grief

15 Things to Say (and NOT say) to a Grieving Person

You know that mildly panicked feeling you get when you found out your friend’s mother just died and you really don’t know what to say?

I’m going to help you relax with this list of 20 things people say that are well-intended but not so good as well as something better to say.

Breathe. It will be okay.

1. Not so good – “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Even if the person has a faith system that includes God, this phrase has the tacit implication that if you can’t handle things, you must not have enough faith, you’re a bad Christian, etc.

Better – “This must be so hard for you.”

2. Not so good – “I’m sure it’s all for the best.”

Ack! Try really hard not to say this! Right now, the grieving person doesn’t see that anything is for the best except to have her loved one back.

Better – “It’s hard to understand why these things happen.”

3. Not so good – Saying nothing at all.

This is actually one of the worst things that can happen to a grieving person: having people ignore his pain. If you’re not sure what to say, or are uncertain that the person wants to talk about it, it’s okay to say just that.

Better – “I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I’m here for you.”

4. Not so good – “He’s in a better place” or “Just be happy he isn’t in pain anymore.”

These things are always so well-intentioned, but ouch! The place the griever wants him to be is with her, no matter how much pain he was in or how difficult the caregiving was.

Better – “You must miss him terribly.”

5. Not so good – “I know exactly how you feel.”

This is very tempting to say, but be careful: Even if you have experienced a loss, each person has their own unique path to travel so you can’t know exactly how he feels.

Better – “I can’t begin to understand how you feel”

6. Not so good – “You’ll feel better soon.”

This is a presumptive thing to say and it’s more for your benefit than your friend’s. You want her to feel better because you hate to see her suffer. Make sure you don’t dismiss her grief.

Better – “I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

7. Not so good – “Don’t you think you should be over it by now?”

The truth is, you never “get over” a death. The pain subsides and you are able to live your life again. But one is never “over it.”

Better – “I know this is still really painful for you.”

8. Not so good – “You should  _________.”

Each person has her own unique path of grief to follow so it isn’t helpful or comforting to make suggestions as to how she should grieve or suggest that she do certain activities to help her feel better.

Better – “Do what you need to do to grieve – I’ll support you however I can”

9. Not so good – “She wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad.”

Guilt alert! Saying this, even if it’s true, may make the person feel like they “shouldn’t” be sad and that they aren’t handling the loss “right.”

Better – “I can see that you are really sad and miss her so much.”

10. Not so good – “You’ll get married again” or “You can always have more children” or “At least you have your other children.”

While these may be true, the person she really wants back and is grieving for isn’t here and she will not ever be able to replace him. Honor that.

Better – “I know how much you loved him.”

11. Not so good – “Just stay busy and you’ll be okay.”

This is dismissive of the person’s feelings, no matter how good the intention. It is okay to say what worked for you when you experienced grief, but make sure it’s not in the form of a command.

Better – “When I was grieving, staying busy was helpful for me, but that may or may not be what works best for you.”

12. Not so good – “You shouldn’t be sad in front of the children.”

Children are often more upset by what they don’t know than what they do know, so sometimes it’s okay to model normal grief for the children.

Better – “How are the kids doing with this?”

13. Not so good – “It’s time for you to get yourself together.”

Each person’s path of grief is unique. Maybe it isn’t time for her to get herself “together” yet.

Better – “It looks like this is a rough day for you. How about if I bring some dinner over at 6:00?”

14. Not so good – Trying to cheer him up by telling jokes.

Humor can be really helpful in a lot of situations, but make sure that your use of humor isn’t just to change the subject away from feelings of sadness or to make you feel more comfortable.

Better – “I bet you miss her sense of humor.”

15. Not so good – “Let me know if I can help.”

In many instances, the grieving person either doesn’t know what help she needs or it’s too hard to ask for help. Making specific suggestions and then asking her if it would be okay is much more concrete and useful.

Better – “I think it’s garbage day. Is it okay if I take your garbage out for you?”

 

Stick with the “better” things to say to your grieving friend and you’ll not only feel good yourself, but you’ll help her heal as well.

 

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who blogs about bouncing back in life. Download her FREE guide: Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs. You can find more of Bobbi’s writing at The Bounce Blog.

  • Melisa V.

    Thank you for writing this post.  I have often found myself tongue tied when dealing with grieving friends and family members, and I found your article so helpful.

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Hi Melisa, you’re welcome. I know it’s really hard to know what to say sometimes, but simplicity is often the best approach.

