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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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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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