10 Things to Never Say to a Person Who's Grieving
Comforting someone who’s lost a loved one can be fraught with uncertainty. You want to be helpful, but you don’t want to upset the person further. It can sometimes feel easier to not reach out at all. Yet, according to licensed clinical social worker Fara Tucker, who has a private practice in Portland, Oregon, not contacting someone because you don’t know what to say is worse. People who are grieving desperately need support and connection -- they need not to feel alone. At the same time, Tucker says, “There are some things that are really best kept to yourself.” So avoid these 10 statements and follow these experts’ suggestions instead.
1. “I know how you feel.”
Yikes. Talk about presumptuous. Even if you have personally experienced the loss of a loved one, no two people’s experiences are the same, says therapist Jennifer Rollin, M.S.W., LGSW (JenniferRollin.com). Therapist Brian Caples of New Solutions Family Counseling adds that sharing your own experiences takes the focus off the person who is grieving. Instead, just listen, he says. Never assume you know what someone else is experiencing. “A more helpful statement could be something like, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way that I can,’” Rollin advises.
2. “He/she is in a better place now.”
There are many variations on this phrase, says ecclesiastical leader David Blackmer, but they all suggest that a higher power had a hand in the person’s passing. The receiver not sharing your religious beliefs also makes this statement problematic. Beyond that, this sentiment can shut someone down. “What people need when they are grieving are other people who are willing to get down in the muck with them,” she says. “They need people willing to say some version of ‘This really, really sucks’ and ‘I love you.’”
3. “Let me know how I can help.”
One of the most common phrases grieving people hear, it’s also one of the most problematic -- even if well-intentioned. “This phrase puts the responsibility on the grieving individual to do something,” Blackmer says. Psychotherapist Katherine Schafler (KatherineSchafler.com) suggests being precise about how you can help. “The thought to extend yourself to someone who is grieving is, of course, a very well-intentioned one, but it’s better delivered with specifics around a task or time,” she says. “For example, say: ‘I’m going to come by each Friday at 3 p.m. and walk the dog. If you feel like company, just wait for me in the kitchen, if not, maybe next Friday.’”
4. “At least he/she…”
There are various ways to finish this statement, including “…isn’t suffering anymore.” While the intentions behind the words are sure to be kind, they can be hurtful. Amy Florian, a thanatologist (the highest level of grief education) and author of “No Longer Awkward: Supporting Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life,” says, “What survivors actually hear is ‘How can you be so selfish? Aren’t you relieved and happy for him?’” Better, she advises, is a statement that shows both sides of the equation -- the person who passed and the person who is left behind. “Say: ‘We’re all relieved that he’s no longer suffering. No one would want him to suffer. And yet we’re really going to miss him.’”
5. “Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s natural to want to help someone make sense of the grief, but it’s not helpful. “When we are aching so profoundly, nothing can make sense of it,” says marriage and family therapist Joanne Medellin, M.S., of Leawood Counseling Services. Schafler adds that the bereaved may not even want to make sense of what happened right away. “Saying that everything happens for a reason is denying someone the time they so desperately need to be in the shock part of grief,” she explains. Instead, focus on the grieving person rather than rationalizing the loss.
6. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about…?”
Yes, there are a number of logistical things that need to happen after someone’s death -- going over a will, determining if you need to sell property and so on. And while many people demonstrate love by helping to organize practicalities, Schafler advises against coming off as pushy in bringing up these matters. Rather than questions, she suggests saying something like: “I’m sure you haven’t even had a second to think about what to do with all this furniture… I’m here for you when you’re ready to deal with that.”
7. “You should…”
Never start a sentence with these two words. While they might seem like helpful suggestions -- like encouraging the bereaved to take a vacation, put on real clothes or go for a walk -- it’s crucial to allow someone to grieve in their own way. Schafler says it’s important to give the person time, let him or her stay in pajamas or let the dishes pile up for a little while. “It’s all par for the course, and those allowances reinforce to the person who is grieving that they’re not doing anything wrong and that it’s OK to be in pain after you’ve suffered such a tremendous loss,” she explains.
8. “What was the last thing you said to him/her?”
This one is a big no-no, especially in the case of an unexpected death, according to nutritional therapist and health coach Darshi Shah, who lost two loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks and now counsels others about grief. “A sudden, unexpected death where someone goes to work and never comes home is extremely difficult to sort and store,” she says. It can add a burden to then be asked to recall a final conversation. Also, it’s really private information. Her advice? “Don’t ask. If he or she wants to share it, they will let you know.”
9. “I just couldn’t live through what you have.”
The death of a child, for instance, is arguably the most excruciating type of loss. Nancy Keene, who has written books for families of kids with cancer, says bereaved parents hate when people say things like 'you’re so strong' and 'I just couldn’t live through what you have.' She says they would ask, “Do they mean I loved my child less than they love theirs because I have physically survived?” Instead, she suggests sticking with hugs, expressions of sorrow and sharing memories of the child who died, such as: “I am so sorry” or “I cannot imagine the pain you are feeling, but I am holding you close in my heart.”
10. “Isn’t it time to move on?”
Each person’s grieving process is unique. “Grieving is not linear,” Tucker says. “There are no standards or norms.” Therefore, imposing a timeline is never helpful to someone who’s in bereavement. In fact, trying to do so usually speaks more to the discomfort of the person speaking, she adds. “It’s not time unless the person who is grieving says it’s time,” Schafler says, and saying otherwise can make your friend feel like he or she is failing. Instead of making suggestions, recognize that there isn’t a specific time frame in which the grieving person needs to do this.
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever experienced grief? What are some of the most comforting things people said to you? Which are the most frustrating things people said or ways they acted? Tell us in the comments!
Related: 11 Words to Stop Saying Right Now
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