8 Things Never to Say to a Grieving Person
We've all been there: you're at a funeral or sitting down to coffee with someone who tells you of a recent loss. You know you should say something, and you mean well, but the first thing that slips out is a cliche or a downright insult.
Or, maybe you've been on the other side. Maybe you were looking for a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen but all you got was an admonishment not to cry or to take it so hard. Words are powerful things and never more so than when we're at our most vulnerable. Here are the top 10 things you should try to avoid saying to someone going through the grieving process along with 10 understanding and constructive alternatives.
1. “Cheer up.”
They would love to, but the fact is, a calm comes after the storm and cheer comes after a healthy grieving process. They won’t be able to find peace until they have the closure that comes from moving through the stages of grief, no matter how messy the process may be. You aren’t responsible for cheering them up or saying “the right thing”. No words or actions can ease the pain of loss. Give them time and let them know you’re there, whether as a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Even if you don’t know what to say, listening is so much more of a comfort to a grieving person than the most eloquent words. The four most comforting words for someone in grief: “I’m here for you.”
2. “It could be worse.”
This is something that could be said in just about every situation in life, and yet it very rarely ever should. How will the grieving person feel after hearing such a statement? Perhaps they will feel many things, but comforted will not be one of them. Inherent in this cliché is the devaluation of what the grieving person is feeling in that moment.
Yes, the loss of a relationship may seem to you less severe than things that you or others have been through, but you don’t need to diminish and disregard their experience to build up your own. Unfortunately, in the world we live in there is more than enough grief to go around and each person deserves the chance to work through their own in their own time without judgment. A better alternative to this damaging phrase is, “This is awful. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
3. “It’s been a long time, you shouldn’t still be this sad.”
Some begin the grieving process while a loved one is still alive. For others, it takes months or even years. Don’t assume that the person has been grieving all along. If an inordinate amount of time has passed and you’re concerned for the effect the prolonged sadness is having on their well-being, make sure they know you’re there for them and consider suggesting that they speak with someone, but never belittle their feelings. Grief does not work on a set schedule.
4. “Don’t cry.”
The grieving period is not the time for criticism or calls to conform to gender roles. This command is most often levied at male victims of loss, even young boys who’ve lost a parent or friend. Crying is not a sign of weakness, and suggesting that it is will only shame the grieving person and force them to hide their grieving process instead of letting it out where they can receive support. Instead, acknowledge that, “Crying is perfectly normal in a time like this.”
5. "They wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
Just about everyone is sad in some form or another when they lose a loved one. No, none of us likes to think about the people we love being saddened by our loss, but neither would we begrudge them of it. Sadness is a necessary part of the grieving process, so telling a grieving person that the lost loved one would disapprove of the natural course of their grief can only cause guilt and resentment. Instead, say something like, “I’m sure they would be honored to know how much they were missed.”
6. “Why aren’t you sadder?"
This is the rough equivalent of asking, “Why aren’t you grieving in exactly the way I think you should be?” Some people can appear perfectly composed on the surface while a stormy ocean of grief lies just beneath. It takes others days, weeks or even months to properly begin the grieving process. Commenting negatively on someone’s grieving process is ineffective and will only make them feel guilty. Remember, there’s more to grief than what you see on the surface. Everyone grieves in their own way.
7. “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
1. Unless you’re a clone from the future, this one simply isn’t true. You may have been through painful circumstances in your life, and you may have even experienced a similar loss, but everyone’s grieving process is unique. To suggest otherwise diminishes their experience and can leave them feeling unheard and misunderstood. Instead, try showing your understanding by saying something along the lines of, “I can’t imagine how you feel, but…” Sharing your own experience with loss and things that helped you through it can provide comfort, but comparing loss robs the person of what they’re feeling now. They deserve their own grieving process independent of anyone else’s.
8. “You’re not the only one who misses them!”
Some take loss harder than others, and we all have varying levels of closeness with those in our lives. Don’t just assume that your relationship with someone is the same as theirs, or that you’re grieving on the same level. This will only make them feel guilty for being “sadder than everyone else.” Instead, focus on the commonalities of your grief while respecting the individual differences. Instead, try: “I miss them, too. Remember that time when…?”