What Not to Say After a Death
Want to just see our list of what NOT to say to someone grieving, without all the commentary? Click here.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s a simple statement that’s been said a billion times before. Can I really use such a small and unoriginal phrase to quantify how much I feel for my friend or family member who has just experienced a loss?
Actually, yes you can and probably should.
So often we find ourselves stressing out about saying the right thing after a friend or family member has experienced a death. We don’t want to make the griever sad and we REALLY don’t want to make them angry. And we DO so desperately want to make things better. But alas, we aren’t all walking Hallmark cards and we don’t always have the right words to say.
Good news: You can stop worrying about saying the right thing because grief isn’t something you can fix simply by turning an eloquent phrase. In the beginning, you can’t make it even a little bit better.
More good news: If you keep it simple, and say it with compassion, others will most likely see that you care.
The bad news: I would guess most people who’ve experienced a loss could come up with at least 1 or 2 examples of something someone has said that did in fact make them sad or angry. I’m sorry to say well intentioned people say the wrong thing all the time and grieving people are often (not always) in a heightened emotional state. The potential to say the ‘wrong thing’ does exist.
So, for this reason, we present to you a brief list of ‘what NOT to say’. Obviously this list is not all-inclusive, everyone is different and our sensitivities are not all the same. Your friend may get upset if you tell them the sky is blue. Or you may have a family member whose feathers are never ruffled. You know the individual, so it’s up to you to be the judge.
These are merely suggestions based on personal experiences and years of working with grieving individuals who have shared the statements that they find most ‘cringe-worthy’.
what not to say to a griever“I know how you feel”
A griever thinks: No you don’t
I know I know…you also lost a husband/daughter/son/grandmother/best friend/dog/cat/canary/whatever…it doesn’t matter. You do not know how your friend feels, and even if you did, it is not what they need to hear. No two people are the same. No two losses are the same. It is useless comparing grief. I get it, you just want them to feel like you relate. But at this moment they cannot imagine anyone knows how they feel.
“He/she is in a better place now”
A griever thinks: Who cares!? I want him/her to be here.
Though many people find comfort in the belief their loved one is in a better place, immediately following a loss is not always the right time to say it. After losing my dad I heard this all the time and I remember thinking, he is supposed to be here—there is no better place.
“It will get easier”
A griever thinks: That seems impossible or I don’t want to forget the person I love.
Remember, this list is not about things that aren’t true. It is about things that aren’t helpful to say. Realistically, things probably will get easier. But when someone is in the unimaginably deep, dark hole of grief, they just want you to acknowledge the pain. What’s worse is that for many people this initial pain is deeply connected to the person who died and starting to heal will feel like they are forgetting or ‘moving on’.
“At least you have other children” or “you can always have more children”
A griever thinks: I don’t want another child, I know I still have my other children, but I lost THIS child.
Sometimes life just sucks. Out of desperation to find a silver lining we end up grasping onto whatever we can think of, but often times it’s just better to say nothing. Comments like these take away from the importance of the child and the loss. Not only this, it may make the parent feel guilty about devaluing their other children.
“You can always remarry”
A griever thinks: I just lost the person I planned to spend the rest of my life with. I am still in love. I’m not interested in anyone else.
Again, projecting into the future is useless. When someone is acutely grieving they may be experiencing symptoms very similar to depression, and depressed people often have a hard time imagining a future where things are better. They may date again in the future, but I promise you they can’t even consider this right now so there’s no point in talking about it.
“At least she/he lived a long life”
A griever thinks: Is that supposed to make me miss him/her less?
Again, this list isn’t about things that are not true, it is about things that aren’t helpful to say. Living a good, long life does not diminish the pain of the loss. Regardless of the deceased’s age, the hurt and pain may be unbearable. Share memories, reminisce about their life, but do not imply that it should make this loss easier.
“It was God’s will”, “God has a plan”, or “Everything happens for a reason”
A griever thinks: Why is this God’s plan? Why would God make us suffer? I don’t care if its God’s plan, it sucks.
