Dec 182014 21 Responses

Four Things Never to Say to Someone Grieving

Grief is a universal human experience. No one has lived this life very long without experiencing some level of grief. It’s a predictable experience not only in the fact that we all experience grief, but the basic way we handle grief is the same. Whether it be the predictable sorrow of a child moving off to college or the heart-wrenching experience of sudden death, every grief shares some common elements.

Yet every grief is also unique. (See: An Ever Changing Grief)

This combination of a common experience with unique nuances, makes communicating very difficult when grief is involved. We want to interact with those grieving, but if we are not careful, our words can make their sorrow worse and not better.

Here are four things which you should never to say to someone who is grieving:

1. “I know how you feel…” Maybe you know some of what they feel, but you do not know what they feel because you are not them. No matter how similar two situations might be, they are never the same. My experience with grief helps me to have empathy toward others but it does not give an exact map of their grief. We are different people, with different experiences, and we process things in different ways. I can understand aspects of your grief, but I could never fully understand your grief because it is uniquely yours. (See: You Don’t Know Me)

2. “You are lucky because…” It’s always good to see the bright side in the midst of sorrow, but we have to be very careful when we feel led to point out the bright side to others because they may not be emotionally ready. Whenever we tell someone they are lucky because of some aspect of what they are dealing with, we are often downplaying their sorrow in comparison to someone else’s. We often conclude the “you are lucky” phrase with a description of something we went through where we weren’t as lucky. This statement takes the focus off of the other person and puts it on us. (See: A Map for Navigating Life’s Disappointments)

3. “It could be worse.” It’s a true statement. The situation could be worse. Rarely is there an occasion in which it couldn’t be worse. However, just because something “could be worse” does not mean it is not bad enough. Too often the statement “it could be worse” comes across as “you shouldn’t be so sad because the situation isn’t the worst case scenario.” This statement often reveals an uncomfortableness on our part to sit in the grief of another. People do not need us to downplay their sorrow; they need us to recognize it, name it, and endure it with them.

4. “At least…” This is another version of the previous two. We recognize someone’s experience but then add “at least it wasn’t…” By adding the “at least,” we undo any sense of empathy we have shown. We place ourselves as the ultimate authorities of who has truly suffered and we rule that the person we are talking to has not quite made the list. Our intentions are not evil, but our words are painful anytime we point out that “at least” this occurrence didn’t happen another way. (See: What To Do When Life Falls Apart)

The major issue when dealing with someone in grief is to recognize (and communicate) that you do not fully know what they are going through but it is significant and you want to recognize it. Refuse any temptation to downplay the person’s experience or feelings. Do not feel any pressure to excuse or explain away their pain.

Let them experience their sorrow, but let them know that you are walking beside them as they do.

What would be a fifth statement you would add of what to never say to someone grieving?

For more, see:

7 Recommended Books for When Life Hurts

Walking My Son Through the Death of His Grandfather

21 Responses to Four Things Never to Say to Someone Grieving
  1. yvonne white Reply

    “If there’s anything I can do, just call me.” People won’t call when they’re grieving. Do the thoughtful thing you know they need; don’t make them ask you. It’s more complicated than that but not much….

  2. Janae Campbell Reply

    Kevin, this is an excellent article. My dad died in late August and it was devastating to me. What I tried to keep in mind was that every single person that took the time to say anything to me meant it kindly. I also realized that when you are in such a deep place of hurt and grief, there really isn’t anything to be said that can help. Sharing a memory or simply saying “I am sorry you are hurting so badly” was probably the most helpful thing. A fifth statement I would add to your list is the statement “I am sorry for your loss”. It seems impersonal – a death is so much more than a loss. Like I lost my keys or something. And maybe “How are you?” I wanted to reply, “Do you really want to know??? Because it isn’t pretty!”

  3. Denise Sellers Reply

    People tend to think grief only exists when there has been a death but that isn’t true. I deal with grief every day in some way and no one can understand it because I don’t understand it. Please don’t ask me if you can do something for me, just do it because I wont ever ask for anything. Please don’t tell me how good I look for being so sick and please do not say “but you don’t look sick”. and do not ask me if I’m going to be ok because I’m not going to be ok. People don’t mean to be insensitive they just don’t think about what they are saying or how it will affect others.

  4. Melissa Reply

    Oh… Kevin, I totally messed that up (it is late, I am tired…) — #5 is not something one should *not* say, it was an idea of what *to* say. Glad a moderator can mash this up before it is posted! But as a side note, not everyone HAS experienced grief. At 40 – it’s a matter of time (surely). For those “fortunate” ones that have not been there, having insight from those that have really is helpful to ensure that our intent to comfort does not have an inverse effect.

  5. Laurel Brown Reply

    # 5 You’ll get over it. No one ever “get’s over” loosing a loved one. Over time it becomes less painful, but never does someone “get over it.” You cope with the loss, but it takes a long time to get to that point.

  6. Janna Reply

    I don’t like when people try to make me feel better by speculating at what my son is doing in heaven. It makes me uncomfortable when people try to tell me my son is my guardian angel. I try to have grace but it can be wearing. Very accurate post.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Thank you Janna. I’m going to have to pay more attention because I’ve never noticed people saying those types of things.

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  8. robertwm Reply

    What not to say –

    Statements blaming God:
    “Remember, God will not give you more than you can handle.”
    “It’s all part of His plan.”
    “It was meant to be.”

    Statements implying the grieving one is only half as holy as the comforter:
    “If you can learn to trust God to make it better…”
    “You need to come to my church and let us pray for…”
    I’m going to get you a prayer cloth prayed over by my pastor.”

    Statements trying to grab part of the spotlight:
    “Oh yeah, the same thing happened to me.”

  9. Ashley Reply

    I have to agree RobertWM. When I lost my brother a year ago, I was surprised at the number of people who said those same things. They would say things like, “At least it was sudden,” or “Call if you need anything.” I never called anyone. How could I explain the sudden loss and excruciating grief of losing my brother so suddenly and what could anyone have said to make the pain any less? People still ask today, “How are your parents doing?” It’s hard to explain to people that they just simply are not the same people anymore and neither am I.

  10. Dorothy Porter Reply

    Time will heal, you should never tell some that. Time teach us to deal with the pain of loss but it never heals us we never get over the loss of a loved one.

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  12. Kim Reply

    I wholeheartedly agree with #2. Don’t try to show people the bright side with grief. My sister in law died when she was a teenager, almost 25 years ago. So, my husband and his family had to deal with the tragic loss of his little sister. My grandma passed away a couple years ago at the age of 83. My family was absolutely heartbroken. My grandparents had been married for 65 years and my grandpa couldn’t cope with the loss and Two months later he died from congestive heart failure. I was absolutely devastated. I had lost both of my grandparents in 2 months. After the funeral, I was at my mother-in-laws house and I was terribly sad. She tried to tell me that it was not as hard because I had lost my 93 year old Grandpa and it was time for him to go. “Death isn’t hard when they’re old”, she said. She basically told me darlin, he was 93, it’s ok. I was furious, no it’s not ok. Death and grief are hard, no matter the age of your loved one.

  13. Donna Baldridge Reply

    My husband died unexpectedly a few years ago. So many friends and family members visited with me. I don’t remember what was said to me, but I do recall the arms that were wrapped around me in love. Sometimes just the presence of caring people is worth more than words can express.

  14. Martha Adams Reply

    Sometimes you don’t have to say anything, just a hug would do, people know your sorry, I had a woman tell me, The worst is yet to come.

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