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

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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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Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit, and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.

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.

Caroline Herda Jan 24, 2018 6:14pm

When I read these kind of things now having just lost two very dear family members in one year, suddenly, unexpectedly I couldn't disagree more. Just having anyone, no matter what they said, recognize I'm in pain, hurting was and is a act of kindness. I was and still am focused on my grief. I know my pain comes from my missing them not from persons polity carrying condolances. Nothing a well meaning person could say could hurt or upset me. Getting upset or angry at a person who means well would feel like I was misdirecting my grief towords them. Getting angry over a person who is sorry for my loss would be a easy distraction from my grief, I could then feel anger rather than dispare and powerless but it wouldn't do me any good. I must keep working thru my grief and make a new normal for myself.

Jennifer Prescott Dec 23, 2017 1:11pm

If I would speak at all..for there are no words..I speak the truth..This sucks, no one asked your permission..the pain is to deep and frightening to comprehend..Sorry is a cheap and meaningless right now, I will nought say it, I will nought make your pain worse by trying to make it better. What I will say is that I see you, I see the pain..it belongs to you, I will nought take it from you. I am here..I will nought speak but know I am here you will nought fall. I love you and am blessed that you are in my life. Call..reach out if you need touch..I am here and I See You..

Lynn Shattuck Oct 25, 2017 8:34pm

Mary-Anne Connaughton, I think it's totally fine to ask, "How are you doing today?" I wouldn't be afraid of making someone cry-- their loss is probably never far from their mind.

Mary-Anne Connaughton Oct 5, 2017 6:06pm

Lynn Shattuck if someone is grieving is it ok to ask how they are? I am always affraid of bringing things up and hurting them if they are ok that day? I know this sounds stupid, of course I always ask how he is but I mean going deeper and more than likely making him cry.

Barb Collier Wittstruck Aug 4, 2017 4:50pm

I have learned that saying I'm sorry for your loss. I didn't lose anything their dead. I always say to anyone I'm close to comes w the phrase. "I'm sorry for the pain u have to endure due to the death of .,,,,,,,,

Brewer Mike Jul 25, 2017 5:25pm

I disagree with the second.Sometimes you have to step up and carry the grief for others.

Lynn Shattuck Jun 21, 2017 7:34pm

Lisa Mary Narramore, ugh. I'm so sorry that happened to you. <3

Neil Crenshaw Jun 19, 2017 12:06am

Each person is different and each person's feelings and emotions are different. As a grieving person we shouldn't take what another person says in trying to console us as negative. After my mother, father, and brother died there were many different expressions of sympathy from well meaning people. I knew they were struggling with what to say to me so anything was okay. Just remember, everybody means well.

Ouisa Davis Jun 17, 2017 10:05pm

Or "s/he wouldn't want you to grieve..."

Jacqui Canfield Jun 17, 2017 3:12pm

Well, sadly American culture is not conducive to much that requires empathy and compassions. Although I know this is truly cynical, and it may be simply my location of socal, I find compassion and understanding of others a rarity in everyday life. As a teacher, I was speaking to one of my student's parents one day after school, and the subject of my being a widow came up. I brought it up rather lightly, but she did not know what to say, I could feel her discomfort, and she was running off in that very moment of finding out. She was a hospice worker. People have a hard time with involving themselves in anything unpleasant, and I have seen a distinct pattern over the years of people simply removing themselves from any situation that makes them feel ill at ease. Perhaps if a person can stand still and feel that discomfort, and be together in that discomfort, that is all we need from each other. Presence and not too much worry about words.

Susan Seibold Jun 17, 2017 2:45pm

Helpful, thank you!

Lisa Mary Narramore Jun 17, 2017 9:54am

Yeah, also what I was going to say. When my new and beautiful husband died in my arms at 36, some woman I didn't even know said 'I know how you feel, because my husband left me and it feels like he died." I wanted to punch her face so hard. Stupid, stupid woman. How, HOW, I ask, is your man running off the same as him dying in front you when you never had any problems and had no intention of separating? I think using thoughtless, illogical words of condolence is pseudo-comfort from an insincere heart that completely lacks empthy; it's self-focused instead of focused on the bereaved person.

Lindsay ELise Gunn-Ouellette Jun 17, 2017 12:51am

Please read this. I don't hear it elsewhere. I was widowed at 35. The Hardest Thing people kept saying to me at the funeral and beyond was I AM SO SORRY. Every time another person told me that (and there were way more than 100 that day) it was another wave sinking my heart. I knew he was dead and my life and that of my son had changed, I didn't need these people confirming it. What I didn't need was for people to make it worse by only affirming the worst in that situation. It's the only socially polite thing to say these days, but not totally real. However, what I would have liked was people asking me "How are you?", "What does this mean to you?" (It absolutely meant something), "What do you really need right now?". Many people show up more sheepish than open and corageous in these things, they say the polite appropriate thing, not have the real deep discussions. In that way alot of these ceremonies become morw formalities than open experiences. And btw, while my husband who looked totally healthy died of a heart attack suddenly at the age of 47, totally unexpectedly, there were many many unplanned goodbyes and signs. And I really do beleive that things happen for a reason, even if it is un pc to say so. And I absolutely know that there is no way I would have grown as I have in the last 7 yrs. If we were still married I would never have taken chances, I would be redecorating my kitchen and playing it safe and growing old and hiding from life. It has been at times a very difficult path, and I am absolutely grateful for the choices and growth of the last 7 years. I am a completely different person.

Sherry Christner Jun 16, 2017 8:05pm

Prayers...when I say that to someone going through whatever even a death of a child or spouse or parent or sibling..it means I am praying for comfort and for people to come along side them to be a support..but I usually explain that too just like I did right now!

Petrus van der Bol Jun 16, 2017 5:40pm

What a wonderful article on what NOT to say to one in grief. I lost my mate of 54 years in 2014, and ofter I felt like hitting someone for the things they would say. I especially hated the "Well you know he's with Jesus." I wanted to scream back "but he's not with me!!!" Anyway, I am healed now, mostly, and writing a book on grief: A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance. Thank God I was enabled to come THROUGH the valley of the shadow to the 'table set before us'. But first, we have to go through that valley...and it's hard. Writing a book about our life together was a great help. It's called Dockside...a love story.. With a prayer for shalom for all those in grief, Sandra van der Petrus van der Bol

Lynn Shattuck Jun 16, 2017 4:28pm

Thank you, John.

Lynn Shattuck Jun 16, 2017 4:28pm

Amber, I'm glad you felt cared for by those words.

Lynn Shattuck Jun 16, 2017 4:27pm

Melissa, I'm so sorry. <3 Hugs to you.

Lynn Shattuck Jun 16, 2017 4:26pm

Oh wow, I'm so sorry anyone said that to you. <3