  • http://www.financialbailoutnews.com/7-creative-ways-to-pay-off-debt/ Jcrosskey@FinancialBailoutNews

    Thank you so much for this article. My wife’s grandmother died a couple months ago and it has been difficult to be exactly what I need to be for her. These are great steps.  

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      I’m glad this is helpful for you, JCrosskey. I know it can be really difficult to know what to say and how to act.

  • http://www.simplelifecorp.com/simplelifeblog/ Patti

    I hope I can remember your guide when I need it. It’s so difficult when you want to comfort someone but just don’t know what to say and you’re afraid you might say the wrong thing. 

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      I know, Patti, it IS hard. But just try to remember two basic ones: “I’m so sorry” and “I’m here for you.”

  • thepassiondiva

    Beautiful, while I have not experienced a lose that was very close to me, my boiyfriend lost his pervious wife a little over 4 years ago. So we often talk about how painful it was and how people acting and spoke to him as he was going through the experience.

    these are really authentic and meanful phrases to say that will show how much you care.

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Yes, Lori, I’m sure your boyfriend could add a few to this list!

  • http://massagedreams.com/ Ion Doaga

    I have gone through this. 8 years ago my father passed away and I just graduated school. My priorities in life have changed. I had to find a job to cover my expenses in order to help my mother and she would take care of my little sister. 

    Some of the worst things people can say are “don’t cry”, “don’t feel bad”. It makes you feel they don’t understand you and you just want to be alone. 

    When you are in this kind of situation many people say “what I can do for you” and that made us responding “I don’t know” or something like that. Some people were just doing things and that surprised us more. 

    The brained is stressed and at that point you can’t see the whole picture of what is happening around you. 

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Thanks so much for sharing these real-life examples, Ion. I’m so sorry about the death of your father and the insensitive, but well-meaning, things people have said to you. I know exactly how that is to have people ask what they can do to help and you just can’t come up with anything because you feel like you’re in a fog.

  • Susan

    THANK YOU!  As a woman who has lost multiple pregnancies, I found many people’s well-intended-but-actually-hurtful comments very unhelpful — sometimes downright painful.  And these people honestly thought they were trying to say something to ease my pain. 

    Thus, I am particularly grateful for No. 10 above — especially ”You can always have more children” — and No. 2 (“I’m sure it’s all for the best”), as those were common responses . . . of those who responded at ALL.  Most of the time, my losses were met with stony silence, and while I logically know that these people just didn’t know what to say (at least, that’s what I’d like to tell myself), the unspoken message was, “Your loss wasn’t real; it doesn’t deserve acknowledgement.”  This was particularly true when I lost a baby through a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.  While I was extremely grateful to have narrowly escaped death, part of me DID die — a part that almost no one acknowledged.  When I grieved over that loss, the message I got was, “You shouldn’t be grieving.  It wasn’t a real baby, after all.  You should just be damn glad you’re alive.” 

    The only other response to grief that I’d add to your very thorough list is, “It’s God’s will,” which is kind of a combination of No.’s 1 and 2.  I’ve heard this more often than anything else, and find it to be one of the most hurtful things someone could say.  Who are they to know God’s will, after all?!?  Or is the message that God wanted us to feel pain??  Puh-lease . . .

    Whew!  It felt good to get all that off my chest.  Thanks again for validating grief in a HELPFUL way!  These suggestions should be passed down from generation to generation, if not taught in school.  We ALL experience loss in life, or know of someone who has.  How to respond in a manner that helps the grieving actually process their grief – and feel supported in doing so — should be a required skill.  Instead, it seems like our culture tends toward doing everything possible to NOT process grief in a healthy manner.  

    Thanks again!!!!!!!!

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Susan, you’re most welcome and thank YOU for sharing your story. Loss of pregnancies is a special topic that people REALLY don’t get and thus I think grievers like you may receive more than your fair share of hurtful comments. I’m glad that you don’t take those comments to heart and think that you should just “buck up” or “be glad you’re alive.” 

      I also agree with you about the “It’s God’s will” comment. Ouch! What kind of God is that? 

      Don’t get me started . . . ;-)

      • Kennyandvicki

         Our God is an awesome God, but you nor I can not know what his will is.

  • April L.

    This reminds me a lot of a post I wrote a few months ago when thinking through grief: http://oplearn.blogspot.com/2012/09/good-grief-death.html

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Yes, you share some excellent points in your post, April. Thanks!

  • dougtoft

    This is a model blog post: Clearly defined problem and actionable solutions. Thanks, Bobbi.

