what not to say to someone who's grieving

What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving?

It's hard to know what to say when someone you care about is grieving

Sometimes people might not understand the depth of your sadness or the complexity of your feelings. 

It can be challenging for those grieving because they may want to ask questions that seem insensitive or invasive. So here it goes: What not to say.

Going through grief, which is being experienced by so many people these days, can leave a lasting imprint on the brain and cause myriad symptoms. 

It can make people feel sad, depressed, unable to concentrate, edgy, anxious, or irritable, and can cause trouble sleeping. 

If you know someone who's mourning the loss of a loved one, you may wonder what you should say or what you shouldn't say.

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 don't want to make them angry, and we 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 to 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.

OK, so, here's the bad news. We 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 makes them feel alienated, misunderstood, sad or angry. 

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. 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. Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals will always manage to find creative ways to pull costs in line with your budget.

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.

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"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. 

"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 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 sucks. Out of desperation to find a silver lining, we end up grasping onto whatever we can think of, but often 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 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. 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 more manageable.

"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 it's God's plan; it sucks.

Though many take comfort in a more excellent plan, death can cause many people to question God, their understanding of God's omnibenevolence, and their faith in general.  

This can be the case even for people who have profound 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 call. I can't be strong. You think I am a bad mother/father/son/daughter. 

We all grieve in our 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 call as much as they want to and not feel they are being judged for it.  

Many will already feel 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 confuse children and 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.

What not to say: "How are you doing?"

When you offer this well-worn phrase, the person is most likely hearing something different: Something like, "Please tell me you're doing OK because it's uncomfortable if you say you're not doing well," says Brennan. When faced with this question, people are more likely to respond with "fine" or "OK" rather than communicating their feelings.

What to say instead: "It's tough right now for you."

"Acknowledge that what they're going through right now is very painful," says Soffer. Don't gloss over their feelings—let them have the chance to grieve fully and without judgment.

What Not to Say: "They're in a Better Place."

During such a confusing and personal time, it's better to be cautious than assume a belief system that the griever might not subscribe to, says Brennan. This phrase can also seem to de-emphasise the pain he or she is feeling in the moment. The person is still gone and not with them—and that's what is problematic about loss.

What to Say Instead: "I'm Sorry You're Suffering."

"Certainly the person is glad [their loved one is] not suffering anymore," says Brennan, "but it doesn't make the pain any different." Focus on the person who is experiencing pain at that moment.

What Not to Say: "Please Let Me Know If There's Anything I Can Do for You."

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Everyone reaching out with offers of support can be overwhelming. It also puts the responsibility on the bereaved to reach out for help. Let Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals help you select the type of funeral service that best fits your needs and your budget.

What to say instead: "I'll come over to do a few loads of laundry," or "I'll carpool for the next month."

Brennan says that people are more willing to accept support if it's specific rather than a wide-open offer.

What Not to Say: "You Can Always…"

If someone loses a partner or a child, and you might tell them that he or she can always get remarried or have another child, thinking that you're helping them to see the silver lining.

But to the bereaved, it can sound like you're suggesting a loved one is replaceable. This plays on one of the biggest fears: that they will somehow forget that person and that they'll not be as crucial in their future lives.

What to Say Instead: "Tell Me About Your Loved One."

When dealing with the present pain of loss, it can be hard to look towards a future full of unknowns. Help to focus on the memories by asking specific questions and being an active listener.

What Not to Say: "I Know How You Feel."

Though everyone will at some time experience loss, it is an overwhelmingly personal experience. You're never truly able to know how someone experiences the loss and claiming that you do can feel invalidating.

What to Say Instead: "I Can Imagine How You're Feeling."

Give the person a chance to identify how he or she feels, rather than speaking for him or her.

What Not to Say: "This All Happens Eventually"

Everyone does experience death and loss as a part of life, but this perspective might minimise the actual loss at that moment. This phrase is often tossed around when people lose their parents.

What to Say Instead: "you Must Miss Them."

The loss of a loved one is likely the source of the pain—focus on that, rather than brushing it aside as a non-negotiable aspect of life.

What Not to Say: "She Would Have Wanted It This Way"

Unless the person planned for his or her funeral, there is no way to know what his or her preferences would have been. 

Speaking for the deceased may invite unnecessary quarrels between friends and relatives, who all have different relationships and views of what the dead would have deemed appropriate.

What to Say Instead: "I'd Like to Honor Them This Way."

Tie your memorials to your existing knowledge base. Tap into your memories and information about the person, and acknowledge that it symbolises the relationship you two shared, rather than the whole person.

What Not to Say: "You're Handling This Better Than I Expected."

"They might just be putting on a happy face," says Brennan. Your surprise might reinforce the idea that he or she shouldn't be suffering the loss of a loved one.

What to Say Instead: "You Might Not Be Feeling Great, but That's OK."

Let the person have complete freedom to feel how they want—even if time has passed since the loved one's death, it is comforting to acknowledge that each moment without them is difficult.

What Not to Say: Nothing at All.

You'd be surprised how many people never reach out because they're very uncomfortable.

What to Say Instead: "Remember When?"

One of the most helpful things you can do for a grieving person shares a memory of his or her loved one—even if you feel like you're not in the inner circle. You're giving them a perspective on that person that they'd never otherwise get the chance to have.

Maybe some of you think this list is wrong because you've heard your grieving friend or family member say some of the things on this list.  

It's true! Many grievers 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 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.

Best & Worst Traits of People Just Trying to Help

When in the position of wanting to help a friend or loved one in grief, often, our first desire is to try to "fix" the situation, when in all actuality, our good intentions can lead to nothing but more grief. 

Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional caregiver. We have comprised two lists that examine both the GOOD and the NOT SO GOOD traits of people just trying to help.

The Best Traits

  • Supportive, but not trying to fix it
  • About feelings
  • Non-active, not telling anyone what to do
  • Admitting can't make it better
  • Not asking for something or someone to change feelings
  • Recognise loss
  • Not time-limited

The Worst Traits

  • They want to fix the loss
  • They are about our discomfort
  • They are directive in nature
  • They rationalise or try to explain the loss
  • They may be judgmental
  • May minimise the loss
  • Put a timeline on loss

Don't Block Your Painful Feelings.

If you're the one who's grieving, know that there are steps you can take to heal. Allowing yourself to express your painful feelings is one of them. 

Let your feelings wash over you, cry, scream (not at others!), then challenge the thoughts that underlie the surface to see if they are true.

When you avoid painful thoughts, feelings, and memories, it creates more harm than good in the long run.

A wealth of research, including a study in Behaviour Research and Therapy, has shown that avoidance increases the likelihood of a host of psychological issues, such as depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, binge eating, chronic pain, low academic performance, and more.

Whenever you suffer from grief, write out your feelings or find a friend or therapist you can talk them out to. This can help bring perspective, which often gets lost during emotional crises. Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals will always manage to find creative ways to pull costs in line with your budget.

Blocking your feelings leads to engaging in harmful behaviours to deal with the excess negative emotional energy.

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