Top Ten Worst Things to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
I’ve been leading Loving Spirit Workshops on grief lately for adults who have suffered major losses in life. The participants have been quite diverse; coming from different nations, political beliefs, educational backgrounds, religions, philosophies, and economic strata. If there is one thing they have in common, besides the loss itself, it is that they have been shocked, hurt or offended by well-meaning folks who have said things to them in an effort to comfort them but the words that were used actually made their suffering worse.
Often, we unthinkingly blurt out the first thing that comes to our mind when we try to comfort someone who is grieving. Our statements may come from our own experiences, our religious beliefs, or even things we may read on a greeting card. While well intended, they can have the effect of adding to the pain or sorrow, instead of diminishing it. With a little more thought we can do better.
In case you are wondering if you may have offended someone in his/her grief when you meant only to console them, I’m offering the top ten list of the worst things to say to someone who is grieving.
1. God will not give you more than you can handle. This seemingly innocent comment carries with it the implication that if the griever were only less competent, less strong, or less able to handle loss maybe their loved one wouldn’t have died.
2. I know how you feel. You don’t. You really don’t. Most people who say this mean that they too have suffered a major loss, but each person’s journey is unique and although the losses may have been similar or seemingly identical, their feelings can be completely different than anyone else’s. Even if you have experienced loss yourself, share sympathy, not your own story.
3. Your life will never be the same. How does anyone possibly know that? For some, their life is actually better afterwards, hence the term merry widow. This statement is often heard as being condemned to a life sentence without parole. Even if you honestly believe it to be true, resist saying it to anyone who is in the throes of grief.
4. It was God’s will. This one, although well intended, comes across sounding like God had a special vendetta against the one who died, or the ones who are left to mourn. Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be, attributing a tragic loss to some sort of divine plan is not helpful.
5. It was his/her time. Even families who have nursed a sick loved one for years may feel that the timing of the death was too soon. Maybe they didn’t have closure. Maybe they thought a new treatment approach would be beneficial. Their sense of the timing is not the same as yours may be.
6. You’ll get used to being a widow…I’ve been one for 37 years. Labels like widow and widower define us in terms of the death of another. When one young woman, whose husband had just died, was told this by an older woman at the gravesite, it made her literally want to scream and run away.
7. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Although this one seems like an offer to be helpful, it actually puts the burden on the bereaved to reach out and ask for assistance. A better way of helping would be to show up and do what one can, rather than leave it up to folks who may be too traumatized to even know what is needed. You might, for example, clean their house, take out the garbage, babysit their children, mow their lawn, bring them food, or form a neighborhood co-op to take turns helping out a bereaved family.
8. Just turn it all over to God/Jesus. A lot of mourners report feelings of anger toward God especially if their loved one died tragically or painfully or even suddenly. They are not likely to trust a divine being whom they believe did this to them or didn’t stop it from happening. In time, they may return to faith-based beliefs, but don’t assume that this is true for them immediately following their loss.
9. She lived a long life. Who doesn’t want more?
10. He’s in a better place. When someone says this it’s because they believe in a life after death and usually in some form of heaven. This one is sensitive because if an emotionally fragile person hears faith leaders, trusted friends or family make a statement that sounds like being dead is better than being alive it can encourage suicide ideation.
You may well be asking if all these things that we’ve been saying or hearing for so long are not helpful, what should we say to console someone who is grieving?
A simple I’m sorry for your loss, is one of the best things to say. But listening is better than talking. And being there, emotionally, personally, fully present may be better still. Hanging in there with the bereaved after the funeral is over and the last casserole has been eaten lets them know they are not alone.
We don’t need catchphrases when we are grieving. We need love, listening, understanding, and time to heal.