Though many take comfort in a greater plan, a death can cause many people to question God, their understanding of God’s omni-benevolence, and their faith in general. This can be the case even for people who have extremely deep faith. For those who don’t, it can feel distant and alienating. So, better safe than sorry – steer clear.
“God never gives us more than we can handle”
A griever thinks: Oh yeah? How do you know? Oh yeah? Easy for you to say. Oh yeah? My [son couldn’t handle his addiction][daughter couldn’t handle her depression][husband couldn’t handle his cancer].
See comments above for “God’s will” statement
“Don’t cry” or “You need to be strong now”
A griever thinks: I can’t stop. I want to cry. I need to cry. I can’t be strong. You think I am a bad mother/father/son/daughter.
We all grieve in our own way – some people will cry. A lot. Some people won’t. There is no right or wrong way, and however someone is grieving they should feel supported to cry as much as they want to, and not feel they are being judged for it. Many will already be feeling a lot of anxiety about handling this the ‘right’ way with the children. You do not need to exacerbate it with the pressure of containing their emotions.
Another important note is that crying in front of children is not a bad thing. Children will take their cues from adults regarding when and how they can grieve the loss. Hiding emotions can be confusing for children and may make them feel like they have to do the same.
“It could be worse. I know this person who . . .”
A griever thinks: I don’t care! I am in the worst pain imaginable, why are you talking to me about someone else?
This is not a time for comparisons. Each person’s grief is relative and excruciatingly painful. Knowing someone has it ‘worse’ does not change the severity of the pain and it doesn’t make someone feel this loss any less.
“You can always get another dog/cat”
A griever thinks: My cat is not disposable or replaceable.
Do not underestimate pet loss. They are not replaceable and getting another dog/cat will not change the pain of this loss. They may get another animal, they may not. Either way, wait for them to decide.
I bet some of you are thinking that this list is wrong because you’ve actually heard your grieving friend or family member say some of the things on this list. It’s true! Many grievers do often say things like “he is in a better place now” or “ at least she lived a long life.” Sometimes it’s hard to know how someone will make sense of a loss or where they will find comfort, take your cues from them.
And if you read through the list and thought, “uh oh, I’ve said comment 2, 6, and 10 don’t beat yourself up about it. The good news is that many times grievers won’t remember a darn thing you said to them. It’s hard to support someone who is going through a tough time and like we said before, if you are caring and compassionate, this should shine through.
For those of you who are feeling frustrated because you just really want to make things better, here’s what you can do: think of simple ways you can help make your loved ones life easier. Watch their kids, organize people to collect funds for burial costs, pre-pay and have a couple of pizzas sent over to their house. I guarantee they are far more likely to remember gestures like these than the words you used at the viewing.
(www.whatsyourgrief.com ) Posted by Litsa Jan. 4, 2013
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Some of the basics about the mourning process
What’s wrong with me? It’s like I have lost control of who I am.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn. My views about the process of grieving had to be overhauled. My erroneous views permeated the experience, attitude and thinking. I had to admit that the way I viewed grieving was all wrong. Instead of seeing the process as a means to added strength, I had seen it as weakness. But now when I hear an insightful or deep truth or concept, I wonder what loss the author experienced to learn that. Instead of seeing grieving as a process towards healing, I had concluded it to be an event to “get over.”
One of the motivations I have for penning this book comes from the large number of people who have admitted to me that they “Didn’t know what to say.” Our society has collected huge volumes of information on how to aid others who experience physical problems from the common cold to a broken leg. However, when it comes to dealing with a broken heart we draw a blank and often pull away.
Yet our emotions are just as much a part of what it means to be alive as our physical bodies. Surely, life and loss require us to learn the skill of working through losses that can negatively affect how we feel in spirit.
