Wendy's Blog

Words Can Slow Their Healingwhat not to say to someone grieving

by Wendy Keller

A friend of a friend died in a bike accident last week. Terrence was a well-liked man and an exceptional athlete.My friend runs a local shop, and I was there when he got the news that his friend had died.

As non-immediate family members often do, he went into stunned shock.  Didn’t talk about it.  We had dinner that night and he brushed it off when I brought it up gently, but at the most unusual times, brought it up himself – and many times since.

I’ve noticed shock only gets you through the first few days, so I stopped by his shop today to see how he was doing.  There were two young adults talking to him earnestly.  Turns out, they are Terrence’s children.  I hadn’t intended to walk into something so intense and private, but I couldn’t leave without making the situation even worse.

I listened to his daughter, about 24-25 years old, talk about her dad.  Part of her conversation spoke of him in the present tense, some in the past tense.  Funny how we all do that when death is so sudden.

My friend was doing the right thing – telling positive, encouraging, amusing stories about what a great guy their dad was.  I offered a few words of support. And then my friend said to these grieving young people, “Well, I guess it’s good that he died doing what he loved.”  I cringed when he said it and I watched the daughter and son wince.  My friend saw that he’d done something wrong and started to backpedal. It was a thoughtless comment,  and they may not remember it among the hundreds of stupid things they will hear in the next few weeks.

Here’s the #1 mistake we make when trying to comfort someone who is grieving:  telling them a reason or a belief meant to make them feel better.  You can’t make them feel anything.  Their loved one just died.

Five examples:

1.  “At least he died doing what he loved” or “What an honor that she died defending our country” or “…before the pain got any worse” or any such insensitive comments. Because this implies that there’s a reason for the pain and you are implying that you know it.  You do not. Don’t say anything.  You only have your opinion. Please keep it to yourself in this instance.

2.  “At least she isn’t suffering/is at peace now”  Why is this stuff wrong? Because it implies the survivor should somehow be glad and grateful for their own loss.

3. “I understand just how you feel because…”  You do NOT understand, even if you also had a child or a parent or a friend die.  Or worst of all, correlating the death of a pet with the death of a human!  You do NOT understand how someone else feels because each relationship is unique.  Think about your siblings, if you have them.  Did your parents have the same relationship with each one?  Of course not.  Loss is loss, but saying you understand is affront.

4. “She’s with Jesus now” or “He’s with the angels” or any religious bandages you think up.  Even if you think the person has the same beliefs as you, don’t imply that you know the location of the deceased’s soul.  The assertion of your faith may be taken quite poorly by someone who has even slightly different beliefs. “Well, I guess the Lord just needed him home” makes the bereaved person angry (at God or you) or guilty, because they are questioning God’s wisdom in removing their loved one.

5. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just call me.”  A bereaved person will never call you. If you are an exceptionally close friend, organize a hot meal drop off, come over to watch the kids (or take them to the park), offer to come with the bereaved to order the casket, stuff like that. Specific, helpful, logical things.  The amorphous “anything” will make you feel like your offer is right there and them forget about it entirely, even if they really do need help.  Be specific, but NEVER pushy.

So what DO you say?  This is the tried-and-true:   “I’m sorry for your loss.”

 

When you’re ready, please help yourself to this comforting, helpful eBook

Stop Hurting and Start Healing

 

 

 
  1. People don’t mean any harm. They just say stupid things. Like Hello How are you? #$%@….I am 7months pregnant with triplets and my husband just died.. How do you think I feel….idiots

    • Hi Jenni,

      Oh my! That sounds like an awful predicament to be in! I’m so sorry for your loss. Are there other people in your life who can help you manage the lives of three new babies?

      Sending you much love…
      Wendy

  2. I disagree…not everyone will ever say the right thing in any situation, we are humans, and death affects people in different ways. The fact that you are saying anything to a person that had a loss of a human from their lives is sometimes comforting, it usually is not what you said, it is your presence that makes the difference. Don’t keep people at bay because they don’t know what to say properly, let people be near and be humbled in their time of need.

    • Hello Wil,

      I am offering ways that people CAN say the right thing, nothing more. And “keeping people at bay” who consistently say hurtful things IS a good strategy to protect oneself during the grieving or healing process. Whether the other party’s intention is to be cruel or they are just unconscious, if someone is consistently hurtful, I believe the person experiencing the hurt needs to do as much as possible to minimize contact.

      Do you disagree?

      Wendy

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