What NOT to Say to a Grieving Loved One

When someone close to your loved one passes away, you may feel as if there are no words to express yourself properly. Articulating grief can be difficult, especially when the loss is recent. This difficulty can often be compounded when we see people who we love in pain or difficulty. This may trigger a desire or feeling of need to say something. While you may only have the best intentions, there are some things that you should try to avoid saying. Keep reading to find out what NOT to say to a grieving loved one.

What NOT to Say to a Grieving Loved One

“Everything happens for a reason.”

While this may be a common platitude, it should not be spoken to someone who has recently lost someone. People who are grieving don’t want to be told that their loved one died for some greater, unknown purpose. Why should they have had to die for some other great thing to happen? By claiming that everything happens for a reason, it may appear that you’re reducing the life and death of a once living person to a plot point in the larger narrative of life. While someone’s death may significantly change the lives of the people surrounding them, maybe even challenging them to live life with renewed passion, a sudden loss of life should not be diminished to a kind of stepping stone to somewhere else. 

“I know how you feel.”

While you may feel that you have had similar experiences to others — perhaps you may have lost someone close to you, as well, it is difficult to ever completely understand exactly what someone else is feeling. You may not know the complete range of nuances of a person’s unique relationship with the deceased, or have been present during their private moments. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. With empathy, you can understand what someone is going through, but not share their feelings. With sympathy, you are sharing the same feelings as your friend. In these moments, sympathy can be key. Grieve with your loved one. Comfort them. Support them. But try to avoid telling them that you know how they feel. Be as gentle and sensitive to their needs as you can.

“At least you had them while you did; other people aren’t so lucky.”

Try to avoid comparisons at all costs when dealing with a person who is grieving. Offering a comparison can remove the focus from the person who needs comfort, and may leave them feeling guilty. They may have been lucky to have the time that they had with their loved one, while others may not have had the same fortune and it is true that there are atrocities committed every day that we may all grieve, but that does not change your loved one’s feelings of pain or suffering. It should not be your focus to find the bright side or the silver lining in the loss of your friend’s loved one. Instead, aim to listen, be present for and support them, 

“Be strong.”

If there was ever a time to not be strong, the days and weeks after the loss of a loved one might be it. Don’t pressure someone to keep their feelings in check, as that may cause further emotional distress to them. Allow them to cry, or laugh, or perhaps even have an absolute breakdown. As long as they are not endangering themselves or others, try to support them however they may need to process their feelings. Telling someone to “be strong” may hang a burden of guilt and responsibility on them, when they need to be cared for. It is okay to be fragile. The experience of death and grief can be one of the hardest experiences anyone can go through. There is often incredible strength in vulnerability.

“Well, What Can I Say?”

We’ve offered some examples of what not to say to someone who is grieving, but you may be wondering: “well, what can I say?” Try to keep your communication simple and focused on the other person. “I’m so sorry for your loss” and “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling, just know that I’m here for you” are two examples of things you might say to a grieving loved one. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just listen. Be there for them. Offer a hug if they are accepting of physical contact. If not, simply sit with them. They may want to talk, but they may also just need quiet company. 

We hope that these tips for avoiding the wrong thing to say to someone who is in grief may save you from any future discomfort. If you do accidentally say one of the above phrases or recall that you’ve said them before in the past, be kind to yourself. If your intentions were good, do your best to move on. Apologize if you need to, but perhaps in future just remember some of these ideas and incorporate them. Sometimes simply saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. As long as the person knows you love them, they will appreciate you being there for them.

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