The top 5 things you shouldn’t say to someone grieving (and what to say or do instead)
Navigating the social etiquette of grief is very complex. When we hear that a friend or colleague has suffered a bereavement, it is understandable to feel lost for words. Maybe it has reminded us of a personal experience of our own. Perhaps we simply don’t know what to say that will help or be of any comfort.
The following are five things my clients regularly tell me people have said to them, often with the best of intentions to offer comfort, which have had precisely the opposite effect.
1. “I know just how you feel.”
Sorry. No, you don’t. Grief is a fundamentally unique experience.
An event might be the same on paper: two parents who have lost their child, or two siblings who have lost their parent. But each person will have a completely unique experience in relation to that loss.
Grief is not about what has been lost, but rather the personal impact that loss has had on you as an individual.
To make things worse, as well as being factually incorrect to tell someone, “I know just how you feel,” it can make it seem as if the person’s loss is ordinary and unexceptional. This is because it inadvertently moves the focus of the conversation back to you (how do you say something like that without following up with a qualification of why you know how they feel?).
Variations of this include pretty much anything that follows ‘You must…’, such as ‘you must be devastated…’ or ‘you must be feeling terrible…’ By saying this, you are simply going one step further from suggesting you know how they feel, to specifying exactly what you think they should be feeling.
What can I say/do instead?
“I can’t imagine how it’s been for you” isn’t a bad option if you are stuck for what to say. It opens up the opportunity for them to tell you, but doesn’t demand an answer if they are not willing to elaborate.
2. “At least he/she had a good innings.”
While it might be factually correct that we are all more likely to die the older we get, it doesn’t necessarily make the emotional impact and pain of losing someone elderly in our lives any easier to bear in that moment.
Grief is primarily an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. When we try to apply logic to grief, we disregard the value and importance of our emotions.
As an aside, literally anything that follows ‘at least….’ is likely to be unhelpful. It is best avoided.
3. “You should read/listen to/watch this. It really helped me when (fill in the blank) died. Let me know if it helps.”
Are they asking for something to read/listen to/watch? If so, maybe the first two lines are ok, but don’t give them homework to do! If they aren’t asking for resources, be cautious here. Grief is exhausting. Remember too that books and blogs about grief are almost always deeply personal accounts of another griever’s experience, which might be too overwhelming for them.
Just as grief is a unique experience, so is successfully working through it. I never say that any particular course of action, such as the grief coaching I offer, is right for everyone. Everyone differs in terms of what they want and need.
What can I say/do instead?
Ask them what support they have, and what they feel they need. If it feels appropriate in the context of your relationship, or it sounds like they don’t have much support, maybe ask them what support they need, or if they want any help with researching where they might find that help.
If offering support isn’t appropriate, “I’m here if you need me” reminds them that though they may feel lonely in their loss, they are not alone. Just make sure you do also check back in from time to time.
4. “I know someone who…”
A comment that you may think will give them valuable perspective or comfort that they aren’t the only person grieving probably won’t make them feel any better, because hearing that someone (anyone) is experiencing pain is not particularly comforting. And again, it shifts the focus away from them and onto someone else’s experience.
It can also lead to unhelpful comparisons. There is no hierarchy to grief – the impact of every loss is unique to that individual. Society constantly bombards us with misinformation about how we should be feeling. I’ve seen company bereavement policies specify that the death of a family member warrants longer bereavement leave (i.e. is worse) than the death of a friend. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. How do they know?
What can I do/say instead?
‘I don’t know what to say’ is better than saying nothing! Though it is better still to follow up with something, otherwise it places the onus back onto the griever to emotionally ‘step -up’ when really you are the one trying to offer support.
Which brings us to one of the most common reactions – say nothing.
This is often inadvertently accompanied by actively avoiding that person so that you are not confronted with the awkward silence while you try to find the right words. Don’t let fear that you may say the wrong thing actually mean you say nothing. When someone is grieving, they don’t expect pearls of wisdom that will magically make everything better. They want comfort and empathy.
Also don’t be afraid that mentioning the person who has died will somehow remind them of something they’d rather forget.
Note that this is different to sitting with someone in silence. Sometimes sitting together in silence is exactly what is needed.
What can I do/say instead?
If you knew the person they have lost, say something about them that you remember fondly.
“I loved XXXX. I’ll never forget the time that…” A funny or moving memory tells that person how much the person they’ve lost meant to others. It legitimises the pain they are feeling.
Offer to get a coffee with them from time to time. Tell them you don’t have to talk about ‘it’, or anything. But you are happy to listen if they want to talk.
Gemma Bullivant is an Executive Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy, and specialises in grief coaching to help individuals to positively address and recover from all forms of traumatic change and loss, including redundancy, divorce and bereavement.