Eight things not to say to a grieving person, and a few things to try instead
A few weeks ago, my beloved partner lost his grandfather. This week, my family lost an aunt who had just turned 90. It is as if an entire generation has taken its leave as I am hearing so many of these reports. Having lost a few friends and relatives in the past 18 months, (one to COVID-19) and still coping with the grief of losing a father figure suddenly in 2019, I have not only experienced but heard of too many cases of well-intentioned people saying very insensitive things to the bereaved. Many of my clients have lost friends and loved ones to COVID and a variety of other causes and they are coming into therapy to process the pain of losing someone dear. Unfortunately, society does not adequately prepare us to show up for someone experiencing grief in ways that are helpful. Indeed, we seem to be further than ever from the inevitability of death. Our discomfort with death and ignorance about what is comforting to those who have lost loved ones, comes out in unintentional harm which inflicts unnecessary pain on them.
Grief is a real experience that comes in waves and can be triggered by a multitude of mundane and not so mundane things. Grief is pain. Grief is the kind of pain you feel in the very depths of your soul and often in the literal middle of your body. The important thing is to not fight it. We have to go into it in order to get through it. This means honouring what we need rather than focusing on making those around us more comfortable with something that is not happening to them.
Grief is not linear. It can be triggered by the smallest and most seemingly insignificant things like taking seasoning out of a jar or hearing a song lyric or remembering something the person said. The most helpful thing you can do is sit with the person. You don't even have to say anything. As a matter of fact, when you don't know what to say, just simply say "I have no idea what to say to you but I am here for you".
What you must NEVER, EVER say to someone who is grieving is any of the following:
1. He/she/they are in a better place
What you are suggesting is that this plane of existence is awful and that we should be glad that someone we will never see again, but loved intensely, has abandoned us to it. It doesn’t sound so comforting when we expand the thought does it? Please just retire this statement as it does not have the desired effect despite the purity of your intentions.
2. God knows best
Please do not assume that everyone believes in a god or more importantly, in YOUR god. Faith is a highly personal thing and should not be the place to which you go when someone else is struggling with pain. Atheism is on the rise globally and even among those who identify as belonging to a system of faith, many consider themselves connected only “culturally”. For this growing but often invisible group of people, comforting with something they don’t believe in is quite insulting.
Telling a non-believer that “God knows best” is about as comforting as telling them that the Tooth Fairy understands their pain and the Easter Bunny will make it better. What you have done is tell them something that not only does not provide comfort, but annoys them and makes them unlikely to actually turn to you for support.
Unless you are absolutely sure that the bereaved person shares your faith, it is better to simply say that you can imagine the depths of their pain and that you are here for them in any way that they need you to be. Sometimes that actually means sitting in compassionate silence, helping them with errands, listening to them reminisce about their loved one over and over.
3. They wouldn't want you to be sad
In all honesty, the person is dead. They cannot “want” anything ever again and THAT is actually the point. People have a right to their grief. What you are telling the person is that THEIR pain makes YOU uncomfortable and that YOU don’t want them to be sad because of what it brings up for YOU. This is actually very selfish. If you are uncomfortable with other people’s distress, that is an indication that you need to do your own work to increase your emotional intelligence. As human beings, we need to learn to be ok with another person’s pain. If it hurts you to see someone else in tears, imagine how they must be feeling. The selfish and childish response is to try to make them stop so that you feel better.
Instead, you can simply learn to hold space for them so that they can shed their tears with you as a witness. This is actually far more healing than you could imagine. From my experience with bereavement and in my practice with clients who have lost someone, the most helpful thing I could ever do is to bear witness to them bawling their eyes out without trying to stop them.
4. What did they die of/ how did they die?
This one is deeply problematic as it is an expression of your own morbid curiosity. Bereaved people do not need to rehash a painful piece of information to you. If the person died under embarrassing circumstances or violently, the loved ones they leave behind may not want to share that information. Please respect their privacy and allow them to disclose the cause of death to you if and when they are ready.
Another thing that clients have been reporting is people asking “was it COVID?” when they expressed that someone dear has died. How would knowing whether or not it was COVID help you? It is far more compassionate to focus on them and their experience instead.
You can simply validate their feelings of loss and point out that it is always hard to lose someone that you love but that love of that person is eternal. You can also ask them what they need and try to provide that.
5. Cheer up
How on earth is someone supposed to “cheer up” when their entire world as they knew it shifted? Often, bereaved people feel as though they are dishonouring or minimizing the impact of the memory of the person who died. Asking them to feign happiness or worse, feel happiness when they can’t, is making a demand on someone who is trying desperately to make sense of their new situation. It centers you and does not consider them.
What you could do is express their right to their feelings as they shift wildly from moment to moment. True empathy is understanding that another person’s feelings are real and valid and allowing them to experience them without judgement or commentary.
6. Get over it
This is the most cruel and invalidating statement of all. There is no timeline on grief and again someone else’s pain should never be seen as inconvenient for you. Grief is chronic emotional pain that people learn to live with in the same way they live with arthritis and other physical ailments. In fact, the human brain processes emotional pain and physical pain in exactly the same way. To the person dealing with grief, it is the same as someone who just had an amputation. You wouldn’t tell someone in physical pain to “get over it” would you?
A more helpful response could be to say to them that they will eventually be able to cope and that if they are not at any given time, that is perfectly normal. If they cancel plans with you because they are struggling that day, try not to take it personally. They are doing the best they can with the most horrible circumstances they can imagine.
8. Be strong
As opposed to what? “Strong” suggests an absence of obvious emotional distress. That is encouraging emotional stunting which we all know is ultimately harmful. It is asking someone to be inauthentic at a time when they are trying to get through their lives one moment at a time.
We need to change the way we measure being strong. Strength in a situation like this is attending to basic needs and not giving up. It is doing the bare minimum to survive while planning a funeral for someone who has been taken from you. The fact that they are still choosing life themselves is testament to their strength. The most helpful thing you can do in this situation is to point that out. That would be far more appreciated.
As we cope with higher levels of grief and loss, both on account of COVID and just as a general feature of life, it is important that we grow our ability to show up for people in ways that are supportive. It is essential to remember that someone else's grief is not about us. Learning to tolerate someone else's distress is a grown-up skill that we all need to have. We need to start to raise our children to proceed from empathy rather than distance. Please learn this now because one day, the person in grief will be you and then you will see how the emotional ignorance of others hurts.