Home » Contemplation » What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving

What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving

In the world of grief, I’m still an apprentice. I think most people sincerely want to bring comfort to the grieving but just don’t know how. I had a conversation after yesterday’s post with someone who thinks I was being a bit too critical. Their position is that it’s the intent, not the words, that matter.

That’s caused me to  rethink what I write tonight. Instead of being philosophical, I’m just going to list some things that were said to me that, however well intended, hurt more than helped. In italics, I’m including my reactions. I didn’t say any of these things. I didn’t say much at all. I’m not proud of everything I thought, but I wanted to honestly offer a glimpse of the inside of a hurting heart.

When I miscarried near the end of my second trimester:

At least you already have a girl and a boy   I love them more than life. How does that, or gender have anything to do with this baby
This is just God’s way of taking care of His mistake   God is taking care of HIS mistake, I don’t think so
God needed another angel   God doesn’t need anything and He certainly wouldn’t change His mind, halfway through
It wasn’t a real person anyway  Yes he was and I already was in love with him
Remember, God is in control  I never doubt that, although I have no idea what you mean when you say it
You should have taken better care of yourself   I didn’t even take an aspirin or drink a cup of coffee
It’s been a month, you need to get over it   Is there a secret grief time-table
I had a miscarriage 20 years ago and it ruined my life   Well, that was encouraging
It was your fault: you shouldn’t have gone on vacation, played tennis etc…  Believe me, I wonder every moment if I did something to cause this or could have done something to prevent it
I was 28, heart-broken and already an expert in guilt. I never brought the topic up, but I got to the point of cringing when someone new would approached me. Most people were very kind. There were many wonderful people who hugged me, or said how sorry they were or who reassured me of their love and prayers. But I’m highlighting these comments to try to illustrate that, yes, the words do matter.

Twenty years later, when my parents died 11 months a part, I was less vulnerable to the effects of other people’s opinions and remarks, but I was rather stunned by these comments; most said in the visitation line at the funeral home:

I’ve never watched anyone die. What was it like?  Are you really asking me to describe the 18 hr death rattle, or how it felt to watch them tie my father’s jaw shut? Or are you asking what it was like let go of my mother’s hand for the last time
You had her for 50 years. You shouldn’t be sad. My Mom died when I was 23   Imagine how huge a hole 50 years leaves
She’s an angel now   Actually, angels and humans are different creations, you don’t die and turn into an angel
Think of the example you’re setting for your children when you cry  My ‘children’ are in their 20’s, they’re all grown up,and I promise, they’ve seen me cry before
At least you won’t have to take care of them anymore  Taking care of them was an honor, not a burden
They’re looking down on you, watching everything you do  OK, that is just creepy
You need to… I quit listening as soon as you started giving me advice
• When my dog died, I didn’t think I would ever recover  I quit listening as soon as you said dog
I know just how you feel  You have no idea how I feel
Time is the great healer  Time isn’t some mystical, magical thing  Time alters grief, it doesn’t heal it
You’re Mom and Dad wouldn’t want you to be sad   My Mom and Dad would find my sorrow honoring, not embarrassing
Every cloud has a silver lining  In addition to being trite, I have no idea what that has to do with this moment
I know what you’re going through, I…  I quit listening when you started telling your story
Your Mom wouldn’t want you to cry  If you really believe that, you don’t know the first thing about my Mom
This isn’t about you, it’s about them You couldn’t be more wrong. They’re gone, I’m here. This is absolutely about me
They’re in a better place  Of course they are. I’m not grieving for them, I’m grieving for me, here, without them

I believe it does matter what you say if you don’t want to hurt the hurting.

Don’t say: I know how you feel; Don’t use clichés and platitudes; Don’t try to help the grieving person gain perspective; Don’t minimize the pain; Don’t speak for God (He can speak for Himself); Don’t speak for dead people; Don’t blame the grieving person; Don’t decide how long or in what fashion they can grieve; Don’t use this as a teaching/preaching moment; Don’t try to fix it

Do say: I’m so sorry; I love you; I miss them, too; I have such special memories of when we… Give a hug; Send a card that just says ‘I’m grieving with you’; Send a gift certificate for pizza or carry out; Say a prayer

Today would have been my Mom and Dad’s 67th anniversary. I’d like to leave this topic with a song by Andrew Peterson. It’s only 3 minutes long. There is More.

12 thoughts on “What Not to Say When Someone is Grieving

  1. Thank you for this. This is all fresh for me. I’ve linked this on my facebook page. Hopefully it will help someone else.

    • Morgan – you’re more than welcome. If by fresh you mean that you’re grieving, I’m truly sorry. I hope your friends, in person and on FB, will surround you with care and support.

        • Oh Morgan, how my heart aches for you and with you. I’ll be praying for you today and tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead. I’m more sorry than words can say.

  2. I found myself gasping at some of the things said to you. I also found myself wondering what idiotic things I’ve said and have tried to say little, just hug. I finds those times to be the most uncomfortable for me because I don’t want to be one of “those” people but I do want to be there for the one here. Your words are especially timely as I’ll be attending a funeral next week for a friend’s father. Thank you for sharing through your pain.

    • Debby – I’d originally written this post completely differently: more along the lines of general principles. When I decided to use personal examples, it wasn’t to garner sympathy. Hopefully it didn’t come across as a poor me post. I’m long past any momentary pain caused by these remarks. I’ve found that tangible examples make a greater impression than theoretical principles. I have no doubt you’re a kind comforter. A hug, a shared tear, a kind word, the promised prayer, the knowledge that you’re there and that it matters to you that your friend is hurting is a grand gift.

  3. Our words are the greatest tool we have. Their power is awesome. We can heal or hurt with them. The fact that you can recall so many of the things people said to you 5 and even 25 years ago illustrates your point perfectly. It does matter what we say. It matters greatly. These are wonderful tips. They should be in a book.

    • Heidi – of course that last part is silly, but you know how much I agree with the rest.
      “Sticks and Stones make break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” ~ Miss Lindsey
      I don’t know what inspired Miss Lindsey to say this in 1936, but It’s done 75 years of damage.

  4. Our baby died when we were going into our third trimester. Everything that was said to you is very familiar to me. People also told me that God did me a favor by taking him as raising a child who wasn’t perfect would be much too difficult for me. This was told to me when I was in labor knowing our baby would be dead at birth.

    It always amazes me how people can put death of a loved one in a neat little box and then say God did us a favor. So on top of grief – the guilt creeps in as you start to think you are the bad person for grieving. Unfortunately, at that point of time, you are not strong enough to just consider the source – every word goes right to the heart.

    I have always found a hug and reassurance that a person will be there for me is the most comforting. A listener and not a talker.

    • Oh Jill, I’m so very sorry. Grief and guilt are a devastating combination. Those who are a part of your life are blessed to have someone who understands the value of a tender touch and a quiet tongue.

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