Death is very complicated for the living to process. None of us knows for sure what happens after we die and many of us don’t have any idea about what to say to those who are left behind either. The majority of people don’t mean to offend mourners with their comments, but if you aren’t careful, that might be exactly what you’re doing at a time when they really don’t need any additional stress.
My regular readers know that I lost my father, which my new readers can catch up on in many of my previous posts, but especially in my Letter To Me. The people in my life reacted at all ends of the spectrum when they found out the news about my dad. When someone dies, it really brings out the best and the worst in the people who are left behind. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced both.
Knowing that most people want to be there for their friend or family member after they lose someone close to them, I thought I would share some comments that you should definitely not say as well as what some people said to me that actually made it through the fog. Of course, everyone grieves differently, but I can assure you that the comments below are not helping anyone.
Believe me when I say that I am not trying to sound ungrateful about people trying to provide support. I get it that sometimes people just want to say something but that they don’t really know what is appropriate. Unfortunately, death is a universal experience that we will all go through, and if my “tips” can make someone else’s grief journey even somewhat easier through informing the people around them, then this post was worth writing.
10 Things NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
Any and all clichés. Everyone is aware that “time heals,” but it’s really not helpful to hear comments like this when you are grieving the loss of someone very important to you. At that moment, people don’t really care about how they might feel in 5 years; what they care about is how they feel right now and trying to get through the whole mess of emotions that they are experiencing. When you offer platitudes and clichés, you are really downplaying what someone is going through. I’ll be honest here: it feels very condescending.
Let me know if I can do anything. On the surface, this seems like a very nice comment. However, when you’re grieving, you aren’t thinking clearly or making good decisions. You don’t necessarily know what you need or how to articulate it. Chances are, the person grieving will not “let you know.”
The people in our lives who said, “I’m going to drop off a casserole” (with no expectation to stay and socialize) or “I can come over and walk B for you” made all the difference. It helps so much if you just make the decision to help and give your actions instead of your words.
I know exactly what you’re going through. No, you don’t. Not only is everybody’s grief different, but we also heard this comment from people who had no frame of reference into our experience at all. Grams was approached by an old neighbour and her husband at the grocery store, and the woman told my mom that she knew exactly how she felt…despite the fact that she was holding her husband’s hand and really had no idea (or any business making an insensitive comment like that). Even if the woman had lost her husband, she would still experience the loss differently than Grams did.
Everything will be fine. Will it? How do you know? Overarching statements that minimize how someone is feeling are not helpful.
Comparisons to people you lost. I know that you are trying to be helpful and relate to the mourner, but this isn’t about you. If at any time in your life you need to listen and not judge or provide unsolicited advice, it’s now. Just because you “got over” your dad dying in a few months doesn’t mean that I will too. Every relationship is different and every grief journey is different. People need to respect that and not try to rush things along or downplay the importance of someone’s current feelings.
You can find someone else. Several people said this to Grams and I think it’s the rudest and most thoughtless comment you can make to someone who has just lost their spouse. In fact, one person said it when my dad was still alive but we were fairly certain that he wasn’t going to make it. Some people can’t stand the idea of being alone and “replace” their spouse within a year. Others choose to be alone for the rest of their lives. This is a very personal decision and one that you do not have the right to weigh in on.
Your [person who died] would want you to be strong. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad for as long as someone needs to feel sad. People need to go through the grieving process and making a comment like this sounds like someone’s tears are not acceptable. That is simply not the case. If someone you love dies, of course you’re going to be sad and the worst thing that can happen is to have someone come along and try to make you feel like your feelings are not legitimate or that you’re grieving in the wrong way. Besides, I knew my dad better than you did and he would want me to do whatever I need to do to feel better.
You don’t look sad. If my [person who died] passed away, I would be a lot more upset. I have news: you have no idea how you’re going to react when someone you love dies. You might think that you do but there is no other experience that comes even remotely close to it, so until it happens to you, you don’t know with any certainty. Grief is not measured in tears and no one has the right to judge how someone else is processing what happened either.
Feeling like you have to say anything at all. Sometimes, there are no adequate words and just your presence is enough. Be there for the person who has lost someone. Your text messages are thoughtful, but you in person is even better.
Comments about religion, god, or a master plan. Unless you know that someone is religious, believes in god, or subscribes to the idea of fate, then don’t push your beliefs on them when they are already feeling weak and vulnerable. If they do believe, then of course, garner strength through your faith. If not, it’s best to leave comments like this out of the dialogue.
An exception for me personally is when a close friend of mine says that she will pray for me or that she has been praying for me. While I may not believe anything will come of this exercise, I know that the process means a lot to her, and so it is meaningful to me that she thought of me during her time of reflection. Not every agnostic and especially atheist will agree with my sentiment though.
My friend AR means a lot to me. When she approached me at my dad’s funeral, it was the only time I cried that day. Being as close to my dad as I was, trust me, I did not expect that reaction from myself. See what I mean that you simply never know until it happens to you? AR’s kindness and heartfelt emotion moved me so much that I cried with her even though I spent the remainder of the day feeling numb.
She has also been here throughout the process and never judges me for being “further behind” in my grieving than a lot of people expect me to be. AR also provided me with a helpful book recommendation, A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. I will leave you with a quote from it because nothing else has come close to describing how losing my dad feels on a daily basis:
For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often – will it be for always? – how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss until this moment.” The same leg is cut off time after time.