No one wants to say the wrong thing to a person in grief, but we often do.
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All the unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in the hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” – Jamie Anderson
As much as we may empathise and care for the person grieving, it’s not always easy to know what to say. Here are some pro tips from whatsyourgrief.com on what to avoid saying to someone grieving, and what you can say or do instead.
Avoid trying to find a bright side. When we see someone suffering, our instinct may be to try to make them feel some form of positivity with the idea of it taking away from their pain. It won’t. If you’re about to suggest that they ‘look at the silver lining’ or saying anything that begins with ‘at least’, don’t. Instead, try not to minimise their pain. Acknowledge that their suffering is real, and that you are there to support them through it.
Don’t try to relate to them through a common experience. Even if you have been through a similar thing, bringing up your own experience is unlikely to help. As everyone experiences things differently, it’s unlikely that you know exactly how they’re feeling. Instead acknowledge their loss. You can share memories, although try not to make the conversation centre around you.
If they don’t ask for your advice or opinion, don’t give it. Not all situations have a solution and your personal opinion is unlikely to help either. Instead, let the person grieving guide the conversation. If they raise or identify certain needs or challenges, you may discuss them but try not to offer your own advice unless you fear for their wellbeing.
We’ve all heard the line ‘time heals all wounds’, but it’s rarely what someone grieving wants to hear. It implies that their experience is temporary, which undermines it. Emotional pain is a part of the process of acknowledging loss. Be open to these emotions, remind the person that they don’t have to rush through them and that you’re there to support them.
Avoid phrases like ‘be strong’, ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘I thought you’d be over it by now’ and talking about ideas of moving on. However, it’s important not to fixate on having the ‘right words’ to say. The reality is that no words, no matter how wonderful, are likely to dramatically help the situation. Instead try to leave the conversation open and honest by saying things along the lines of …
“There are no words”
“Your reaction is completely appropriate and natural”
“He/She/They were a wonderful person”
“I’m here for you”
“You don’t need to speak, I’ll just be here with you”
“We can talk about this/them whenever you want to. I’m always here”
It can be particularly hard in the aftermath of loss to continue discussing it. In the weeks, months and years after loss it is still important to acknowledge what happened. Grief has no expiry date, so many people may never fully ‘recover’. Let them know that their experience is still valid, and they are not alone in their mourning.
“I/We think of them often”
“I’m never far away. You can always call me”
“I’m so sorry for your loss”
Or share a favourite shared memory to let the grieving person know that you appreciate and miss the deceased as much as they do.
Many of us are used to conversations having a direction, or resolution, and it’s easy to feel lost or uncomfortable without one. However, you are creating a space in which they can work through their pain and which is important.
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