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.