Information & Advice
50 things not to say and do to someone grieving
How can you comfort someone who is grieving when you don't know what to say or do?
Information & Resources
Grief: Things Not to Say or Do
Helping a loved one who is grieving can at times be very uncomfortable. It can leave you not knowing what to say or how to act; even with the best intentions your words can still come out wrong – we get it!
However, there are certain phrases and things that we feel should be avoided. We thought we would help you out and create 50 things you should not say, do or ask someone who is grieving (most especially those in the early stages of grief).
What not to say to someone grieving
1. Time is a healer
Statements like this assume there is a certain time frame for grief and that things will automatically get better with time. The right actions allow time to be a healer
2. I feel your pain
Do you? As much as you want to emphasise your empathy, and show your support, you cannot possibly feel the pain of a griever. Even if you experienced the same type of loss, every experience is different.
3. You need to let your emotions out
There is some truth to this statement. However, everyone handles grief differently and there are many stages of grief along the way. They may not have fully processed their emotions or may still be in a state of denial. Moreover, the fact that someone is not expressing their emotions in a way you would expect, does not mean they are not pouring them out.
4. "At least you......"
- Lived a good life
- Are not suffering anymore
- Did not have children
Anything that begins with the words “at least” is not helpful for a grieving person. Though such things may be said in an attempt to make the person feel better, no modifying statement can eliminate the pain that comes with losing a loved one.
5. You still have your children
It is beautiful to have the living memory of a spouse in the form of a child or children, but this is no consolation for their death. This phrase can often serve as a reminder that they are left to face the journey “alone” as a widowed parent or the fact that their loved one will not be there to witness and share in the monumental moments of their children’s lives.
6. Religious Cliches like: God knows best
This phrase may appear to be a controversial one. Someone may interpret this as it being all a part of God’s plan for their loved one to die. This can leave the griever with even more questions that you will not be able to answer.
7. Call if you need me
You can imagine how many times a bereaved person would hear this phrase, and may often leave them feeling very overwhelmed. This in turn transfers the responsibility on to the bereaved to contact you and the likelihood of that happening is very unrealistic.
Since they are the individuals experiencing a distressing time – they should be called or checked up on, whether they have expressed a need for it or not.
8. They’re in a better place now
There is no better place that they would want them other than by their side. Though some may find this phrase comforting others may find it to be a tough statement to deal with. People have different beliefs as to what happens after death – so it is best to steer clear of this statement.
9. Referencing their age
If their loved one died at an old age, it does not eliminate the painful nature of death. Alternatively, if a child died, phrases like “they were so young” can make the bereaved feel much worse and remind them that their child had the rest of their life taken away from them.
10. Religious Cliches like: It is well
This is more than likely to be a “cliché” Christian response to suffering or grief. Try to avoid religious cliché statements, even the overtly religious can find them agonising to bear. The statement “it is well” is the exact opposite of their current circumstance and does not provide much reassurance.
11. I’m here if you need me
The likelihood is that they will need you but will not communicate that to you and may not want to burden you with their problems. Grieving people are more likely to keep themselves to themselves and the word “if” implies that you are available only when they decide to reach out.
12. Things will get better with time
You cannot be sure of this or make such a promise. Grief can often make the future look unclear. The thought of having to face the journey of life alone without a loved one can be crushing; it can take individuals years to “move on” from the death of a loved one.
13. You have to be strong
Statements like this negate the place of emotion. They can also create a sense of pressure upon the person to suppress their emotions and remain “strong” for the rest of the family. Showing emotion is not a sign of weakness, a person should not feel as though their emotional expressions equal a lack of strength.
14. How are you feeling?
Whilst checking up on a griever is a thoughtful thing to do, a question like this will not elicit much of a response. This is a generic question that will most likely be responded with a generic answer.
15. Look on the bright side
Unfortunately, there is no bright side, death and its aftermath can often leave people in a very dark place. More than anything, the individual grieving will be filled with emotions of sorrow, anger and despair so offering a brighter alternative might come across as trivialising.
