8 Things Not to Say to Someone Grieving—and What to Say Instead
When someone dies, we usually know what to do for those in mourning. We attend the funeral, sit Shiva, bring food for the family, and send bereavement cards. The hard part in supporting a griever usually comes afterwards when the dutiful aspects are over.
In the weeks and months after a death, you may find it challenging to say the right thing to a family member or friend who is struggling with the death of a loved one. You want to make things better for them and desperately want to avoid making them sad or angry.
It’s good to know though that in the beginning, words can never take the grief away—it’s always there. You can’t even make it a little better, but instead you can focus on just being compassionate. Here are some ways to do that and show you care.
- What not to say: “How are you doing?”
This vague question usually begs for people to respond with “okay” or “fine” and doesn’t open up a way for the griever to talk about what they are truly feeling or thinking.
What to say instead: “I know things are really hard for you right now.”
Part of being compassionate is about acknowledging the depth of what someone is going through at the moment. This can let them know they can be honest with you and grieve openly without judgement.
- What not to say: “At least she/he lived a long life”
This can anger someone in mourning and make them think, ‘Is that supposed to make me miss them less?’ No matter the age of those we lose, having lived a good, long life does not diminish the pain we may be feeling over the loss.
What to say instead: “Remember the time when they …”
Offering shared memories and reminiscing with others about a loved one gone can help ease the pain in the moment. It also allows those grieving to feel connected to others during the weeks and months after the funeral when they may be feeling isolated.
- What not to say: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
This sounds like an offer of support but can be more work for the bereaved as it puts the responsibility on their shoulders to ask for help.
What to say instead: “I’ll bring dinners over this week … or I’ll take the dog to the vet … or I’ll take the kids to school.”
Being specific in your offer to help is a great way to connect with very real needs in the moment. Your offer may stem from conversations with the bereaved in how they are feeling overwhelmed with certain tasks. This can make it easier for them to accept an offer for help and takes the effort off them to come up with a task for you to do.
- What not to say: “I know just how you feel.”
While we can all experience loss in our lives, every person’s grief and loss is unique to them. You can never truly know how they feel and saying you do can devalue their experience.
What to say instead: “I can only imagine how you feel.”
This lets the griever know that you empathize with their loss without claiming to know exactly what they feel. This also gives them a chance to open up and share what emotions they are dealing with in the moment.
- What not to say: “You can always have another child … Get married again … Find happiness again … Get another dog.”
This phrase suggests that a loved one is replaceable. Every person is unique to those who loved them, and no new partner or new child can replace the one lost. This can also play on the mourner’s fears that someday they will forget this person and it diminishes that person’s importance in their life.
What to say instead: “Tell me something special about your loved one.”
Helping someone remember a special person they lost is a gift. When grief is new and sharp, focusing on memories can offer some solace. It can also help keep that person close in their heart and mind.
- What not to say: “They’re in a much better place now.”
Many people would much rather have their loved one still with them, not in a “better place”. This statement also assumes that they believe in a specific religious belief that might not be true and could offend rather than comfort. It can also minimize their pain without meaning to do so.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
If the deceased was ill for a long time or critically injured, those left behind will likely be glad their loved one isn’t suffering anymore but it doesn’t alter the depth of their loss. Showing that you understand this death is hard for them no matter the situation, will help them know you understand.
- What not to say: “It will get easier over time … Time heals all wounds … You’ll heal over time.”
When we’ve just lost someone, this statement can seem impossible. Often, we don’t want it to get easier because then it seems we are forgetting the person we loved. In new grief, it can be hard to let go of our pain as we’re not ready to let go of those we loved.
What to say instead: “This must be very painful for you.”
When someone is going through a loss, they appreciate their pain being acknowledged without being minimized. While it’s often true that time does heal all wounds, it’s best to let the griever discover this on their own as time passes.
- What not to say: “I’m surprised you’re not over this already.”
Grief is very personal to each person and we bring our own life experiences to how we handle and deal with it. There is no time limit on grief and for some it can take longer to move through the stages of mourning.
What to say instead: “We all grieve in our own way and in our own time.”
Let your friend or family member know that you understand they can grieve for as long as they need to and in their own way. We all have the right to our own grieving process that can help us move on in peace.
Helping someone during a time of grief is all about being compassionate. Your comfort and support can make a huge difference for them during this difficult time. You can’t take away the pain of their loss, but you can show them how much you care by just being there to listen or in helping ease their daily burdens.