Imagine you run into someone you know (a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, anyone) and in chatting, you learn that someone close to them has just died. Maybe it was their spouse, their child, their parent, their friend, anyone. What do you say?
If imagining this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Death and grief are taboo subjects in our culture, and like the rest of us, you’ve probably been conditioned most of your life to avoid them whenever possible. Because we don’t talk about death, we don’t know how to talk about death.
Over the past year, I’ve had the honor of participating in a number of group discussions about death, dying and grief. And a subtopic that has been coming up a lot recently is what is (and is NOT) helpful to hear from someone when you’re grieving. While personal tastes do vary, there is actually a great deal of consensus as to which comments are nice to hear and which are, well, not so helpful. Many comments made with the best of intentions (including several I might have previously made myself) can actually be annoying at best, and sometimes downright offensive or hurtful.
Since I found these conversations to be so very informative, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned here. The following is a list of problematic comments one might make to a grieving person, each with a brief explanation and/or suggested alternative.
Note: Nothing on this list is universal. The problematic comments I included are here because they’ve been mentioned repeatedly, over time, and in different discussions, by numerous people who have been personally bothered by them. Any one comment on here might, in a certain context, be totally appropriate. But if you’re unsure, these are good general rules to follow. Do know that often, there’s nothing you can say (or not say) that will make a grieving person feel better, and that’s totally fine. What they need is usually not to feel better anyway, but just to be allowed to feel what they’re feeling.
What To Say When Someone Dies
Don’t say: “How did they die?”
Why? Because that isn’t really a question for them. That is a question for you, because you are curious. If they want to tell you how the person died, they will. But there are many reasons they might not want to tell you, or might not want to at that moment. Chances are, they’ve already had to tell that part of their story more times than they’d care to. And it may be hard for them to talk about, or it may not be the most important part of the story for them. So asking that of them to satisfy your own curiosity is a way of taking from them. You can choose instead to give to them with your questions, when you ask in a way that makes space for them to tell their own story.
Instead, try: “Do you want to tell me about it?”
Don’t say: “I know just how you feel,” or “Oh yeah, my brother died last year, and what happened was…”
Why? Because this isn’t about you. And it isn’t about anyone else who has died or who will die. (Otherwise known as “everyone.”) This is about the one and only death of one totally unique individual, and it’s about the earthly severing of a relationship between two people that was also totally unique. You do NOT know just how they feel. And even if you did, telling them so is not helpful.
Instead, try: “What does it feel like right now?” or “What’s the hardest part?”
Don’t say: “She’s in a better place now,” or “He’s with God now,” or “She’s in Heaven.”
Why? The person may not share your beliefs, in which case those comments can be quite offensive. But even if they do happen to believe what you’re saying, it’s very unlikely to make them feel any better. Their pain is not about where their loved one may or may not be now. It’s about them not being here. Saying where you think they’ve gone just highlights their earthly absence.
Instead, try sharing memories you have of that person, and use that person’s name. Describe the person. Say what you loved best about them and what you’ll remember most about them. Share some way they impacted you or something they taught you. These are the ways in which the dead stay with us. You can’t bring back that person, but you can join the grieving in honoring and remembering them.
Don’t say: “It’s for the best,” or “His suffering is over now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Why? If even true, that is neither here nor there. It does not address the experience of the grieving person you are talking to. It is unlikely to make them feel better, and it is dismissive.
Instead, try: “I’m so sorry.”
Don’t say: (anything starting with “At least…”)
Why? Because that’s not helpful. For a great illustration, watch this short video…
Don’t say: “Is there anything I can do?” or “Let me know if you need anything.”
Why? While there are plenty of things you could probably do for that person, asking in this way puts the ball immediately back in their court. It then requires them to think of something for you to do for them and to ask you to do it. Both of those take energy and can feel uncomfortable. Neither a surplus of energy, nor an eagerness to tackle uncomfortable conversations, are common traits of a person in deep grief. Do find a way to help them. But do so in a way that adds nothing to their plate.
Instead, try: “I would love to bring you dinner. What would be a good time to drop it off?” or “I’m stopping at the store on the way to your house. What can I bring you?” or “Can I take the kids to the park for awhile?” If they seem reluctant to accept this kind of help, let them know that it would make you feel good to do something for them.
