What Not to Say to a Person Who is Grieving



So often in our attempt to console we cause additional injury. Sometimes the best thing to say is to say nothing at all. A heart felt hug and an “I’m Sorry” can go a long way.

I’m ashamed to say, that I have been one of those people who did say and do the best thing.  I didn’t have a clue what grief was like until it came crashing through my door, but now I can look back and learn from my mistakes.  My hope is that you can learn from those too and help instead of hurt those who are grieving.

So what are the big “No, No’s?”

A year before my husband’s death a close friend of his unexpectedly lost his young wife.  We went to the funeral and I balled and cried through the line and dumped my grief on this father and his 4 young daughters. The way we help people through grief is not in the things that we say, but in the caring that we show through consistent support.Feeling relieved, I walked arm in arm with my husband to the car.  I remember remarking to him how grateful I was that I was going home with him and how bad I felt for his friend.  The next day, I promptly forgot about all about them.

About a month later, my husband asked me if I would tutor the oldest daughter in math.  He expressed that she was really struggling with school.  I sighed… thinking of my “busy” schedule and after a little guilt trip from him agreed to tutor her.  I did it twice and then let it drop.

A year later my husband died in a plane crash and I realized how inconsiderate and selfish I had been.  All of the focus had been on me and so little thought was on them. If I had really been concerned then I would have made myself available to help.  The way we help people through grief is not in the things that we say, but in the caring that we show through consistent support.

What are some of things NOT to say or do to a person who is grieving?

1.”How are you doing?”

So many people asked me this and sometimes I just wanted to scream, “Really?  How do you think I am doing?  My husband just died in a plane crash!”  But instead I just forced a smile and tried to reassure everyone that I was okay when inside I was barely holding it together.

2. “They are in a better place.” “You will be with them again.”  “God needed them more.”

Okay, so I am a very religious person. I believe in heaven and life after death, but the best place I felt my husband could have been was with me and my four children.  He wasn’t sick, he wasn’t old.  Death was not some form of relief.  Death took him away from us. I needed him. Furthermore, I was 38 and our reunion seemed like an eternity to me. I didn’t need anyone to explain my religious views to me.  People who are grieving need to process and come to their own conclusions.  This may make outsiders feel better about the loss, but it is not comforting to the grieving family.  Let them process without your opinions.

3. “I understand how you feel.  I lost my grandmother…. or my niece… or my dog… something like that.”

Don’t make vain attempts to empathize. The lost of a husband is nothing like the loss of a grandmother, niece or a pet.  When I lost my husband another young widow wrote me a letter and she said, “I do not pretend to understand how you feel.  Every loss is unique.”  Even though she had also lost a spouse she acknowledged that also she empathized she did not completely understand all of my feelings.  This was such a comforting statement.

4. “We just can’t believe it.  This is just so horrible.”

Don’t dump your grief on the grieving family. Process your own grief without involving those that are most closely related to the death.  When friend after friend repeats these sentiments, it is very emotionally draining on the family.  They find themselves in the place of comforting everyone else.  Don’t make statements that require the grieving family to comfort you.

5. “What happened?”

The family has to relive the events over and over again in their minds.  If they do not volunteer this information, do not ask to satisfy your own curiosity. Retelling events is very emotionally draining.

6. For the loss of a spouse…”You are young, you will find someone else.”

This was the last thing on earth that I wanted to hear.  I was not even remotely thinking about the possibility of remarriage.  In fact I was absolutely against it.  Let the grieving person figure their future out at a later date.

7.  For the loss of a child… “You can have another one.” or “At least you have other children.”

Replacement does not fix loss.  Suggesting this devalues the person that is gone.  When you loose a loved one, you want them to be remembered, not replaced.

8. “At least you had …..years together.”

These types of realizations and feelings of gratitude come from within the person grieving and over time.  A statement like this normally brings to mind all of the years that they will not have with their loved one, and does not bring comfort.

9. “Call if you need anything.”

A grieving person is not going to call.  Tell them you are going to call and then follow through.  Go over and sit with them, just listen and be observant to discover their needs.  Make specific suggestions of what you would like to do to help, but respect their privacy.  If you are a close friend you can offer to do more.

The next time you are face to face with someone who is in deep pain.  Stop for a minute.  Put yourself aside and step into their shoes.  Offer a sincere and heartfelt expression of sympathy such as…

 “I’m so very sorry — I cannot imagine the pain that you are in right now”.

Then go home and think of what you can do to demonstrate caring and support.  Remember that although your friend and loved one may put on a brave face, that they will bear the marks of this wound for the rest of their life. They will need that caring and support long after the funeral flowers have wilted and even past the first year.  In the end, it is not the expressions of sympathy that we give right after the death, but it is in the actions of sympathy that we show from then on.


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