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What Not to Say to Someone Grieving

What Not to Say to Someone Grieving

By Annie Tucker Morgan, DivineCaroline

If you have had the experience of losing a loved one in your lifetime, you understand that the mourning process can be so agonizing and prolonged that it feels as if it will never end. Sometimes it’s so excruciating, in fact, that even when we aren’t grieving firsthand and are simply trying to help a person we know heal following the death of someone important to him or her, we panic, unsure of what words of reassurance can possibly suffice in the face of such monumental loss and emotional trauma.

According to bereavement expert Camille Wortman, PhD, blogging for the PBS series This Emotional Life, our personal discomfort surrounding death and tragedy, whether conscious or unconscious, often rears its head when we try to reach out to grieving people, even if we have the best of intentions. She notes, “We are not sure what to say and we do not want to make [the person] feel even worse. Conversing with a grieving person can evoke feelings of helplessness because objectively, there is little we can say or do to help. Such interactions may also enhance feelings of vulnerability, because they make us realize that bad things can happen at any time.”

In addition, Wortman points out, as we sense our own stress levels increasing while we try to soothe someone who is suffering, we freeze up and tend to default to a one-size-fits-all approach, making “remarks that are part of our cultural understanding of how to help others.” Yet such statements are risky at best and downright damaging at worst. When attempting to console a bereaved person, you’d be wise to avoid the following types of behaviors.

Offering Platitudes
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You have so much to be thankful for.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
“This is simply nature’s way of dealing with a problem.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”

Minimizing the Problem
“It was only a baby you didn’t know; you can always have other children.”
“She was seventy-five, so she lived a nice long life.”
“It’s over now. There’s nothing to do but move on.”
“Others are worse off than you.”

Giving Unsolicited Advice
“You should seriously consider getting a dog to keep you company now that your husband is gone.”
“It’s not healthy for you to be visiting your mother’s grave every day.”
“The best way for you to get over your wife’s death is to start dating new people as soon as possible.”

Grasping at Straws in an Attempt to Relate
“I know how you feel about your son’s passing. My husband and I got divorced last year, and I’ve had a very hard time with it.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s untimely death. I understand what you’re going through, because I had to put my dog to sleep recently.”
“I know how hard it must have been to lose your five-year-old. I experienced a similar tragedy when I had an abortion.”

Putting a Religious Spin on the Situation
“God has a plan.”
“God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.”
“God needed your father more than you did.”
“She’s a flower in God’s garden now.”
“Heaven needed another angel.”

Expressing Intolerance for the Length of the Grieving Process
“Think positive.”
“You must be strong.”
“Keep a stiff upper lip.”
“Pull yourself together.”
“Get back on the horse.”

These verbal red flags might make you feel as if trying to console someone who’s lost a loved one is akin to stepping into a minefield, but bear in mind that saying nothing at all is still more harmful. Treat this as an opportunity to practice mindful compassion—instead of blurting out clichés, make sympathetic and selfless comments, such as:

“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
“I can’t imagine what you are going through.”
“I don’t know exactly what to say, but I know I can listen.”
“Would you like to sit down and tell me how you’re really feeling?”

Above all, don’t forget to ask what you can do to help. Whether that means sitting quietly with a grieving friend while she cries, asking people to prepare food for her for a few weeks, or researching support groups for her to attend, know that you do have the power to provide genuine comfort.

 

Related:
On Death & The Next Grand Adventure
Meeting With the Absence of a Loved One
Oscar the Cat: Grim Reaper or Angel of Mercy?

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Molly, selected from DivineCaroline

At DivineCaroline.com, women come together to learn from experts in the fields, of health, sustainability, and culture; to reflect on shared experiences; and to express themselves by writing and publishing stories about anything that matters to them. Here, real women publish like real pros. Together, with our staff writers, they’re discussing all facets of women’s lives from relationships and careers, to travel and healthy living. So come discover, read, learn, laugh and connect at DivineCaroline.com.

129 comments

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5:03PM PDT on Mar 21, 2013

Worst attitude I ever experienced that I can talk about?

My niece's partner left her to bring up 3 children alone. She told me she was lonely and really wanted to meet someone else, but it never seemed to happen. Finally she did meet someone. The children took to him as well and, for a brief time, she was so happy!

Suddenly he committed suicide. Soon after my brother (her father) rang me up and told me it was terrible the way she had 'let herself go' grieving for this man she hadn't known very long. She should 'restore her sens of perspective by telling herself she was lucky it wasn't one of her children!' I was horrified but I said: 'Giver her time! It's only been a fortnight!' 'Exactly,' he said. 'A whole fortnight!'

I thought: 'how is it possible that someone in human form can know so little about human feelings!!!!' Then I had to talk to the Samaritans myself!'

It should have been obvious that she was upset on three fronts. First, she grieved for her boyfriend. Second. What a terrible rejection, to feel that your love isn't enough to make the other person want to live? Third, and not so bad, but still a factor - she had to go back to the loneliness of wanting to meet someone.

I thought that if my brother is such an emotional cripple it would plainly be no use at all to expect him ever, to have any idea whatsoever of human feelings. Oh, how many times in the past have I wished I had a proper brother! Well, I have found an answer to that, but that's another

10:06AM PDT on Mar 21, 2013

Lika S, I am sorry you suffered this loss. I hope it did you good to let out your feelings about the insensitive 'friend' because, if yoju feel like me, it's no good trying to stifle that kind of thing.

10:01AM PDT on Mar 21, 2013

This happened to me at a generally enjoyable event this last weekend and I so hope I got it right!
I knew the lady was bereaved, but I mistakenly thought it was some considerable time ago,.so the first day my only remarks about her father was that I was enjoying reading something he had written. That evening I realised my mistake about how long he's been gone..

The next day I went out of my way to find her, and apologised for not saying anything the previous day. 'Well, it was last June,' said the daughter, as though it was a long time. My first remark was that it was not really long and I was really sorry she had lost him. (I am sure that saying you are sorry is the right way to go.)

I got to know this family through my late partner, who has been gone for two years. They shared the same interests. I said: 'He's sitting with Edward at the Pearly Gates, happily watching us and having a great conversation...' I hope I got it right! But she did tell me, with some feeling in her voice, that my remarks were much appreciated!

Reading this, I wondered if I was right to talk about what I assumed he was doing. What do you think?

9:57AM PDT on Mar 21, 2013

There is a standard cliche for everything, and I do my best to avoid it and be more thoughtful.

2:33AM PST on Feb 27, 2013

Wonderful information to remind us what's appropriate.

2:51PM PDT on Aug 18, 2012

there is no "right" thing to say. People grieve differently and show their grief differently. some need alone time. others need to relive and remember. It is rarely easy on anyone. Such is life. Just be there, they will talk if they are ready, and if they aren't, that is okay. Sometimes just knowing someone is thinking of you can help

8:23AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

An insightful and useful article. Having had my Mom die at almost 63 years and my brother die much later on... killed in a car accident at 54 one can be subjected to all sorts of comments if people are not sensitive or thinking enough about the impact of their words especially the "everything happens for a reason" banality tossed out.

Thankfully in my case most comments were sympathetic without the mindless things some come up with and we had thoughtful neighbours who brought over cooked meals and other helpful gestures when we were grieving, such generosity and thoughtfulness goes a long way.

5:51AM PDT on Jul 22, 2012

thanks

2:05PM PDT on Jul 14, 2012

I have gotten and still get most of these comments from thoughtless people since my fiance passed away recently. Having to deal with insensitive people makes everything so much worse.

5:45PM PDT on Jul 9, 2012

Thank you

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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