I want to start out by saying I started writing this piece a while ago with a lot of anger towards oftentimes well-meaning people. But the truth is, many of us are lucky enough not to have experienced a major loss, and there’s no guidebook on how to approach someone who’s grieving. A grieving person’s behavior is often erratic and unpredictable. But the important thing to know is that if you really care about that person, give them as much of your time and energy as you can right now, especially if you’re not grieving yourself. They might take out some of their anger on the wrong people, but please don’t take it personally. They aren’t themselves right now. And depending on how deep the loss is, they won’t be for a while. Even though this is a list of common things people said to me during the grieving process that I hated, I do want to give credit to those who tried and continue to reach out to me. It’s hard to know what to say in any tough situation, but hopefully this can serve as a guide of both what to say and what NOT to say to a grieving person:
1. “How are you?” This may seem harmless, but it comes off as insensitive. When you lose a love one, you’re going to feel shitty. Asking someone how they are in this situation makes it seem like their mood should be improving by now. And that’s just going to make them shut down and want to tell you the truth.
- Alternative: “I know you’re going through a lot right now. Do you want to tell me about it?” This opens the door for the other person to discuss what they’re going through and what they’re feeling in a way that makes it seem ok that they’re not feeling good and that you genuinely want to hear how they’re feeling.
2. “I’m sorry.”
This isn’t inherently bad. As long as I can tell you are genuine. But in many cases, it’s more automatic than genuine. And even if it is genuine, my mom just died and I don’t really know what to say. Thank you? It’s not your fault… It’s ok? It’s not ok… At this point I just kind of nod and mutter “yeah…” It’s awkward for all parties involved.
- Alternative: “That breaks my heart.” It shows that you genuinely feel something for the person rather than just being polite and wanting to change the subject.
3. “I wish there was something I could do to make it better.”
Well, you know, there actually are some things that could help. But it’s not saying this. This shows me that you don’t care enough to try. In this situation, actions speak a lot louder than words.
- Alternative: “Can I give you a hug? What’s your favorite food? I’ll make/buy it for you. Tell me what you’re going through.” Bonus points: Buy the person flowers, a (secular–unless you are of the same strong faith) book about grief, or some sort of present that will make their life easier for the time being. Do their dishes, a load of laundry, etc. Small gestures help.
4. “Don’t cry” or “Stay strong.”
There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with crying. Actually, it’s really good for you. You should try it sometime. Tears are beautiful, healing, and emotional. If they make you uncomfortable then it really isn’t me who has the biggest issues, is it? Also, being vulnerable and expressing emotion does not make you weak. This phrase may be well-intended, but it just makes the person feel more alone, and that their much warranted sad feelings are unwelcome.
- Alternative: “You can cry on my shoulder. Let it out. I’m here to listen. Tell me anything.” This shows the person that it’s ok to be vulnerable with you. It might take a lot out of you to truly listen to what they’re going through, but know that the person grieving feels that pain and a lack of energy nonstop. By being there for them, you are actually taking on some of their pain, allowing them to heal faster.
5. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
Well, maybe you could try. Just put yourself in my shoes for a bit. I know it’s uncomfortable and awful, but that’s something I’ve had to get used to feeling for a long time now. So maybe you could try to be a friend and experience some of my emotions with me, and take away some of the burden.
- Alternative: “I know I’ve never gone through anything like this before, but I’m always here for you. I won’t exactly understand it, but I genuinely want to hear what it feels like for you to be going through this.” This shows that you aren’t trying to just block out your own negative emotions about the situation. It makes you more empathetic. You don’t have to talk to the person every day about their feelings but giving your full attention to the bereaved every so often is very healing for them.
6. “It’ll be ok.”
This is just so generic. I’ve been told that a million times, and on some fundamental level, I believe it to be true. But right now it’s not ok. And I want permission from you to not be ok. Otherwise I’m going to feel really uncomfortable and that I can’t be myself around you, and that I have to be “ok” in order for you to love me. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on me right now.
- Alternative: “What happened is not okay. You’ve been through a horrible event and take all the time you need to heal. You mean so much to me and I’ll be here for you every step of the way.” This shows the person that no matter what, even if they’re the most depressing person in the world at the moment, you still love them unconditionally and they mean the world to you.
7. “S/he’s watching over you.”
Really? S/he’s watching me? When I’m in the shower? When I sleep? That would be kind of creepy…
*Disclaimer–I am exploring my beliefs in some sort of guardian angel-type of energy… But I don’t think it’s necessarily sentient or would spend its time watching my life like a TV show*
- Alternative: Unless you were close to the deceased person, avoid making any direct statements about them. If you were close to them, let the griever know that whoever they lost loved them deeply. Share a few memories about the person or words that the person said about the bereaved.
