Sometimes our good intentions come across as insensitive and painful when attempting to offer support after a loss. On May 3, 2019, my husband died after a 9 month battle with cancer. I know everyone meant well, but at a time of gut wrenching pain, some comments made my heart sink deeper, and at times even my blood boil. It’s apparent we all want to do and say something at a time of grief, but we oftentimes feel awkward and helpless, and babble cliché comments that are better left unsaid. I’ve made a list of what to say and not to say based off my own personal experience.
I want to discuss these cliche remarks a bit further, why we shouldn’t say them, and what’s a better alternative.
Let’s start with every grieving persons most dreaded comment, “everything happens for a reason”. What this translates to is “your loved one died for a reason beyond the brains comprehension,” But that doesn’t change the fact that they died. The grieving survivor is broken and hurting, and this comment offers them no support. While this messages is attempting to offer reassurance, it just falls short of supportive. Instead offer, “I wish I had the right words for you”. Because no words are going to make someone miss them less and feel magically better. There’s just not.
“It was their time”, “They are in a better place,” “At least they’re not suffering anymore”. Another top contender for what not to say to someone grieving. Why this message feels like you’re trying to offer relief, and they may be in this “better place”, they’re not here on Earth, where I can see and love and hold them. No matter how much this better this new place is, it’s not here. They’re gone. It’s permanent, and that’s painful. Instead offer, “I know things are hard right now, I’m so sorry you are suffering”. This validates what the grieved is feeling and offers sympathy.
“You are so strong,” “I couldn’t handle what you’re going through.” This ones my personal favorite, and i mean this in the most sarcastic way possible. What this says is I have to hide my emotions and feelings and be strong, instead of feeling and working through my grief. Then adding “I couldn’t handle what you’re going through” is just the icing on the cake. Yes you can handle it. And you would handle it. Do you know why? Because you wouldn’t have any choice, just like I didn’t have any choice. This comment makes it feel like the bereaved has a choice in handling this situation. And there just is no choice but to survive. So if you were me, you would be “strong” and “handling it”. Am I being too passive aggressive here? Again, better left unsaid. A better choice of words may be, “Tell me about your loved one” or even share a story of the deceased. Let the grieved know it’s okay to talk and be an open listener.
“Let me know if I can do anything” This one is attempting to offer support, however, when everyone we encounter makes the same comment, nothing actually gets done. The grieved is left taking on a role of funeral planning, caring for children, and making big life decisions that can feel overwhelming. It takes an army for someone to get all the little boxes checked off when someone passes, and it isn’t going to get done without a little help. Instead of saying “let me know what i can do”, offer to do a specific task, follow through, and do it. I had so many people offer to help with the baby after loosing my husband, but only a select few actually held to that offer. Please don’t offer assistance if you can’t follow through. Send a card, pick up groceries, show up and take the kids out for a few hours, offer to drive the bereaved to appointments with the funeral home. This takes some weight off their shoulder so they can focus on handling immediate needs. I can’t stress this one enough.
Saying nothing at all. This one just hurts. The funeral ends and everyone goes about their lives. And your life is never going to be the same. Your loved one is gone forever, and you have to find this new normal. Friends fall silent at a loss of words, unsure how to handle the situation. I had a friend tell me they didn’t say anything to me because they assumed I needed space. Please don’t disappear at a time the vulnerable already feel broken, I dropped into a deep depression. I felt like no one cared I existed and the one person who did had died. Send a text simply saying “I’m thinking of you.” Or say, “What’s one thing I can do to help you today?” “You’re not alone. I’m here let’s talk,” and then follow through. No one wants to be alone. Reach Out.
”At least you have his children.” This last one was a personal that just didn’t settle with me. Again, although with good intentions, this comment here left me feeling like I should not grieve or have a broken heart because “well, at least you have kids.” I’m not really sure I understand where the comfort is suppose to be in that. I look at my infant that I get to spend the next 18 years raising alone because my husband died, and I’m suppose to feel justified somehow because she exists? Someone told me to be thankful I had our daughter after my husband died because some people have miscarriages. Uh... that has to do with my current grief how? And for the record, I’ve had a miscarriage. They both hurt. But that in no way relates in the same. If a friend had a miscarriage, I would definitely not respond with “oh well at least you have your husband.” If your just as confused by this comment as me then you’re not alone. No ones grief is “one-up” of the other. Grief sucks. No matter what the loss was. You lost your husband, your son or daughter, your mom or dad, your best friend, it hurts. Grief is personal. It’s not black and white. It discriminates everyone. You will all experience grief in some way one day. I hope in place of the above comment, someone instead says, “I’m so sorry for your loss”.
Here’s a photo you can save and share to help your friends and family remember in a time of grief what one may need to head to hear- and what one shouldn’t say. If in the moment you can’t think of anything else to say, just say “I’m sorry”.
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