Psychiatry

6 Things To Say (And Not Say) To Someone Who Is Grieving

{Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii}

I always struggle with grief this time of year.  Among other stressors, this month also marks the 14th year death anniversary of my grandfather, whom I was extremely close to.  You’d think that after fourteen years, the grief wouldn’t hit me so hard, yet it still does.  Grief is one of the most difficult emotions we experience as humans, yet is also one of the most commonly misunderstood.

Below are some actions and statements that I’ve found most helpful both personally and professionally in my office when I have patients coping with grief.  I initially drafted this post last week while in a combined state of anger and sadness (predominantly anger) related to grief.  I contemplated deleting the initial draft, which I titled “Things You Should Never Say To Someone Who Is Grieving.”  However, since I try to maintain authenticity on my blog, I decided to leave the section I wrote while in an angered state, particularly because people frequently experience anger, yet often internalize and feel too ashamed to express the emotion.  People need to recognize that grief does not consist of only sadness.  Grief is a complex emotional roller-coaster that may involve one or a combination of emotions such as anger, rage, sadness, guilt, depression, joy, denial, shock, disbelief, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, apathy, numbness…(I think you get the point).

Since people often feel clueless about what to say to someone who is grieving (trust me, I struggle sometimes with what to say as well), I hope that you will consider the following when you or someone you know is experiencing grief:

Things You Should NOT Say To Someone Who Is Grieving:

1. “It’s been ___ days/weeks/months/years already…you should be over it by now.”  Grief has no timeline.  The closer a relationship someone has with the deceased, the longer it may take to overcome the painful emotions.  As one of my amazing readers (whom I learned a lot from since he shared his experience with losing a child) pointed out: grief never fully goes away, but rather becomes more tolerable.

2. “Just try not to think about it.”  Telling someone not to think about losing someone is like telling someone not to be human.

3. “‘So-and-so’ has already moved on…you should too.”  Comparisons are terrible because each individual person has their own process of experiencing grief.

4. “Just be strong.”  Saying this statement actually does the opposite and evokes a sense of weakness for not being able to overcome such strong emotions that may feel outside of one’s control.

5. “I know how you feel. My ____ died…”  Don’t even try to make the difficult situation more about you.  I once sought support from a peer and confided in my sadness only to have her shift the focus to herself and her past losses (and she was a psychotherapist!).  Though I’m sure her intentions were good, a part of me wanted to punch her in the face for wasting my time and energy.

6. “He/she is in a better place now.”  I’m a little mixed about this statement because it can be comforting if used in a thoughtful way, but annoying if said generically as a reflex response.  For example, when my grandmother passed away, I felt comforted when a relative said “She’s in a better place now with your grandpa in heaven” because my relative knew of my grandparents’ enduring love for each other having been married for >50 years, in addition to our spiritual beliefs.  However, when an acquaintance says the statement in a generic manner, it doesn’t feel genuine at all.

Bottom line — don’t say anything to someone who is grieving unless you truly, wholeheartedly mean it.  If it doesn’t feel authentic to you when saying it, then it most definitely won’t feel authentic to the person who is grieving.  And if you’re not good at verbally communicating your thoughts, then read on to see how your actions can be just as helpful (if not more).

Helpful Things To Do/Say To Someone Who Is Grieving:

1. Just be present.  Actions speak louder than words, especially during such a difficult time when grief tends to be a very isolating experience.  Being present shows that you’re aware of how difficult the experience is and that you won’t let them go through it alone.

2. Give a hug.  Several years ago, I was sitting in a lecture during residency when I received news that my grandmother passed away.  During the state of shock, I truly appreciated when my co-residents gave me hugs especially knowing that there was nothing they could say to make me feel better at that moment.  Giving me a hug showed that they acknowledged the news and wanted to show that they cared.

3. “If you ever need to talk to someone, I’m here for you.”  Again, showing your support and offering your help when needed demonstrates that you care.

4. “I’m so sorry to hear the news” or “I’m so sorry about your loss.”  Often, when people don’t know what to say, they may avoid saying anything at all to the person grieving.  Avoidance is one of the worst things to do to someone who is grieving because one might assume that you don’t care, which most likely isn’t the case.  Saying something as simple as this statement acknowledges that you’re aware and recognize the impact of the person’s loss.

5. “I’ll be thinking/praying for you and your family/ (anyone else known to be deeply impacted by the loss).”  Expressing that your thoughts (or prayers if the person is religious/spiritual) are with someone shows that you know this is a difficult/tough time for everyone involved.

