a normal part of the healing process.
  6. “I’ll call you.” Every time you call them, let them know when you will call again, and then do it. This will let them know you will be there without them having to give it a second thought. This is refreshingly different from their experience with everyone else.
  7. “I’d like to help. Would you rather I run some errands for you, arrange for a caregiver so you can get out by yourself for a while, or do something else you need?” Instead of making a generalized, “What can I do?” offer to help like everyone else, make it concrete and list a few specific things. Then they know they can choose from you list or come up with something similar.
  8. “We don’t understand why things like this happen.” Don’t try to explain away a loss, theologically or otherwise. Simply admit the truth that we honestly don’t know why things happen as they do.
  9. “Death is not fair or logical, and it’s always too soon when death comes to someone you love.” Instead of saying, “You are so lucky he lived such a long time,” acknowledge the ambiguity of death and their love for the deceased.
  10. Break the tension and invite dialogue when the bereaved tell you they are “fine.” Fine is the standard answer people give when they think you really don’t want to know. Say something like, “Oh, you know what FINE means, don’t you? Frightened, Insecure, Neurotic and Exhausted. I’m not so sure that’s good.” Then follow up by saying, “Besides, that’s the standard answer people give when they think you really don’t want to know. I honestly do want to know. Would you like to tell me what’s really going on?”
  11. “It’s normal to be relieved or grateful about some things and at the same time very sad about others. Most people bounce back and forth between the two. I just hope you are able to feel whatever you feel at the time without anyone else trying to tell you what you ‘should’ feel.” Contrast this message with those who tell people to look at the bright side or be grateful.
  12. “You know, this wouldn’t be so hard if you didn’t really love her…” Grieving people often berate themselves for not being “better” by now, especially with so many people telling them to put it behind them and get on with their life. Instead, try, “You know, this wouldn’t be so hard if you really didn’t love her. Life can go on as usual when you lose something unimportant, but never when you lose a priceless treasure. Your grief is a testament to your love, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of that. At least with me, you never need to apologize for your tears or your grief.”
  13. “It’s hard when people say hurtful things. They mean well, and they are doing their best to be comforting. They just don’t know any better. They haven’t been taught and they haven’t been in your shoes.” Nobody intends to be cruel of hurtful; they do the best they can. Yet grieving people are frequently offended, alienated, shocked, or hurt deeply by another’s words or actions. Help the bereaved be patient with others’ attempts and hear the underlying expression of concern and compassion.
  14. Say the name. Mourners want to know that others also remember their loved ones. They long to hear the name and share stories, even if it makes them cry. Don’t be afraid to say the name, in person or on a card. Keep stories and memories alive for your friends who are mourning.
  15. Say “died,” “death,” “cancer,” “terminal illness,” “died by suicide,” “murder,” etc. Using the proper words to describe what happened isn’t nearly as harsh as people fear, and it is an honest recognition of your bereaved friend’s reality. Some bereaved resist using those words. Don’t force them, but also do not follow suit. When you have the courage to accurately name what happened, you let them know they don’t have to dance around it with you. This can be very liberating for them.
  16. “You’re not crazy; you’re just grieving. What you’re saying/thinking/doing IS normal for a grieving person.” Bereaved people frequently feel like they’re going crazy because of all the intensity of their feelings and emotions. They want to be “over it,” and are constantly told they should be. Affirm and reassure them by normalizing their experience and letting them know they’re okay.
  17. “You are unlearning the expected presence of [Name].” We learn to expect the person, pet or thing to be there as usual. The hardest times are when that expectation isn’t met. For example, grievers may instinctually pick up the phone to call the person and then realize no one will answer. Grieving people have to retrain their brains not to expect the familiar presence, and that takes time.
  18. “You still have a future. It will just be a very different future than the one you planned.” Not only do grieving people feel they’ve lost what they cherished from the past, but they also feel they’ve lost their future. Actually what they’ve lost is their dream for a particular future—their vision and plan for how the future was expected to unfold. Part of their task is to let go of those dreams and build new ones. You can help them begin the gradual shift of looking backward and asking, “Why?” to looking forward and asking, “What now?”

As you can see, contrary to the helpless place most people believe they are in when someone close to them suffers a grievous loss, there is actually a tremendous amount of good you can do to support them during their time of greatest need, if you know what to say.

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