8. “S/he would want you to be happy.”
Well of course s/he would want me to be happy, but I think they would understand why I’m sad. Bottom line is I’m not happy right now and sorry not sorry that it’s making you feel uncomfortable. I will be happy again one day but now is not the time. Also, you’re basically telling me I’m disrespecting the person I lost by grieving his/her death. Grieving is the ultimate form of respecting your lost loved one, because it shows how much love you had and continue to have for them.
- Alternative: “It’s ok to not be happy. It’s ok if you’re not happy for a long time. I’ll still be here for you. I’ve heard the first two years are the hardest, and know that I am here for you if you ever need to vent.” Then follow up on that offer by regularly checking in and asking the person if they want to vent. Don’t pressure the person to act a certain way or do anything they don’t want to do. They will most likely come around when they are ready. And even then, don’t expect them to be a bundle of joy. Understand that it means the world that you’re there for them, even if they aren’t able to show it right now.
9. “Just call me and I’ll be there” or “I’m here for you.”
I’ve experienced people saying really uncomfortable things to me during this time and I’m feeling very vulnerable so I don’t necessarily want to reach out and risk that happening again. Also, a symptom of grief is feeling withdrawn, so I’m not likely feeling the urge to call up all my BFFs. And lastly, I’m not used to asking for help. I’ve prided myself my whole life on being independent. That’s something I probably need to work on, but right now I don’t have the energy for that. I just need you to call me, text me, email me, come over– whatever. I probably won’t reach out to you but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about it.
- Alternative: Call or text the person. Ask them what they’ve been doing. Ask if they would like some company. Bring something by for them. No pressure. Keep it low key.
10. “You’re no fun anymore.” Ouch. This hurts to just write it out. But I have heard variations of it and so have my sisters. Grief changes a person. They might not be interested in the things they used to. It might be temporary or it might be forever. Either way, telling someone this in general, especially within the first few years of a major loss, is plain rude and disrespectful.
- Alternatives: “We can do whatever you’d like to do. Our relationship might be different right now but I’ll always be here. It’s ok if you just want to stay in, I understand.” This way the person knows that they can feel safe in the relationship, they can trust you, and maybe they will even be more open to going out with you knowing that it will be ok with them if you want to leave early.
11. “You’re so strong,” or “I wouldn’t handle it as well as you are.” Don’t say this, especially in the early stages of grief. You really don’t know how I’m handling things when you’re not around. Plus, this just makes me feel like I can’t be weak/vulnerable around you. I didn’t choose for this to happen to me. When you say you wouldn’t be handling it well, you really don’t know that. You have no idea how you would handle it, and by telling me this, it shows me that you didn’t really take the time to think about how it actually might be affecting me. It also makes me feel even more isolated and shitty that this is happening to me and that I have no other choice but to handle it.
- Alternatives: “You don’t have to be strong. You can tell me anything and I won’t judge you. Please know that I want you to open up to me.” This takes so much pressure off of me and I no longer have to accept a demented compliment that I would never have wanted for myself. Maybe a few years down the road you can tell me I’m strong for other reasons, but handling grief is not something that makes me strong. It is what it is, and I have no other choice but to accept it. I promise you’d do the same in my situation.
This is probably the worst thing you can do. Just not acknowledge that it happened. Try to change the subject, avoid the topic completely, or not even reach out to me. If we had any sort of relationship, I will definitely think you are a piece of shit from now on. Unless you apologize and bring it up at some point. Then we’ll be good.
- Alternative: Send a note if you can’t find the words. Send flowers if you don’t know what to write. An email or text will even suffice. Showing up in person if you’re close by is best, and by phone is a good substitute, but any of these gestures show that you care. Just avoiding the topic doesn’t make it go away. It will actually hurt the person and you will seem like a fair-weathered friend.
Being there for someone who is grieving is hard work. Whether or not you say the right thing, making the person feel loved, accepted, and that you will be there no matter what goes a long way. It’s a huge plus if you can help them out in any physical way such as making them dinner, giving them a gift card to get a massage, or sending flowers to brighten up their room. It’s the most vulnerable time in life to experience a loss, and the person is likely very delicate and sensitive. Things that might not anger them normally might anger or upset them now. Don’t take it personally. I know that’s hard to do, but make sure you set boundaries with the person if things do get out of line. The person may get upset but later they will understand. Ultimately, just letting the person know you think it’s ok for them to feel that way, asking if they want to vent every now and then, and truly listening to their pain without giving advice or judgement is the best thing you can do for them.