6. “I know I can’t say anything to take the sadness away, but just know that I’ll be here to support you.”  This is such a true statement — nothing you say can bring the deceased back to life nor take the pain away, so offering your support and presence speaks volumes to someone who is struggling during bereavement.

 

 

 

22 thoughts on “6 Things To Say (And Not Say) To Someone Who Is Grieving

  1. PERFECT.
    And I’m so glad you kept this post real & included the part you wrote while angry!!!!
    My heart is with you over the loss of your beloved grandfather, no matter how many years ago this enormous loss took place.
    Time seems totally irrelevant when it comes to grief.
    Sending you big, big hugs!!!!! XoXo

    • Thanks, I appreciate it Dyane! You totally get that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds when it comes to grief, because any trigger/reminder can cause the wound to open up again. *hugs* back 🙂

  2. The topic of how and how not to respond to grief/ grieving.. yep, you’ve captured i well. I’ve walked through the grieving process myself once, and are intimate friends with two others who both lost multiple family members in a short time (husband and son in once case and 34 yr old son who left behind a widow and three little girls.) I am grieving 20 years out on one relationship (the waves are fewer and further in between, but for someone to suggest you should be over it by some certain time..tells me ,they have never personally grieved, and are talking theory. I am glad you kept the first part in..those are words all of us need to take to heart.

    • Hi DM – yes so true about the waves associated with grief. One grief specialist i know described how grief ebbs and flows and takes on different patterns. Sorry to hear about you and your friends’ loss…we can’t help but be impacted when others are experiencing loss because those who have lost loved ones know how hard it is, and others’ grief may trigger our own experiences with loss as well.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, you bring up such a good point. In order to best help with someone, we must let go of the mentality that we can “fix” it because we most definitely can’t when it comes to grief.

  3. Grief and the cyclic nature of grief reminds me of the spiritual aspects of nature and its changing seasons. I once read that every tear has a different genetic make-up that carries toxins out of the body…tears therefore, are God’s way of helping us heal the pain carried within. Sending you a heartfelt hug and acknowledgement that no matter what emotions creep up during this time, you have every right to feel and wade through the sorrow in your own unique way.

    Personally for me, I don’t like the common statement of “Sorry for your loss…”- it just feels a bit too superficial. I’d rather tell you this: “I can empathize with your grief and will send a prayer your way.” Much love, LaVancia

    • Hi LaVancia, I appreciate your comforting words and explanation about grief. Such an interesting tidbit about tears…i used to be embarrassed about crying, but now i find comfort in it. I’m mixed about “sorry for your loss as well,” though i suppose i’d prefer it over someone simply avoiding me out of fear of not knowing what to say. I do like the statement you mention at the end about empathy and prayer.

      • I think the reason why I don’t like sorry for your loss is because like you stated in your blog: you go through angry moments, frustration, and sometimes even peace and when someone says sorry it’s as if they are expecting you to be in the depression stage or something. I myself cry easily now…even over movies, which I never used to do. For example, “The Lion King” had me in tears as he took his step forward to be the king and leader of the pack. I would have responded sooner; however, my internet was down. Hugs, LaVancia

  4. This is such great advice and is so so necessary. We all go through tragedies, but for some… it’s almost as if they forget all of the unhelpful things people said to them when they were grieving. One of my least favorite thing is when people ask me for exact details, before I’m ready to talk about them. It can be traumatic and tear inducing when people are forced to relive a death, or tragedy too soon.

    • Yesss…i totally agree about people asking for details. though i’m sure people are curious, i don’t think its always appropriate esp if the loss was so recent, as you said. Even when I’m interviewing new patients and they mention a deceased family member (since it’s important for me to know the family history), I always preface the question with “If you feel comfortable, do you mind if I ask how ___ passed away?” That way, I give them the power/choice to give me details or not.

  5. I would only change #3 in the Helpful Things to do / say part. I would make it active instead of passive, say “lets talk next week, I will call, or visit you”,and follow up with the grieved person. If the grieved person doesn’t want to meet they will let you know. We had people say they we there if we ever wanted to talk, but they didn’t really, they would turn away from us in the store, and walk the other direction because they were so uncomfortable with the death. Some times I think its the rub off that scares them, it happened to you so it might happen to me.
    Sometime people would say the wrong words, but since they are authenic in trying to find words to comfort and not running away, we could smile, laugh or cry at what was said. Don’t be afraid of the grieved crying when your sharing a memory, and share the memories if you can. What I would give for just one more memory. One of my son’s outer circle friends, perished with his father in a house fire just before Christmas, (his mother and sister survived). My wife went to the calling hours, and all she had to bring with her was a note card that my son’s friend had filled out at Ben’s calling hours. That card is one of the only written notes she has left. I like this blog post.
    You’ve come along way pilgrim- Bearclaw to Jeremiah Johnson

