What not to say to a bereaved person - My Top 5 worst things to say when someone is grieving
by Carole Henderson
When I was widowed at the age of 40 I found out just how unprepared most people are when it comes to loss. Why is it so difficult? It’s not as if it’s unexpected, after all illness, pain, death are part of the human condition so surely with all that experience around we should learn the right thing to say? Well no, clearly not and because we’re not taught what to say we don’t teach our children what to say and the cycle of complete inadequacy continues.
When I posted on this topic on an internet forum for widows the thread was inundated with examples of crassness and I vowed to write a book on the topic – there clearly is a need for education out there! Well that’s still a work in progress but in the meantime here’s my top five what not to say and if it stops a few people inserting their feet in to their mouths then great.
By the way this list is on no particular order – what’s most offensive to me may seem mild to someone else – just play safe and avoid all of them!
1) I know how you feel.
This one is a doozie and it seems to be comforting doesn't it. Well it isn't. You see when someone is in a pit of despair they have no idea how they feel so how the heck would you know? Just because your Mum died and their Mum died doesn't mean it’s similar – this is because every person and every relationship is unique, so the pain is unique – and here’s the thing. This isn't about you – it’s about them so stop changing the subject to you!
2) Be grateful you had them so long
This is a well meaning attempt to get you to count your blessings but in truth it’s plain hurtful. No matter how long you had them you’re entitled to want them around now and yes you’re grateful but you still want more and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
3) You’ll find somebody else
Well this may be true eventually but while I’m in deep pain missing the love of my life desperately it’s also completely irrelevant to how I feel NOW. So if you find yourself tempted to say this to anyone who has lost a partner through death or relationship breakdown; stop. Take a breath and think about someone or something important to you and say to yourself – “if you lost them don’t worry you can get another one”; register how that feels then say something else.
4) They’re in a better place.
Now according to your belief system this may or may not be true. However it is also irrelevant to the person still here and grieving. It may give a slight comfort if they share that belief, it may cause acute discomfort if they don’t. Either way it’s also changing the subject again – away from their perfectly natural and valid pain and onto the person who isn't there.
5) So, he won’t be needing those golf clubs/concert tickets/other stuff
I'm sure I don’t need to explain why this is a bad one – but mainly it’s because once again it’s about you (and your desire not to see those tickets wasted!) and not about the person in pain.
So what are good things to say?
The main thing is to be honest and sincere. Sometimes all that’s needed is a hug or a smile. Ask questions, be ready to really listen to the answers and don’t offer solutions – a griever wants to be heard not fixed.
Some helpful starters are:
I can't imagine how it's been for you...
I imagine that you feel like….
Starting a sentence with “I imagine” is unassertive and gives the griever a chance to correct you. For example you say “I imagine you feel like you’ve been hit by a train” and they say well more like my entire world has exploded. This has given them a chance to say quite unconfrontationally how they really feel.
Saying “you must feel devastated” will be generating an internal “yah think!!!” even if it’s not said out loud. "You must" is an imposition which is why it will mostly be heard as an attack.
Give them a chance to tell their story – don’t interrupt – questions are about you not them
I don’t know what to say…
Is often the best thing to say when there really is nothing to say.