July 7, 2021

What to Say (& What not to Say) to Someone who is Grieving.

Elephant Journal recently shared this question on their Facebook page:

What is one mindful thing to say to someone who is grieving?

And this article is my answer.

Having lost four loved ones (plus my beloved furbaby dog) in the past five and a half years (three of those people in the past year and a half since the pandemic began, and two of those since January 2021), I think I know a little bit about grief.

One thing I’m not going to say is: I know how you feel or I know what you’re going through.

Because even if you have experienced loss yourself, you can’t know exactly what someone is going through because everyone is different and, therefore, everyone’s experience of loss and grief for a loved one is different. My experience of loss and grief about my mom was and is far different from my brother’s. And that’s okay. I didn’t say to my brother, “It’s okay, I know what you’re going through,” even though we both lost the same person a handful of years ago.

One thing that I think is really important is to let people know: it’s okay to feel whatever they feel (and for however long they need to feel it, because there is no timeline or time limit to grief). And to let them know they shouldn’t feel bad for feeling certain emotions that they may think isn’t appropriate to feel.

However you are feeling, know that that is okay. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel (which could be any emotion, not just sadness. It could be anger, relief, guilt, regret, shame, frustration, or all of these (and more!) and they are all valid.

Also things not to say or do:

Don’t say, “This will pass.”

Or, you’ll feel better soon. Because these things might not happen. And you don’t want to make the person feel like they should rush to “get better.” Because it may not pass, and they might not feel better. Grief isn’t something to “get over.” It never goes away. It just changes and evolves. And saying “you’ll feel better soon” is often mostly the other person’s discomfort at the grieving person’s grief and/or intense emotions.

And in my opinion, grief shouldn’t go away. We grieve because we love. If we stop grieving, then to me, that means we’ve stopped loving, and I don’t know if it’s possible to stop loving someone you loved while they were here.

Don’t say that “it was their time” or “they’re in a better place.”

Some might find that comforting, but some may not (I don’t). What if you don’t think it was their time? Or that you don’t believe that wherever they are, they’re in a better place? Saying these phrases is just putting your own thoughts and beliefs on someone else who may not feel the same way.

Whatever you do, don’t make it about you—even if you feel like doing that is showing you can relate.

Don’t suddenly tell a story about your grief, even if you’ve gone through the same thing—it’s not about you right now!

Making it about yourself minimizes the grieving person’s experience.  You may think you’re helping because you’re showing you can relate, that you’ve been there. But everyone is different. And you recounting a story about how you lost a loved one (or a cat, like what happened to me after I lost my mom and was talking about that recent loss with a friend) doesn’t help the grieving person feel better and it’s not the same. (And losing a cat may be sad, but it’s not the same as losing a parent).

Also, sharing your grief with others is difficult. If someone cuts you off and starts sharing their experience, it not only makes the griever feel like they aren’t being heard or listened to, it could stop them from opening up and baring their souls and hearts again, which is an important part of the grieving process—talking,  sharing, communicating.

And there’s more than just grieving after a loss (of anything: a loved one, a pet, a job, moving house, children leaving the nest). There’s also grief that happens before a loss. That’s called anticipatory grief—when you know a loved one’s time is coming to an end, and you grieve for the loss that’s coming, and for what was before.

I went through it when we lost our dog. The two weeks before (when we’d made the decision and appointment for the day) was a hellish period. In ways even more so than his actual passing, which after the awfulness of the anticipatory grief was almost slightly a relief.

Anticipatory grief weighs on you like a heavy blanket and a dark cloud in one. In a way, it kind of eases the weight of the grief after, because you’ve already “pre-grieved.” Of course, it’s still sad, upsetting, and heartbreaking, but somehow it’s a bit lighter. The heavy blanket may not weigh as heavy and the dark cloud may not be as dark. Still heavy and dark, but not as much because you’ve gone through some of that grief already.

So what are some things that you can do or say when someone is grieving, besides just giving them permission to feel whatever they feel?

1. You can offer to help in some concrete way.

Instead of saying “let me know if I can help,” which isn’t necessarily helpful when someone is grieving and therefore not really thinking clearly, offer to help in a concrete way. A grieving person might not be in a place to think of ways that you can help them, so don’t ask—just do. Some examples could be: “let me bring you over some food” or “let me make you some tea,” or “let me pick up your kids from school.”

2. Just listen.

Don’t give advice or try to relate in some way (like telling your own story). Just listen to what the grieving person has to say. (Or if they don’t want to talk, that’s fine too. Just let them know that you are there to listen when they are ready.)

3. Give them a hug.

You don’t even have to say, “I’m sorry.” You may be sorry for their loss, but depending on the relationship the person had with the person they are grieving, they might not be (as hard as that may be for some of us to understand).

Is there anything else that you can think of to say (or do) for someone who is grieving?

Most times, in the case of grief, less is actually more.



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