HEART VS. MIND
Understanding a few of the basics about the grieving process (i.e. a broken heart) can go a long way in aiding us in knowing what to say to those who are encountering losses life throws at them. The list of losses that merit being classified as “grievable” is much larger than many would admit. The following compilation is far from complete, but it should broaden the scope of our understanding:
• Death of a spouse
• Death of a relative or friend
• Death or lost custody of a child
• Death of an cherished pet
• Marriage or Divorce
• Loss of a friendship
• Moving to a new community
• Stages of the “empty nest”
• Loss of a job or position
• Loss of health
• Major financial changes
• Legal problems
• Starting or finishing school
Some would look at my partial list and respond, “Well, isn’t that all just a part of life?” Yes, it is. That’s the point exactly. We all have and do experience loss as a part of everyday life. However, we don’t always deal with the grieving process well. The negative effects of undealt with grief can be a hindrance to our emotions and spirit.
Misconceptions about the grieving process are diverse. Here are some I had to work through. I am sure you will relate to some of them.
GRIEVING IS NOT WRONG
My biggest misconception came from an attitude that grieving was negative and showed weakness. I would have to go so far as to say I viewed it as sin. One thing that may have contributed to this wrong attitude may have come from watching my well-meaning grandmother deal with my mom’s mourning following my dad’s death.
A major event happened without warning. Grandmother showed up at our house unannounced. As had been the situation for two weeks, my mom was still in bed in the middle of the day with a newborn at her breast. The house was a mess from the unattended activities of four other children. Instead of concern, my grandmother yelled at my mom requiring her to get out of bed and stop her grieving. She complied and that emotional event left an impression on my young heart that my mom was doing something wrong. (More in chapter 4.)
My grandmother could have accomplished the same thing by simply cleaning the house and then talking to my mother. She could have said comforting things like, “You must be really hurting inside right now. Let me help you so you can get back on your feet. Come sit in this chair and feed the baby while I make your bed.”
GRIEVING IS NORMAL
Realizing that grieving is a normal and healthy response to loss set me free to embrace the process and accept the characteristics of mourning as okay and right. I am thankful for a couple of mentors who came along-side me after Ruth’s death. They showed me the value of leaning into the process instead of resisting it. First I realized that grief is simply an emotional acknowledgement of loss. It is mostly a heart problem and not a mind challenge.
Cliché comments like, “You have to be strong” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear” often feed the misconception that grieving is negative and wrong. Instead of implying folks struggle against their hurts, you can be more understanding with comments like, “I’m sorry this has happened to you” or “You must hurt (or miss them) very much right now.”
PEOPLE GRIEVE DIFFERENTLY
In listening to other men who had gone through the loss of their wives, I realized that people go through the grieving process differently. I even saw this in myself. I discovered there were differences in how I worked through my mourning time after Ruth died in contrast to the way I experienced grief after Judith died. As I reviewed what was different and why, it became apparent that many factors were not the same: I was older, I no longer had kids at home, I had done it before, and I talked to more people about it the second time. Many things can affect how a person goes through the grieving process. A few include:
• The personality type of the person mourning
• The definition of the relationship between the bereaved and the loss/person lost
• The way the loss took place, whether over time or suddenly
• The coping skills of the griever and the stability of their mental health
• The support team available
• The culture and religious perspective of the one who experienced loss
• The social and financial situation they are in, or come into, based on the loss
• The age of the grieving person
A PROCESS NOT AN EVENT
Another important realization for me was to accept that grieving is a process and not an event. My personality wanted to experience it as an event, fix it and get on with life. Not so! As waves of emotion continued to well up month after month, I realized that, little by little, I was letting go of my losses with each “first” life event after my wife’s death. The first holiday, the first time her birthday came up, the first time seeing mutual friends without her, and the first wedding anniversary. These were all events in the process that required time to happen and heal.
Beware of implying that a mourner should “snap out of it” too quickly. “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life,” are both comments that imply just that. Prematurely stated comments to that effect can do more harm than good. Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most. Beware of making comments that begin with “you should” or even “you will.” Better would be statements like, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
I experienced the re-establishment of a new identity after the loss of my job and position. I had to rebuild a new set of friends and lifestyle after we moved across country as a family. It is all a process and not an event.
A NATURAL EMOTIONAL RESPONSE
I came to see grief as an emotional condition that’s as natural as bleeding when my arm gets cut. As a man, that was hard to acknowledge at first. I remember thinking when I was younger that if my wife’s parents died, she would really cry a lot. I refused to think my emotions would be “reduced” to sobbing.
