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What Not to Say to Someone Grieving

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If you have had the experience of losing a loved one in your lifetime, you understand that the mourning process can be so agonizing and prolonged that it feels as if it will never end. Sometimes it’s so excruciating, in fact, that even when we aren’t grieving firsthand and are simply trying to help a person we know heal following the death of someone important to him or her, we panic, unsure of what words of reassurance can possibly suffice in the face of such monumental loss and emotional trauma.


According to bereavement expert Camille Wortman, PhD, blogging for the PBS series This Emotional Life, our personal discomfort surrounding death and tragedy, whether conscious or unconscious, often rears its head when we try to reach out to grieving people, even if we have the best of intentions. She notes, “We are not sure what to say and we do not want to make [the person] feel even worse. Conversing with a grieving person can evoke feelings of helplessness because objectively, there is little we can say or do to help. Such interactions may also enhance feelings of vulnerability, because they make us realize that bad things can happen at any time.”


In addition, Wortman points out, as we sense our own stress levels increasing while we try to soothe someone who is suffering, we freeze up and tend to default to a one-size-fits-all approach, making “remarks that are part of our cultural understanding of how to help others.” Yet such statements are risky at best and downright damaging at worst. When attempting to console a bereaved person, you’d be wise to avoid the following types of behaviors.


Offering Platitudes
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You have so much to be thankful for.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
“This is simply nature’s way of dealing with a problem.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”


Minimizing the Problem
“It was only a baby you didn’t know; you can always have other children.”
“She was seventy-five, so she lived a nice long life.”
“It’s over now. There’s nothing to do but move on.”


“Others are worse off than you.”


Giving Unsolicited Advice
“You should seriously consider getting a dog to keep you company now that your husband is gone.”
“It’s not healthy for you to be visiting your mother’s grave every day.”
“The best way for you to get over your wife’s death is to start dating new people as soon as possible.”


Grasping at Straws in an Attempt to Relate
“I know how you feel about your son’s passing. My husband and I got divorced last year, and I’ve had a very hard time with it.”


“I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s untimely death. I understand what you’re going through, because I had to put my dog to sleep recently.”


“I know how hard it must have been to lose your five-year-old. I experienced a similar tragedy when I had an abortion.”


Putting a Religious Spin on the Situation
“God has a plan.”
“God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.”
“God needed your father more than you did.”
“She’s a flower in God’s garden now.”
“Heaven needed another angel.”


Expressing Intolerance for the Length of the Grieving Process
“Think positive.”
“You must be strong.”
“Keep a stiff upper lip.”
“Pull yourself together.”
“Get back on the horse.”


These verbal red flags might make you feel as if trying to console someone who’s lost a loved one is akin to stepping into a minefield, but bear in mind that saying nothing at all is still more harmful. Treat this as an opportunity to practice mindful compassion—instead of blurting out clichés, make sympathetic and selfless comments, such as:


“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
I can’t imagine what you are going through.”
“I don’t know exactly what to say, but I know I can listen.”
“Would you like to sit down and tell me how you’re really feeling?”


Above all, don’t forget to ask what you can do to help. Whether that means sitting quietly with a grieving friend while she cries, asking people to prepare food for her for a few weeks, or researching support groups for her to attend, know that you do have the power to provide genuine comfort.

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