Why? Death and grief are topics that are widely frowned upon in our culture. We’ve been well-trained to avoid these things. (Unfortunate, since they are an inherent part of life.) As a result, it is common for people dealing with death and/or grief to find that the people in their lives become scarce for a while. People don’t want to be uncomfortable or don’t know what to say, so they avoid the grieving person altogether. But what a grieving person needs is not for you to say any magical thing. What they’re most likely to need is someone to simply listen. To bear witness to their pain, without judging or dismissing or trying to fix it. Just to be there. So don’t go silent or disappear.
Instead, try: “Wow, I don’t even know what to say. But I’m here.”
Don’t say: “Be strong.
Instead, you be strong for them. Grieving the loss of a loved one isn’t a weakness. Experiencing intense emotions is not a weakness. If you’re uncomfortable with their feelings, maybe you’re the one who needs to toughen up.
Don’t say: “Don’t cry. It will be okay.”
Instead, try: “You can cry around me,” or “Go ahead and cry.” And then be there with them for that. You might even add, “Let’s just sit here with this now.” Be present, and accept their feelings.
Don’t say: “Maybe you should talk to a counselor about this.” or “Have you looked into a grief support group?”
Why: Grief is not a disease or a disorder. Grief is not unhealthy, unnatural or inappropriate. What is unhealthy and unnatural and inappropriate is expecting people to hide those feelings, keep them to themselves or process them in isolation without the loving support of friends and family. Treating this essentially human experience as something that needs to be treated or cured is more harmful than any feelings a grieving person naturally has in response to their loss.
Note: Counselors and grief support groups each have an important place. But chances are, it is not your place to suggest them.
Don’t say: “How are you doing?”
Why? That question is at once unanswerable and has such an obvious answer it’s not worth asking. A day in the life of any person, especially a grieving person, typically covers a wide range of emotions and is not easily summed up in one breath. And at the same time, when you ask that of a person experiencing deep grief, their response (at least on the inside), is likely to be, “How the hell do you think I’m doing?!” What they’ll probably actually say to you out loud is, “Okay,” “Fine,” or “I’ve been better.” And it’s likely to feel to them like the millionth time this week they’ve had to answer that same question that same way.
Instead, try: “How did it go with the lawyer this morning?” or “How has talking to the kids been going?” or “What’s the hardest part of the day?” Asking this kind of specific question gives that person a realistic chance at answering authentically and also shows them you’re thinking about them.
Though not specifically about grief, here is a great piece on asking good questions. Very relevant here.
Don’t say: “Wow, you’re so strong/brave. I don’t know how you do it.”
Why? This kind of statement can actually feel alienating to someone who is likely to need connection far more than they need compliments. It can suggest a sort of distancing and separating between the two of you, making it harder for that person to open up and talk about things they may really need to talk about. Also, they may not feel particularly brave or strong, and they shouldn’t have to.
Instead, try: “That sounds so hard.”
Don’t say: “You know, this is hard for me too.”
Why? If you’re the one trying to think about what you should say to someone who’s grieving, chances are, you’re not as affected by that particular death as they are. And if that’s true, it is insensitive, inappropriate and hurtful to put your hard feelings on them.
If you have your own grief to process surrounding that same death, by all means, do so. But unload your feelings onto someone who is less affected by that death than you are, not more so. A great way of thinking about this is the “comfort in, dump out” approach described in this article.
About “I’m sorry for your loss.”
From what I’ve gathered, the jury is still out on this popular response. On one hand, I’ve heard people say they appreciate this sentence when they’re grieving. It doesn’t deflect or dismiss, it’s straight and to the point, and it addresses what is usually at the heart of grief, that sense of loss. On the other hand, it can sound cliche and sort of automatic. And when someone has recently lost a loved one, you can bet they’ve heard “I’m sorry for your loss,” from just about every other person they’ve encountered. So use your judgment on this one. If you feel comfortable saying something more personal or creative, that could be a wonderful gift to someone grieving. But if you don’t know what else to say, using “I’m sorry for your loss,” is probably not a bad idea.
And lastly, don’t expect a person in grief to feel any particular thing. Maybe her dad died last week, and today she’s laughing at a joke she heard. Maybe his daughter died 18 years ago, and today he starts crying about it in the grocery store. Maybe a grieving person is full of energy or can’t get out of bed or wants to go to a party or doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Let them feel how they feel. It can be hard when everyone’s expecting you to be sad all the time. Similarly, it can be hard when people are wondering why you haven’t “moved on” yet. Grief doesn’t follow any map or timeline, and the grieving shouldn’t be expected to either.
The above list is not meant to be comprehensive. If you have a problematic comment you’d like to add, I’d love to hear it! Feel free to share in a comment.
Here’s to living, loving, grieving and dying well. Thanks for reading.