But the moment I watched Ruth take her last breath, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an emotion I didn’t know was possible. It completely controlled me for a time. My heart was broken and it was as real as any other human hurt.
Mental logic such as, “Look what you have to be thankful for,” or “She is in a better place” did nothing for my hurting heart. I found more solace in comments like, “I really miss her too.”
FEELING OF HOPELESSNESS
Hopelessness is a word that accurately describes the hurt of the grieving. The inability to reverse the loss can be devastating. I could not bring my wife back from the dead. I could not get my position and job back. I could not recover the money I lost in a business deal. I could not bring my friends back into my life after they moved away. Things were out of control and it was scary.
Knowing what to say when helping the bereaved with the sense of hopelessness depends on the circumstances and timing. In many cases reassurances that times will be better in the future and that this hardship will pass are in order. Other times the best thing to say would be, “It must really hurt for you to be going through this now.”
Comments that minimize or gloss over the loss are of little help to the griever, especially near the time of the loss. “Things will be better,” “You can always have another child,” “You’ll get another job,” or “You will find another wife” are comments that do nothing to relieve the broken heart. A simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” is better than attempting to predict the future.
GRIEF IS ABOUT THE GRIEVER
The grieving process is about the pain of the griever and not the one lost. Try to identify with the hurt the mourner is going through instead of logically dealing with the one (or thing) lost. No one really knows how any other person feels or what it is like for them. We can be the most help by focusing on helping them identify and often express their feelings with the goal of healing and victory.
A comment that can actually enrage a mourner is “I know how you must feel.” WRONG. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you really don’t know exactly how someone else is feeling. There will be unknown variables that can affect the way loss grips another person. Beware of comparisons in an effort to minimize their pain. Acknowledgement of their pain is more helpful than trying to redefine yours.
IT TAKES TIME
Grieving takes time to process. Both the bereaved and those who help them must allow for the time factor. However, the amount of time required varies greatly from person to person. Many people advised me to not make any major decisions for 12 months. That may be a generalized statement, but it can be very inappropriate to demand of all grievers. Some people intently work through their grieving process in months where others require years. When seeking to aid someone who has experienced a loss, beware of predetermining a time frame for them.
Instead of saying, “So, are you doing better now?” or “You look like you are on the mend,” ask your mourning friend, “How is today going for you?” This will give more room for the ups and downs of the process without making them feel wrong if they are having a bad day.
True, time does heal the mourner. When processed well, grieving does come to a conclusion. There can be a certain amount of comfort from knowing that the hurt felt today will not be forever. It is also true that time does not completely erase memories or even a bit of sadness.
That truth was shared with me from a total stranger a few weeks after Ruth’s death. The shop keeper/owner was obviously approaching retirement. His friendly demeanor made it easy to share my recent experience of loss. Upon hearing my story he simply stared out the window and recalled his wife’s death ten years before. “Yes,” he continued, “you never really get over the loss. It is just that the pain and difficult memories fade in time.”
It is interesting to note that the Bible even connects mourning with time. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” New King James Version, Ecclesiastes 3.1, 4.
Time alone is not enough to process one’s pain. Some steps, however, cannot be totally ignored forever. Actions are required to victoriously emerge one day from the pit of despair. Not processing grief well is like sneezing while holding your nose and shutting your mouth. You can blow something else out!
One action step I struggled with concerned experiencing all the “firsts” that followed my wife’s death. These included the first time seeing friends since my loss, the firsts of each major holiday, the first spring day, the first social event, the first time going to familiar places, the first anniversary of my loss, and even the first time having a meal with my family after my wife’s funeral. Being able to experience a one-year cycle of life, and going through all the “firsts,” could possibly be one of the reasons that twelve months is generally promoted in the grieving process.
I also had to process the scope of my loss. For many, coming to grips with the permanence of their loss becomes one of the hardest actions. Life as one knows it has stopped. Resulting changes required by one’s loss, such as help with household chores, companionship, intimacy, help with decisions, can take time and struggle. Identifying these losses and the required changes is where long conversations can aid in the dissecting of the details of one’s loss. Consequently, grief can actually be layered and needs to be peeled back like an onion.