  • http://twitter.com/UncopiedLife Kim Thirion

    Man I wish I had this a long time ago! I am #3 to the letter. I can’t think of anything, so I say nothing. This will be a big help.

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      As I said to someone earlier, Kim, when in doubt always go back to these two responses: “I’m so sorry” and/or “I’m here for you.”

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    Good advice.  I lost a newborn child and people really don’t know how to react.  I heard a lot of the “not so good” comments.  I was able to understand that these people were trying to be comforting but had no clue of what to say.  My wife at the time was upset with some of these “not so good” wishes.  Good post.  People need to learn this stuff.

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Thanks, Dan.

      I’m really sorry about the loss of your newborn. I can’t imagine what that would be like to lose a child. Sigh. I wish things like that would not happen and I hope your path of grief is smooth and productive.

      • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

        Thank you, Bobbi.  It’s been over ten years now, but some days it can still feel like yesterday.  I’ve moved to a different part of the country since the loss, but I still make an anual trip to the memorial.  I’m also a writer and songwriter and writing and music played a major role in the process. 

        • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

          I have an idea what you mean, Dan. I lost my partner 8 years ago and I’ll still burst into tears occasionally remembering her. 

          I’m so glad that music helped you. I’m sure your music has helped others as well!

  • L_McV

    I was hoping to send these comments to you directly so I hope I don’t stir up a firestorm.  Regarding  #5, when I’m tempted to tell someone I know how they feel, I try to remind myself to hold back and say something more like, “I’m so sorry.  I can only imagine how you feel.”  That lets them know I care; I’m not presuming to know exactly how they feel as if I could see into their head; and that I may have experienced similar losses and have at least imagined what they’re going through because I do care and don’t want them to feel like they’re not having to go through it alone.  Regarding #10, It was a bit awkward and I’m not saying I handled it perfectly, but I can share a specific experience similar to this and what happened.  A former co-worker was getting lost in his grief over his teenage daughter’s death and it had been affecting his functioning at work and at home.  Several co-workers had expressed concern about him.  He started talking to me about it and I listened and shared with him one of my favorite sayings I’ve heard, that having
    children is like having your heart get up and walk around outside of
    your body. After a while I admitted that what he was going through was one of my biggest fears.  Beyond just the horror of losing a child, I only have 1 child.  If anything were to happen to my son, it would be like I wasn’t a mother anymore except in my own mind.  I didn’t point it out, but at least this co-worker still has other children.  He looked at me kind of surprised, like he’d almost forgotten he was still a father and his children still needed him, that he still had a purpose in that regard.  He’s still grieving and he ended up deciding to step back from the supervisor role he’d taken on to a regular team member.  I wish him the best and I hope our talk helped him, although I realize I may not have said things the best way possible.  I know it meant a lot to him that even though I hadn’t known him long at the time, I had shown up to his daughter’s funeral way across town, and ended up being able to comfort a close friend of the family who I happened to know from a previous workplace.  I can only barely imagine going through that. 

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      It sounds like you handled things pretty well, L_McV. You just shared how you would feel in the same circumstance rather than pointedly saying, “At least you have other children.” I think that’s okay. I’m really glad that you are talking to him about his grief rather than ignoring it which can easily happen in a workplace.

  • http://twitter.com/NoClonesBlog Gary Korisko

    Bobbi – Nice job … and 100% correct.

    You don’t know this about me, but my family consists of four generations of funeral home owners. I’m the first in many years not to be in the business, although most of my career has been centered around seniors.

    All wonderful points. As the post demonstrates, when it comes to helping someone through grief, it’s not about giving advice … it’s about giving support.

    Nice job!

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      Wow, Gary, you’re right – I didn’t know that about you. How interesting!

      And you’re right, the support is definitely the key.

  • daverowley

    Such a great post Bobbi, I’ve always struggled with what to say to friends or loved ones who are grieving. I love the way you model the ‘better’ responses as well as giving clear reasons why, and I can see that underlying pattern of support through each response. Thanks for the useful guide.

    • http://www.thebounceblog.com/ Bobbi Emel

      You’re welcome, Dave. I’m glad it was helpful for you!

  • John

    Great

  • John

    Great

  • Liz V.

    Omg this couldn’t have come at a better time. Yesterday morning, my bf and I were awakened with a phone call that his cousin (whom we spent New Years with) died in a car accident. I was so shocked and confused I didn’t know what to say. This was ironically perfect. Thank you.

  • Kennyandvicki

    The phrase “sorry for your loss” to me is not good. It’s so generic and not personalized.

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