What to Say and Not to Say to Someone Grieving

December 30, 2014

What to Say and Not to Say to Someone Grieving

Photo Credit: i.huffpost.com

Grief is one of those things that makes many of us uncomfortable.  We’re a society that likes to solve.  Grief is ugly, painful, and on its surface unproductive (though I’d argue that underneath the surface it’s highly productive).

I think we’re particularly bad at grief when it’s non-death-related.  Death-related grief generally gets a pass.  It’s understood that the griever is mourning and that nothing other than time can soften the pain.  It’s also widely acknowledged as legitimate, as death is seen as the ultimate tragedy.  It can’t be solved.  It just is.

What I’d like to encourage is an acceptance of grief as something that is personal and deserving of time and respect. Healing is possible, but only when the grief is given legitimacy.

As someone who has had an extremely hard year, I’ve noticed that while no words can make the grief disappear, some words can certainly exacerbate it.

Here are some things I recommend avoiding saying to a grieving person...

Or at the very least exercising caution based on your knowledge of that individual. 

One recommendation before I begin: Since death tends to be viewed as a legitimate source of grief, ask yourself if you’d say these things to a person grieving a death, as a litmus test for whether you should say them at all.

  1. When one door closes another opens.
I hear this one a lot, having lost my job last week.  Not a bad message to convey, but tread carefully.  Say this only after acknowledging the person’s despair and loss and truly trying to empathize with what they’re feeling.  Meet them where they’re at before trying to guide them out of the ashes.
  1. You can’t change it, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.

Grief isn’t a decision made by people who spend careful hours contemplating their best course of action.  It’s a natural emotional reaction to loss and disappointment.  Again, think of the death example.  You wouldn’t tell someone who lost a parent not to feel sad since sadness won’t bring back their loved one.

grieving handsbrownbutzdiedring.com 

  1. Be grateful because many people have it worse.
This one can be downright hurtful.  What it translates to is a statement that the person’s grief isn’t legitimate, and not only that, but it’s a weakness in them that they can’t will themselves out of it by being grateful.  Grief and gratitude can co-exist.  Having a lot of one doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of the other.  The fact that someone grieves does not mean he is not thankful for his blessings.
  1. Don’t play the victim.

A grieving person will at times feel angry about his loss.  Accept this as part of the process rather than lecturing the griever about how he ought to pick himself up by the bootstraps/re-frame as positive/move on with life.  Feeling anger and a sense of injustice temporarily is normal and does not signify a decision on the griever’s part to never move on.  Acknowledging a loss or challenge is also not the same as playing the victim.

grieving talkingstatic.guim.co.uk

  1. You should _________.
I tend to hear this one a lot from men.  Before offering advice, ask if they want it, and approach the advice with humility.  You don’t have all the answers, even if your solution worked for you in a similar situation.  Instead of “you should x,” ask them what strategies they’ve considered, and then gently share what’s worked for you, acknowledging that your experience may not be universal.
  1. Approach spirituality with care.

This one depends a lot on the individual. For some, hearing that their grief is part of God’s plan is comforting.  For others, it comes off as flippant, as something that’s easy for the non-suffering person to say when they’re not the one in despair.

So what should you do? 

grieving friendshipcozinememorial.com

Here’s what’s helped me most:

  1. Meet them where they’re at. You don’t know what they’re going through but try your best to understand and empathize.  Be willing to cry with them.
  1. Acknowledge their loss and the pain they’re feeling. You may not understand it but you can accept it.
  1. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help or better yet, offer specifics. Many problems just need a listening ear, but others warrant instrumental help like grocery shopping or babysitting.
  1. Don’t rush them. Respect the process as something personal that must run its course.



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