Often, identifying with the struggles of the bereaved can only be acquired by being with them. “Call me if there is anything I can do,” only confuses the mourner. They will never call you. First, they could feel “weak” if they admitted need. Second, they often aren’t thinking as clearly as usual, making a simple call to a friend for help an impossibility. I suggest you show up at their place (or make a phone call) and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and just felt I should come by.”
With the loss of my wife, I needed to realize that I lost more than just a family member. I lost my lover. I lost my best friend. I lost all the dreams for the future we had. I lost my connection to certain friends. I lost a relationship of intimacy. Each of these losses required adjustment by me. I felt like someone had torn apart my Lincoln Log house I had built over the years and I now needed to rebuild it. But many of the core pieces were missing.
DOING LIFE AGAIN
The days immediately following a loss can be a blur or even a fog, but life goes on. A friend, Michael, described it this way. “So how do you live, how do you survive? You focus on the “have-tos” first. I have to work. I have to shower. I have to eat. I have to keep up the house. I have to take care of the others in the household that are hurting just as much or more than I am. I have to hold them, comfort them. Focus on helping them get through this, while dealing with the reality that such a big part of our lives has been torn from us. That’s all there is for a while. Down times are the worst. Grief, mourning, pain, tears come. My pain, pain to my kids, pain to everyone who feels the loss seems overwhelming. Focus on things that matter; things that make a difference. Songs on the radio that you sang together bring tears again. Life will never be the same!”
GRIEF AND IDENTITY
People respond differently by suddenly having the stigma or identity of being the one who has experienced a loss. Taking on the title of widow vs. married, unemployed vs. having a job, homeless vs. having a secure abode, single again vs. married, or even childless vs. cuddling a baby becomes a struggle in and of itself. This new identity is required to fully find release from the pain of the event. It can be part of the process to freedom.
The pastor of the church we were attending was a great counselor for me during Ruth’s seven-year illness and death. I would often go and just tell him everything that was going on. One time, just before she died, I was in his office reviewing the events of the week. The doctors had sent her home from the hospital to die. He sensed that I was about to explode but could not. He wisely and lovingly said, “David, Ruth is dying.” His stating that stark and awful truth released my emotions. I found that acknowledgement necessary to help me process my loss after she died.
Accepting the new identity that loss demands, however, needs to be processed well. I recall observing my mother’s response to being “the poor widow” with five kids. She actually got to where she enjoyed the pity that identity offered. She actually became good at reminding people that she was widowed so they would possibly pity her. This became a hindrance to her healing.
In contrast, I recall the day about three months after Judith died when I sensed I was beginning to accept my singleness. It seems that from the time of Judith’s funeral till that day, I could not be content to let a conversation rest with someone who did not know me until I made them aware of the fact that I was recently widowed. The identity of being a recent widower held me captive. Then, one evening, I was at a concert and struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting beside me. When I got home I realized that I did not even mention anything about my being a recent widower. I was simply me, a single man. It felt freeing.
A person is now faced with the challenge of building a new identity, starting over. This can be scary. It requires effort. Who they are now, after their loss, needs to be redefined. This can include things like making new friends, adjusting their social calendar, maybe visiting places and people they have not seen before, and it may even mean changes in wardrobe or decorating that reflect them now. Often, part of the struggle is getting past the question, “Would my loved one approve?” or “Am I being disloyal to them by changing?”
As the griever passes through this part of the process, you can help them by changing the nature of your questions. Instead of asking how they are doing with the loss of their loved one, begin asking specific questions about them. Of course, talking about their loved one is always in order for their healing. Eventually asking specific questions about them will be helpful as they establish a new identity. “What kind of music do you like these days?” or “Would you like to go out with some friends this Friday?” can be starters. One couple at my church asked me regularly what movies I was enjoying lately. It helped that they were asking about ME and who I was now.
