Knowing what to say to someone who has lost a loved one can be difficult. You want to let them know you are there for them but you don’t want to make them feel worse or more upset. This fear of not knowing the “right thing to say”, tends to make us not say anything at all or say something as a quick fix to the sadness. This can make the person grieving feel isolated, alone and essentially what you didn’t want to do…make them feel worse. Here are 3 things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving and some ideas for what you could say:
- “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay” Human instinct makes us want to make sad people feel better, and make them feel better right now. When someone is grieving, they don’t feel okay and telling them that they are okay or will soon be okay is not helpful. It can come across as dismissive and that you are putting a band aid on their very open wound. Supporting a grieving individual means supporting them where they are at not where you want them to be. Saying things like “I can’t imagine what you are going through, please let me know if I can do anything to help” or “You’re right, this is unfair/awful/sad/terrible (ie: whatever they are saying)” allows them to have their feelings honored without needing to “be okay”. Remember, it is not your job to fix or stop their pain as hard as it can be to witness.
- “It’s been 6 months, you’re still sad?” One of the least supportive things you can do is put someone’s grief on a timeline. Society tends to carry the idea that tough feelings only happen for a short amount of time, and then we should “get over it”. One of the most common things I hear from my clients who are grieving is that they feel the pressure from family and friends to not be sad anymore. This then creates the idea that “No one understands” or “My feelings are a burden”. Remember that even though your life may have returned to normal, the person who lost someone may still be really struggling to adjust to life after their loss. Do your best to refrain from placing judgement on their grieving period but instead affirm how difficult it must be for them. Provide general check ins such as “Hey I know we haven’t talked about losing your dad for a while, but I wanted to see how you were doing”. This lets them know you are there if they need you and they don’t have to stop talking about their loss after a couple months.
- “When I lost my mom/dad/dog/friend/sister/etc…” It can be damaging to use your experience of loss as a comparative story to what the grieving individual is going through. If someone just lost a very significant figure in their life, and your response is to talk about someone you previously lost and everything that happened afterwards for you, it robs them of time to grieve their special, unique relationship with whomever passed. The comparative statements also then turn the focus away from the person who needs support and onto yourself. There is always value in being able to relate to someone’s experience and have better empathy for someone because you have gone through something similar, but we have to be careful in how we approach it. Statements such as “I remember feeling similar when I lost my mom, it was really hard. Let me know if you ever want to talk about that” can let the person know you understand, but you aren’t monopolizing the story.