Discovering there has been a death in the life of someone you know can cause many different reactions, one of those being trepidation. What do I say? What do I do? Were they close? So many people are concerned about saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. During the conversation, they might start to fidget, look for a distraction or anything to avoid the topic. This fear of messing up or being indelicate can sometimes cost people their relationships with the bereaved.
Approximately two years after my husband died, a number of acquaintances who had disappeared from my life suddenly approached me, apologized and tried to explain their absence. Many said they had kept their distance because they had feared saying the wrong thing which I could understand. I can still recall some pretty off-the-wall comments from well-intended folks offering condolences. Yet, I had still appreciated their effort, as off-putting as the comments may have sounded to me at the time.
Some folks said they feared they would make me feel worse. There are few feelings worse than learning that someone significant in your life and whom you you love has died. The regrettable fact is that in addition to losing my husband, I lost these friends of his and mine during a crucial time in my grief. Two years into grief, I was glad that they could share with me their experience and reintroduce themselves into my life.
There are lists on the Internet of statements people have made to the bereaved that have shocked, upset and/or bewildered those grieving. I thought it could be helpful to offer my own reaction to some of them and explanation of why they can be difficult to hear.
- “I know how you feel.” No, no you do not unless you have psychic abilities of other people’s emotions. You are not that person with their history, personality, disposition, etc.
- “It’s part of God’s plan.” Is it? Do they even believe in God? Does that take away the pain or add to the anger accompanying the loss? Saying this may bring you comfort at the moment but might not for them.
- “It is okay. They are with God now.” Same as the prior comment except, perhaps the deceased did not believe in heaven. Even if you do, this can sound presumptive and it provides little comfort to the person who would like the person still with them, not God.
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for.” This can be very invalidating of what the person grieving is experiencing at the time. There are episodes of grief where gratitude and difficult to do at certain points along the journey of grief.
- “They are in a better place now.” This is not necessarily helpful. How can a better place be one that is not with the bereaved? This statement often gives little comfort. Use it with caution.
- “This is behind you now, move on.” This is potentially the least helpful thing you could say to them. Grief takes as long as it takes and one does not “move on” from grief. It becomes integrated into their life.
- “You should or you will…” Such words indicate you have started advice-giving.
- “You are so strong.” Really? How do you know? It could all be a mask. Plus, this unfortunately reinforces emotion suppression and/or their experience of shock at the time.
- “You look good.” This puts more pressure on keeping the appearance that they “look good.” Essentially, you are telling them that grief is a good thing for them. I lost 20 pounds in the first few weeks. I had been that thin since high school. And, this was not a positive experience for me but due to our culture, many commented on it.
- “Time heals all.” This is an attempt to comfort through reassuring and promising something you cannot. Grief is not a disease or a broken bone. We do not heal. We do not recover. We learn to live with it.
- “At least you two never had children together.” What if they had wanted that? Think about how upsetting that fact is to the person grieving.
- “You are still so young. You will find someone else.” This assumes that being in a relationship and/or married is the most important thing in life. That is your value structure. Generally, those grieving are not focused on “finding the next one,” they are still destroyed by the loss of their loved one.
This is not an exhaustive list and not all comments above would upset every person grieving dependent upon their individual circumstances. It helps if you know the person well and how they might react. If you don’t, it may be best to simply offer condolences and be honest about the fact that you don’t know what to say to them at this time. You could share that the person and the family are in your thoughts and prayers, if you are religious.
Let me leave you with this thought. Part of what helped me in not reacting harshly or negatively to what others said to me when I was fresh in grief was the fact that I knew, in my life prior to this loss, I had said some pretty insensitive things with all the best intentions…and may do so again! We are human, AND, there are ways we can mitigate the impact of what we say. So, if you’ve said some of these things, don’t panic. Reach out again, apologize, and express your sympathies. They will be so very grateful you did.