    • Hi Bob — such great points you always bring up about grief. As far as #3…I can see how it can be a generic statement as well if not truly authentic because I have wondered if people truly would be there if I needed someone to talk to, or if they just said it to be kind in the moment.
      And that’s so sad/horrible about your son’s friend and his father. I can’t imagine what she is going through and it sounds like your wife did the most thoughtful thing she could.
      And glad to know that you like my post Bob…I still remember one of my first posts about grief and the kubler ross stages in which you commented on…shows that I have come a long way!

  6. Vania, I have found all of these points to be true, both from my personal experience as well as observing others coping with a loss. Sometimes we have to forgive people for comments they sincerely believe are helpful, but are not. We all grieve differently, but I do not believe we ever do,or should, “get over” the loss of those we love. To me it seems to cheapen the relationship if we do. Our feelings may change, and the pain become less acute, but no less real.

    • Hi Aletha, I love how you bring up the point about cheapening the relationship when people say we should “get over it.” If only more people could empathize with it. I think we can find forgiveness in people making comments that aren’t helpful to the grieving process, esp since I’ve made some of those comments myself in the past. In my mind, i believe that i’d prefer an awkward comment rather than someone avoiding me and saying nothing at all.

  7. Thank you for this; you couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to blog about this topic. This is extremely helpful for me, especially now as I am going through a difficult loss in my family. I find myself not knowing what to say to my husband, who’s grieving as well, so I can relate to your section about what to do (actions speak louder than words), which truly put things in perspective. I agree with you & your reader about grief never fully goes away, rather becomes more tolerable. This recent family loss also brings up unresolved grief from my previous losses, so I’m trying my best to take care of myself & be mindful of the mixture of feelings I’m experiencing. I always appreciate your authenticity. Your experience and information is validating and inspires analytical insight & positive action.
    I am thinking of you during this difficult time of the year for you, and am sending you compassion, love, & peace.

  8. One additional thing I would add to the “don’t” is “is everything okay???” For whatever reason, this is a natural response when people hear of something bad that happens. I think it’s out of awkwardness and genuine optimism, but sometimes it takes a really long time for things to be “okay” and sometimes when you’re grieving you have no idea what “okay” even means.

    For example, I had a cousin who was in a devastating car accident around graduation. It was a horrific experience that required multiple life changing surgeries, many sleepless nights, and lots of tears. Whenever people heard of the accident, they would text or call saying “I’m so sorry. Is he okay??”

    One of my coresident’s grandmother was in the hospital. She died, and when he came back to work the first thing someone said to him was “Is your grandmother okay now??” to which he had to say, “she died yesterday.”

    Thank you for creating this discussion.

    Elyse Love, MD
    http://www.loveandthesky.com
    Career, personal finance, and lifestyle advice for the millennial professional and professional student.

  9. Agree to all your points. 🙂 One more you maybe can think about: people live on as long as someone remembers them. Your grandfather will live as long as you and your siblings (I think you have, not sure) will remember him. And I’m sure your grandfather has left you plenty to remember him by. Be good and have a walk on the beach for me if you may. 😉

  10. I say and prefer to hear, number 6.
    Everything else seemed like platitudes when my mother died.
    Telling me she’s not suffering any more, that’s it’s god’s will, that it gets easier in time, that they will pray for me. …. no, I don’t like that either, but that is probably because I feel that people don’t. They say that to sound like a good person, but that’s all. Tell me you are thinking of me, you are, you have to be to be talking to me. I know that is true. I prefer that.
    don’t say Let me know if I can do anything….no, I’m not going to do it. I want to seem strong. I want to be strong. I’m not going to show that I’m lost.

    A good friend of mine made sure to get me out, but let me talk about things without feeling the need to constantly tell me it will be ok. She took it upon herself to do some housework when she was at my place, so easily that I rarely noticed. She never made a big deal about it, never asked…can I do this? She just started doing it and that was easier.
    Some days she brought me food, telling me she made extra, or picking something up…with extras…to eat with me and I’d have left overs. I wasn’t supposed to notice she got extra.

    There are people who are really good at this, others who aren’t. I’m grateful I had one person in my life who was.

    good post.

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