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.