If you want to help a loved one facing loss, avoid some often-heard phrases. Discover what you can say and do to bring real comfort.
Grief is a deep sadness that can be caused by many things, including the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a job, a pet or even a loss of one's beloved property. Unfortunately this deep sadness is something that most of us will face at least once in our lifetime.
Sharing the common experience of grief with others allows us to be able to express empathy and lend support for those who are currently suffering. Although there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are several ways to communicate support to those who are going through this difficult experience.
When offering support, here are 10 things not to say or do when someone is grieving:
1) "Maybe it was for the best."
It is not helpful for a grieving person to hear that losing a loved one is best for them. Even if you have experienced a loss in the past, you don't know someone else's experience. This statement may even complicate their healing process. Instead, try asking, "How can I help?" This communicates that you care, but you are not assuming you know what's best for their situation.
2) "Just move on."
This statement creates a falsehood that there is a certain pace for grieving. Everyone grieves in their own time and at their own pace. There are some who feel that grief should only last one year, and this is not true. Reassure your loved one that grief is natural and the time it takes varies from person to person.
3) Posting any commentary on social media without permission.
A person grieving may want to share their loss with the world in their own way and in their own time. Often those who are grieving feel that so much is out of their control. Taking away a grieving person’s control over when and how to share grief on social media only adds to that devastating feeling of loss. Instead of rushing to post or tweet your condolences, try making a phone call or sending a card or private message to express your support.
4) “You are much stronger than I would be.”
Statements like this make you the center of attention, when you should be focused on the person who is grieving. Your feelings or actions in a hypothetical situation are not comforting to someone who is dealing with very real grief. When someone is trying to slowly integrate back into society after a loss, remember that it takes bravery and courage to attempt to move forward. What a person expresses outwardly is no indication of where they are in the grieving process. For example, just because a grieving person isn’t crying doesn’t mean the person has not cried or is not still sad, nor does it communicate that they are no longer grieving. Be sure to empathize with their loss and say: "This must be difficult for you. Let me know how/if I can help.”
5) "You should get out more."
Grievers have a tendency to withdraw and isolate, which could cause depression symptoms. Encouraging them to enjoy outside activities is always a healthy idea, but do not put pressure on them. It seems like such a simple answer to grief, to get out and find ways to escape, but a person may not be ready to escape that part of grief just yet. Instead of insisting that a person who is experiencing grief participate in an activity, simply suggest an event or activity that you’re also willing to attend—and even pay for, if possible—with the grieving person.
6) "They are in a much better place"
Even if a person's loved one was suffering, these words, no matter how benign, may be painful for a grieving person to hear. Never assume to know a person's beliefs or how statements of faith will impact a grieving person. Instead of placing the focus on God taking a loved one, remind the grieving person that they are not alone and you will help them get through this difficult time.
7) "I know how you feel."
The truth is you don't. Even if you have had a similar loss, you cannot possibly know how that particular person feels at that particular moment. The loss can seem similar, but the relationship with a person makes each loss unique and very personal. Instead of claiming to know how they feel, instead say, “I’m here for you,” and offer your ear to listen whenever they feel comfortable to share how they feel.
8) "Stay Positive."
Again, like many of the previous statements, this often comes from a very compassionate place, but it can be dismissive of the person's current feelings. Encouraging them to express an emotion that is not a reality for them may delay their grieving process. Instead, reaffirm for them that they are entitled to their feelings, and you are here to listen if they want to share. Remember: listen more and say less.
9) "Your loved one wouldn't want you to cry."
This statement can create a huge sense of guilt in a grieving person for sharing their true emotion. Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying does not imply that they are weak or that they are doing something wrong. Instead, ask permission to hug a person who is crying, or get them a tissue or just sit quietly with them while they cry. If you’re on the phone with someone who is crying, say comforting words, like, “It’s okay to cry. I’m here for you.”
10) "It was just his/her time."
Suggesting that there is a reason or rationale behind a person's death can be very upsetting to a grieving person, to whom the death may feel senseless and irrational. Depending on the circumstances of the death, statements like this one can suggest that the death is somehow justified, which is not comforting to a grieving person. Instead, say, "I am so sorry for your loss."
Remember that grieving the loss of a loved one is the worst pain someone can endure. If you want to help, keep these tips in mind. Respect a grieving person’s boundaries. Listen to them quietly. Just be present with them and allow them to grieve in their own way, at their own time. This can help lessen the pain.
Apologize to your loved one if you've already said the wrong thing. If you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, just offer to cook dinner, buy groceries, watch the children for an afternoon, or help around the house. These gestures can mean so much more than words to someone who feels their world has been turned upside down.
**Editors Note** our readers on Facebook shared these "things not to say" to people who are grieving:
Kim says, "After my miscarriage, several said, 'Cheer up; you can have another baby.'"
Elizabeth says, "One month after my son died, I was told...they were tired of my moody sadness."
What are some words of comfort you hope people will say in your time of need?