This may seem like it should go without saying: Grief hurts. However, I didn’t really know to what extent it hurts until I experienced it firsthand. The pain of the mourner comes from deep inside them. It cannot be fixed quickly, nor should we think they “aren’t doing well” when this pain shows up.
Six months after Judith died, I was invited to have lunch with a hospice chaplain who himself had lost his wife about the same time as me. Someone who knew me and saw me weekly had told him I needed to talk because I wasn’t “handling things well.” At the end of the two-hour meal, the chaplain leaned back in his seat and admitted, “I asked to meet with you today because I heard you weren’t doing well. The truth is you have helped me beyond belief. Thanks.”
It made me wonder why this other friend who saw me more often thought I wasn’t handling things well. As I reviewed our visits, I realized what had happened. The friend who saw me weekly witnessed me tearing over easily and regularly in public. He concluded, albeit inaccurately that it must mean I was not doing well. In reality, because I had the freedom to show, my occasional painful moments, I was actually doing great in terms of working through the process.
Another important thing in understanding grief and pain is the truth in the statement that “hurting people hurt people.” As you strive to help those you know who grieve, please give room for them to express themselves. Sometimes in fits of pain they can hurt others. This may not even be intentional. An understanding heart and a polite, timely word would be much better than judgment, criticism or pulling away from them.
NOT A QUICK FIX
The list of helpful and not so helpful comments I heard during the viewing and funerals of both my wives is confusing. Many came from an effort to “fix” or help relieve my grief. If someone does not feel they have such a statement they feel like they “don’t know what to say.” Grief does not have a “quick fix.” Grief only needs to be heard and identified, in most cases. Listening is better than talking. Statements of the loss are better than logic for why or results of the loss.
NO PRESCRIBED LIST
My personality likes predictability and lists. It frustrated me when I heard others describe their journey and I noted differences. I wondered if it was just me or them that was missing something. I finally came to the realization that although grief patterns exist, there is no such thing as a definite checklist of things every mourner must go through to process their loss well.
This helps explain why some people would question whether I was really doing well if I had not experienced a certain thing (i.e. anger, guilt, blame, “WHY?”, etc.). Knowing possible feelings like this can be helpful to identify what a person is going through and accept it. However, to use any set of expectations as a checklist, much less judge a person on how well he or she is doing, can put undue stress on your relationship by adding wrong expectations.
ONE’S FAITH CAN BE CHALLENGED
I was recently interviewed over the Internet for an online TV talk show. During the interview a viewer texted in, “How did you handle your “Why God?” question?” I realize that often times this is one of the first questions grievers ask. My answer was not as some would have expected. (See the complete response in chapter 12).
One’s worldview, especially regarding the spiritual side of man, tends to emerge during times of loss due to death. The “why” questions bring out fundamental beliefs, or the lack thereof, regarding basic human experiences from “origin” to “purpose” to “conclusions” surrounding human existence. Grievers often express their questions amidst their hurts. This topic can be a source of comfort for many but a source of distress for others. Your sensitivity to the griever in this area is crucial in helping process and move on to victory.
« Point To Ponder »
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Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge.
Expression and closure are important for those who have experienced loss.
I had the opportunity to share my experiences and lessons of going through loss at a large men’s prison in southeastern California recently. The chaplain, who is a long-time friend, invited me to share with the “church” he was responsible for behind bars. It proved to be a wise choice.
Following my talk men began lining up to express appreciation and tell me their story. One was particularly impacting to me. A man with a pony tail was in line and when he got to me he was so moved he couldn’t talk. He stepped out of line for a moment. Finally his story came out. He had married his childhood sweetheart, gone to Viet Nam, came back with severe Post War Syndrome and she left him. Later in life he conquered the effects of the war and she returned. Now, since he has been in prison, she died and he never got to say goodbye, settle any outstanding hurts OR go to her funeral. I was the first person to come into his life who understood, by expression, his pain and it gave him release. He sobbed on my shoulder for the longest time.
You can be of great help to those you know by allowing them multiple opportunities to express their pain (not fix it) and even aid them in steps of closure.
With A Full Heart
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