What Not To Say When Someone Is Grieving
By Sonali Gupta
When I was 17, my best friend lost her grandmother. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say a word—not because I didn’t care, but because I froze, felt paralyzed. My fear of saying something wrong was so strong that it distanced me from my friend. Finally, my mother came to my rescue, and I learned what to say to a grieving friend, giving words to my helplessness and comfort to my friend.
The loss of a loved one leaves people feeling very vulnerable, though it may not always be obvious to others. Different people respond to grief differently; there is no right way to grieve. However, what all of us need in those trying moments is support from friends and family who try to understand our loss. Communicating exactly that – “I am sorry for your loss” – is a helpful way to begin. Other ways to support a grieving person don’t involve words: simply be present, offer practical help such as making phone calls, taking care of children, or cooking for the bereaved family.
We all want to give comfort a voice, but too often, the words we choose can be more hurtful to the bereaved family than helpful, despite our intentions. Here are some thoughts on what not to say to someone grieving:
“Everyone has to die one day.” This is the reality, of course, that we all need to accept. However, when a person is grieving, it doesn’t help them to focus on this. The loss can exhaust the body and mind; the reminder of our own mortality can make the loss debilitating. The philosophical phrase sadly doesn’t offer solace or empathy, but rather triggers a sense of meaninglessness about life.
“It will get better with time.” People say this often, but loss of our loved one leave us with a vacuum and sadness that continues to exist silently within. With time, the intensity of sadness may decline, but the vacuum stays alive. We choose what we do about the vacuum, but life never really is the same. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook who has publicly dealt with her grief after her husband died earlier this year, wrote: “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good,” acknowledging her ongoing feeling of loss.
“Don’t cry. You have to take responsibility for [others].” This phrase explicitly denies the bereaved person his or her right to experience grief and creates unnecessary guilt. Denying or intellectualizing grief doesn’t help (read more about children’s grief here); instead, it can compound with or morph into other negative feelings, like anger or depression, that can lead to a downward spiral. As Samuel Johnson says “When grief is fresh, any attempt to divert it always irritates.”
“Life will be different now.” Everyone learns to adapt to face the challenges of and after loss, but being reminded about upcoming struggles adds to the burden of the loss. Shifting the focus from the loss to impending responsibilities may heighten the feeling of helplessness and loneliness.
Denying or deriding mourning rituals. There is no specific phrase associated with this, but I often hear people talk about how important it to ‘move on,’ to not talk about the bereaved or past memories. However, psychological research shows personal mourning rituals in honour of the deceased actually help people deal with their loss and mitigate grief. On a personal note, 15 years ago, my father-in-law lost his beloved pet dog, who would drink morning tea with him every day. Since the dog’s death, for the last 15 years, my father-in-law drinks an extra cup of tea every day in his memory. As behavioural scientist Michael Norton says, “With grief, the ritual leads to a feeling of control.”
Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross summed up the experience of grief in her book, On Death and Dying: “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” However well-intentioned, don’t deny someone the chance to grieve, heal, and rebuild their life with one of these careless phrases.