16. How did your loved one die?
This is a very insensitive question that may bring back painful memories. In these instances, curiosity should be subdued. Asking such a question can often put the bereaved in an even more emotional state.
17. Asking about properties or possessions
This is again an obtuse question that should not be raised. If anything, it emphasises your priorities and interests more than the well-being of those grieving.
18. You need to move on
Time is different for every griever. We should be careful not to rush someone along their journey with grief. Occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries or holiday seasons can be significantly difficult for those grieving and serve as painful reminders of their departure. Let them “move on” at their own pace.
19. We will all die at one point
This is true but it will not provide any consolation at all for someone that is grieving. Whilst death is an inevitable part of life, the reality is that no one wants their loved one to die.
20. Statements that try to take the place of deceased
You cannot attempt to take the place of a dead mother, father, spouse – they are simply irreplaceable! However, you can always provide a helping hand, comfort them, encourage them and continue to keep the memory of their loved one alive throughout their journey.
21. God needed another angel
Try and avoid such platitudes, they can often provide the griever with more heartbreak and emphasises the fact that their precious one is gone forever – a truth that they may not be willing to accept at that moment.
22. Life must go on
Avoid statements that appear to dismiss their pain. As much as you want to help them along their journey of grief, life will be a hard road without their loved one.
23. You can always.......
- Have more children
Any statement starting with “you can always” will always be met with a distasteful response, particularly for a widow or widower that expected to spend the rest of their life with their spouse, build together, create more memories and have more children. For some, there is no future without their spouse.
24. It’s been years now
Grief has no expiry date and it is not your role to encourage someone to move on with life because their loved one passed away “years ago.” It is best for you to simply let them feel and move at their own pace.
25. When this person passed away, I did…
When giving advice, we are sure you always have the bereaved best interests at heart but unfortunately, it is not about you or how you dealt with things. In situations like this, it would be more appropriate for the bereaved to ask you how you coped with a loss, rather than just sharing your experiences.
26. Did they die of COVID?
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the lockdown has provided its challenges for many. This is most especially the case for those that have lost loved ones over the past year.
Whether an individual died from COVID-19 or not, the present circumstances can make the process of death even more excruciating. Refrain from asking whether the death was Covid related or not, it is inconsiderate and can cause further distress.
27. There is a reason for everything
This can be a very triggering statement and one that will not be received with appreciation. You can imagine if someone’s loved one was killed and someone responded “there is a reason for everything”, how would you feel?
28. They wouldn’t want you to be sad
Whilst this may be true, their pain is not unjustified. They would want to still be alive too. Sadness is a natural part of grief and no one should be revoked for doing so.
29. Did they know the Lord?
Again, religious questions may not provide a helpful solution to someone that has lost a person dear to them. They can leave the bereaved with further heartache and questions. What happens if the deceased did not know the Lord before death? What consolation would that give the bereaved?
30. They had a peaceful death
This statement eliminates the emotions that are felt after death simply because the nature of the death was peaceful. Also what exactly constitutes a peaceful death? A death being “peaceful” does not mean the loved ones left behind should not feel emotional or sad.
31. What can I do to help?
Rather than asking, it is better to say that you will help with something, especially something specific. For example, I will help you to pick up the children from school, I will cook some meals for you and bring them over to your house. Though they may need it, someone that is grieving is unlikely to ask you for help.
32. There’s still so much to be thankful for
The aftermath of a death can greatly affect grievers mentally. There are many different mental states that they may be experiencing, for example, they may be depressed, have anxiety or low mood. There is no thought of “gratitude” when someone dear to them has passed away. You can overlook the pain and severity of their situation with such a statement.
33. God will never give you more than you can handle
If the person is religious, it can leave them questioning their faith. If the person is not religious, it can give off a negative perception and one that suggests God allowed death to happen.
34. You need to keep busy
Try not to encourage busyness. Busyness will not necessarily “get rid” of the pain or thought of grief. Constantly being preoccupied during a journey through grief may not allow the person to fully process the death and leave them in a far worse state later or even years down their journey.
