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10 Things You Should Not Say To A Grieving Person

10 Things You Should Not Say To A Grieving Person

When someone you care about is grieving, it is human nature to try to comfort them and help ease their pain. However, sometimes our good intentions can be more harmful than helpful, particularly the things we often say with the intention to make them feel better.

A large part of the problem is our own discomfort with grief and not knowing how to speak to someone who is grieving. Instinctively, we try to “fix” the hurt and make the pain go away. However, grief is a necessary process that cannot, and should not, be dusted under the rug so that the grieving person can feel good again.

As a therapist, I have many times worked with clients who have tried to treat feelings of loss and grief with a band-aid approach, only to find that their unresolved grief has manifested in other areas of their lives. If you want to support someone who is grieving, choose words that convey love and care, rather than offering advice and wisdom. Here are 10 things you should NOT say to a grieving person.

They are in a better place

Even if you know the person believes in a “better” place, the grief they are experiencing is not about where their loved one has gone to, but about the sense of loss that they will never share moments with their loved one again. On a mental level, there might be some solace knowing that their loved one is somewhere better, on an emotional level, hearing that can lead to feelings of anger and resentment that there is a better place other than right here, with people that love them.

What to say instead:

Acknowledge the loss by saying, “I am so sorry for your loss, [he/she] will be sorely missed.” Saying this conveys the message that you recognize that the grief is about the fact that the person is no longer around and that it is a difficult time for everyone.

I know how you feel

Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you DO NOT know how the person feels. There is an expression that goes “no two griefs are the same.” You might be able to relate the the grieving person’s pain, but remember that their time of grief is not about you, it is about them. If you truly have experienced a similar loss, you would know that during times of grief, your thoughts and actions are ruled by your emotions. Hearing someone say they “know how you feel” can sometimes lead to feelings of anger toward that person.

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What to say instead:

Do not assume you know how they feel. Rather say, “You are in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.” This lets the person know that you recognize they are having a difficult time and that you are thinking about them even when you are not around.

It was God’s will

Regardless of your religious beliefs, and even if you know the person shares your faith, when you lose someone you love it is natural to experience feelings of anger and question God or whatever higher power you believe in. Reiterating the role the will of God has played in the person’s loss can fuel these feelings at a time when the grieving person most needs to hold onto their faith.

What to say instead:

If you know the person shares your belief in God, try to remind them that God loves and cares about them and God is aware of their pain. For example, “I pray that God will make it easy for you and your family during this difficult time”.

Everything happens for a reason

There can never be any reason good enough that will make the pain of loss any less. When you say this, you are expecting the grieving person to think about their loss logically, when in reality there is no logic in grief.

What to say instead:

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Say something that affirms the questions a person who is grieving will often ask with something like, “It is so hard to know why we lose people when we do. I am so sorry for your loss.”

You can still have another child/remarry

This is probably the most distasteful things one can say, especially when someone is newly grieving. It implies that the person they have lost is easily replaceable.

What to say instead:

Honor the fact that the person lost can never be replaced. You could say, “I know how much you loved [name], [he/she] will forever remain in our hearts.”

You have to be strong

Do not dismiss the right the person has to grieve. Why do they need to be strong? For who? Being “strong” is not for the benefit of the grieving person, but for those around them. People often say this to people who have children, because the assumption is that it is not good for children to see their parents sad. On the contrary, children should not be socialized to deny or hide their emotions, but to embrace and process it. By seeing your parent express sadness, but deal with it in healthy ways such as talking to a friend, crying on someone’s shoulders, and talking to their kids about how they feel, this builds more resilient children.

What to say instead:

If you are concerned about the wellbeing of a child or children, rather ask, “How are the kids holding up?” Or, if you feel they need some relief from all the grief, how about offer to take the kids for a walk or to the park, or even just to spend some time with the kids at home while the grieving person takes time to grieve.

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They wouldn’t want you to feel sad

It may not be your intention, but saying this is synonymous with guilt-tripping the person into not feeling sad. Of course nobody want to see their loved one feel sad, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. Grief and sadness is a necessary part of processing the loss, and saying that can make the person feel like they aren’t handling the loss “correctly.”

What to say instead:

Sometimes people need to hear that it is okay to feel sad. Say, “I can see you are really sad, just know that I am here for you.” This let’s the person know that you know that they are feeling sad and that it is okay.

At least they aren’t suffering now

This may be true, particularly when the person who died had been suffering from pain prior to passing, however the grieving person does not need to be reminded of this pain, nor do they want to believe that anything is better than having their loved one around. Saying this can also make the person feel guilty for wishing their loved one was still alive, as though they should be thankful for the loss.

What to say instead:

Rather focus on the positive attributes about the person’s life that the grieving person would want to remember by saying something like, “[name] showed so much strength,” or “I will always remember [name]’s [positive trait e.g. laugh].”

If you need anything, give me a call

This is probably the most common offer of help given to a grieving person, so it will surprise many to hear that it is one of the most unhelpful things you can say. When someone is overcome with grief, it can be difficult for them to plan ahead and think about what help they will need, and when they do realize they need help it can be very difficult for many people to actually pick up the phone and call you.

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What to say instead:

If you are sincere in your offer of help, rather be specific in your offering. For example, if you know you are going to the grocery store, you could give the person a call and ask if they need any groceries that you can drop off. The influx of visitors who come to pay their respects can also place a huge burden on the grieving person, so offer to serve guests tea, or offer to bake a cake or cook a meal.

At least they lived a long life, some people die so young

It doesn’t matter how long the person lived, losing their presence in your life is still hard. Saying this implies the person lived long enough and that the grieving person should feel grateful that the person hadn’t died sooner.

What to say instead:

Share your favorite memory of the person they have lost instead, as this acknowledges the life the person lived without dismissing that the fact that the grieving person will not be able to make new memories and that this is a source of great sadness. For example, “I will always remember that time… [he/she] will be sorely missed.”

It is not always easy to thing of the right thing to say in the moment. If you are at a loss for words, there is no shame in admitting so. Tell the person, “I wish I knew the right words to say, just know that I am here for you”.

Giving someone who is grieving a firm, supportive hug can go a long way.

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Published on May 18, 2021

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

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Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

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Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

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