June 15, 2017

4 Things we say to a Grieving Person that Actually Make things Worse.

When we lose a loved one, we’re vulnerable.

We need support, compassion, and patience. And yet, death has a way of bringing out the weird and inappropriate in people. Most people mean well—but our death-denying Western culture doesn’t usually equip us with the means to be supportive.

After a string of tragic losses in my 20s, I received a crash course on what not to say or do around someone who’s grieving.

Here are four things we need to stop saying to people who are grieving:

Don’t tell them to give your condolences to someone else.

“Please tell your mom I’m so sorry for her loss,” an acquaintance said to me after my brother died. While well-intentioned, her words left me feeling terrible. For one thing, she didn’t say a word about my own loss, which made me feel like it was invisible and unworthy in the shadow of my parents’ grief. Secondly, condolences aren’t something to be passed on secondhand like a casual hello. If you truly want to let someone know you’re sorry for their pain, say it to the person directly, or write it in a card for them.

Don’t say, “Be strong.”

At my brother’s memorial service, several people urged me, “Be strong for your parents.”

I think they were trying to say that losing a child is unimaginable. But once again, what I heard was, “Your grief is invalid.” At that time, I couldn’t be strong for anyone—not even my parents. My brother’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me—and these well-intended words felt like salt in my wounds.

Don’t use the C-word. 

The summer after my brother died, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed into the Atlantic. When the wreckage of the plane was found, one of the anchors announced, “This will provide some closure for the family.”

“Closure?” I hollered at the ambivalent television. “Their grief is just beginning!”

The idea of closure is attractive; it’s neat and tidy, a well-wrapped box to be stashed in the attic.

But it’s a myth.

Grief is a sprawling, messy package that we didn’t order, and it can’t be contained or set aside. With time, we heal. We build a new normal. But that healing is usually measured in months or years, not days or weeks. Grief, at its core, is love. And love is too wide, too stubborn, to ever fully close.

Don’t say, “It’s God’s will,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Death can feel scary, even contagious sometimes. So when something awful happens, there’s a very human tendency to try to create order out of the chaos. But telling someone who’s grieving that “everything happens for a reason” or “they’re in a better place now” will probably make them super stabby. When someone we don’t think we can live without dies, we don’t want them in a better place—we want them here, with us.

Most of these well-meaning words stem from an attempt to put boundaries on the person’s loss—by telling someone to be strong, or that their loss happened for a reason, or implying that some event will provide them with closure, we’re giving them the message that it’s not really that bad. Our words have whispered undertones that the universe isn’t that chaotic, and this awful loss will soon fade and feel manageable.

In my experience, grief isn’t something to get over so much as something we learn to live with. It shape-shifts, it ebbs and flows, but like love, it lingers, intense and invisible.

To be supportive and sensitive to someone experiencing loss, we can say, “I’m so sorry this happened.” We can let them know how often we think of them, and we can help fill immediate needs like picking up their son from school, bringing food, or being there as they sort through their mom’s book collection. And because words are so often inadequate, we can simply be there, still and solid, to listen, to love, and to sit together in the swirling silence.


Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Ben White/UnsplashPeter K. Levy/Flickr 
Author: Catherine Monkman
Supervising Editor 1: Callie Rushton
Supervising Editor 2: Yoli Ramazzina 

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Emily Marshall Oct 14, 2018 5:37pm

It's nice to read and learn from this article. My brother passed 10 years ago and I still have one card on display that comforts me in times of sadness. It was hand written and reads, "Although it is difficult today to see beyond the sorrow, may looking back in memory help comfort you tomorrow." and was signed, "My thoughts are with you.". No other words meant as much.

Melanie Collins Pennock Oct 9, 2018 5:10pm

Grief is alive. We move through our lives and it moves with us, changing. We cannot ignore it or get over it. We weave it into the tapestry that is our lives.

Katie Brown Boehler Oct 9, 2018 1:52pm

My father died when I was 22. I had several people hug me and say' "It's such a shame that your dad will not be able to walk you down the isle when you get married." I ended up having to leave the visitation more than once due to these callous comments. It also put a huge damper on my wedding 6 years later. As I was getting ready, all those comments reverbarated in my head, making it hard to smile and concentrate on who was there, because my head was full of who wasn't there.

Heather Hayden Wittman Oct 9, 2018 1:51pm

Me too, people said the very same thing to me, I was 44 years old. I am now 58 years old and have not remarried, thank them all very much for their words. It is softer, I have been in relationship, and am at present, but it never changes the fact that my husband, the father of my child was ripped away from us one November morning. These are such calous words, and I am so sorry anyone said it to either of us.

Lena St Feb 22, 2018 11:17am

DAYS after my exboyfriend had commited suicide, my work colleague (who hadn´t said anything before) came up to me and asked me if i had "overcome the shock yet"? WTF? "Yeah, yes, it has been 3 days, so all fine again, thanks" Other colleagues didn´t say anything at all and pretended as if everything was normal (and they knew what had happend)- that was no better solution. Please people, just tell the ones that grief, that you feel sorry for what has happend, not ignore them and let them akwardly feel left out. Thanks.

Maja Brusin Kelly Feb 10, 2018 7:46am

I agree with everything listed in the article. Another thing I absolutely detested after my father died of lung cancer was the question: "Did he smoke?" What difference does it make whether he did or didn't??!! He was my dad and I loved him, and he is gone. He was too young to die and he wasn't ready.The human tendency to look for rational explanations for why horrible things happen is completely understandable, but questions like these are incredibly selfish and insensitive. Their purpose is solely to put the asker's mind at ease (by giving them the illusion that tragedy can never happen to them, as long as they live by certain rules). They leave the bereaved with a feeling that the person they lost is being judged. Oh, and please don't tell me that heaven gained an angel, unless you know for a fact that I believe in heaven and angels (I don't). Just hug me and tell me that you are sorry that this has happened. If you knew him, share a memory or a funny anecdote. Help me remember him, let me sit with my pain, allow me to be vulnerable.

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Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. Lynn is currently writing a memoir about her brother’s death. She writes about grief, parenting, imperfection, spirit, and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.