35. You’re handling this better than I would’ve expected
But what if they are not handling the situation well? They may simply be pretending that they are okay – which is common for people that are grieving. Your surprise may fortify the notion that they should not be suffering the loss of a dear one.
36. Perhaps it was their time
This would be a very triggering statement for many grievers. What exactly does this statement mean? It can come across as very ambiguous and it is also not very comforting.
Worst things you can do to someone grieving
37. Offering your advice (when it has not been asked for)
Grief is relative. Whilst you are most likely to have the best interests of the griever at heart, this is not a time for solutions, comparisons or advice.
38. Linking their situation to yourself
Everyone handles grief differently. What worked for you may not work for the individual grieving. This is not about you but about them! Doing this may come across as dismissive and imply that you are not acknowledging their pain.
39. Avoid overly “theatrical” expressions
Losing a loved one can not only be hard on their direct family but also on their friends or close ones (like yourself).
You may possibly feel the impact of the death along with its emotions, however, try and avoid statements that may make the family overly emotional, or continuous emotional expressions around them. Aim to uplift them during their grieving journey.
40. Trying to give a direct explanation
Trying to give an explanation for the deceased’s death is never an option. Attempting to explain why things may have happened the way that they did will cause more harm than good.
41. Nothing at all - Radio silence
It is a struggle to find the right words to say to someone grieving – that we understand! But saying nothing at all will not be supportive and gives the impression that you do not care. We have a special resource coming with things that you should say to someone grieving, if you are unsure of what to communicate.
42. Referring to them in the past tense immediately
If someone has just lost a loved one, they are likely to be in a state of shock and denial. Referencing the deceased in the past tense instantaneously may be overwhelming for those grieving.
43. Don’t talk to them about your problems
In the mind of a griever, nothing can currently be worse than what they are personally experiencing. So venting to them about your issues is rather unthoughtful and ignorant.
44. Standing on eggshells around the person
After losing a loved one, people can find themselves in a strange, overwhelming and emotional state. Try not to make the situation uneasy for the bereaved with your actions or words. Aim to revive fond memories of the deceased as opposed to remaining silent or awkward.
45. Bible-bashing (or religious bashing)
Be careful with religion or religious statements when someone has lost a loved one. Many may be struggling with their faith at that moment or may not be religious at all. At such a time, it is best to remember the bereaved in your prayers.
46. Do not try to minimise their pain
Just let them feel and express their pain in whatever ways they would like. Try not to overlook their agony, show that you care and empathise with what they are going through.
47. Don’t make them feel guilty for showing emotion
The truth is seeing a friend or dear one sad can make you also feel sad and uncomfortable (if we are being very honest). However, you should never make the person feel guilty for showing or expressing their emotions – irrespective of how it makes you feel. In moments of grief, it is not about you but the person grieving.
48. Don’t instruct the person
Do not tell a griever what to do or try to control them or their emotions. Phrases such as “remember God is in control”, “just think about the good times”, “don’t be sad” are quite conflicting to what they may be thinking or feeling.
49. Comparing them or their grief
Though grief is universal the effects of it are varied. Therefore, comparisons are unnecessary or invalid. So phrases like “it could be worse, I know a person who…” Knowing someone has it worse does not change the weight of the pain or make the loss feel any better.
50. Not referring to the deceased by name
This is a complex one as it is seen as a taboo in certain cultures and traditions, as they decide not to mention people by name after they have passed away. However, if you are not in this category, do not feel afraid to mention the deceased by name. You may find that a significant amount of grievers would welcome the thought of hearing their deceased loved one’s name.
Always remember words can uplift but also hurt others too. It is important to remember the challenges that a griever may be facing and try not to make their experiences even more traumatic or overwhelming with your words or actions.
We understand it can be a very awkward experience for you as an outsider, but always think about what you say or how you act beforehand and question whether it will comfort the griever or leave them feeling worse off.
- It is not about you.
- Be fully present.
- Be sensitive to their feelings.