“You will have many opportunities in life to keep your mouth shut: You should take advantage of every one of them.” ~ Thomas Edison
It isn’t easy to know what to say when someone is grieving. In fact, there always seems to be an elephant in the room and the exchange can be very awkward. Loss is painful and uncomfortable. Unless you have experienced something similar, it is hard to know what to say and what to do for someone who is in a hurting state.
Sadly, every one of us knows someone either personally or someone we are acquainted with who is hurting and dealing with some form of grief. Emotions rise during times of stress but for someone who is heartbroken, their emotions are overwhelming and in many cases unbearable.
The worst thing to say is nothing at all. Grief is painful, stressful and life-altering. Even the most well- intended person can end up isolating the very person they wish to support.
When I was going through my divorce, it was an agonizing and sad experience. What made it worse were people not knowing what to say to me and then saying something insensitive. I have to say most tried their best and had their hearts in the right place but had they actually known what to say, they would have been able to be more supportive.
With the loss the entire world has been witnessing, I thought it would be helpful to shed light on a difficult subject. Below is a list of ten things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving. The one thing to keep in mind always is that any grieving person wants to be heard and needs you to listen without commenting on anything they are saying. They are experiencing overwhelming feelings and what will help most is to feel safe with no judgment by letting their feelings out.
Hopefully after reading these suggestions you will feel less awkward around someone who is heartbroken and in pain:
- “I know exactly how you feel.” In fact, you can’t. Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss, you’re not the bereaved person, and you didn’t have the same relationship to the person who died. No two relationships are alike so one person’s feelings about their relationship is going to feel completely different than someone else.
- “Don’t Cry – Be Strong.” Expressing emotions is personal to each individual and is a natural, normal, and healthy reaction to loss. For some people, it is also normal to not cry; not showing outward emotions doesn’t mean the person is grieving less or will have some kind of “delayed reaction.”
- “There is a reason for everything–God never gives us more than we can handle.” As true as this may be for many of us to believe, saying this to someone who has just buried a loved one, implies it’s wrong to feel bereft. This offers little condolence and regardless of the circumstances, the bereaved person is still suffering.
- “You should be over this by now.” People grieve in their own way and in their own time. Affixing a deadline to mourning is insensitive and does little to help someone learn to live through their loss. Life will eventually seem worth living again, but it will never be as it once was. Too much has changed.
- “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone new.” This might be true eventually but at the moment, finding someone new is the last thing on their mind. The intent comes from a good place of trying to mean well and to be encouraging but for the grieving person, it’s too soon to shift their focus from grieving the loss of one relationship to moving on to another.
- “Don’t dwell on it.” It is very normal and natural as well as helpful to talk about the person who died and/or left.
- “Look at what you have to be thankful for.” A grieving person already knows that despite their loss they have things to be thankful for, but right now those things are not very important to them.
- “Look on the bright side. It could have been much worse.” Yes, it’s true that others have had to face worse. And even though a bereaved person could probably find a dozen reasons to be thankful if hard-pressed, trying to force someone to be cheerful doesn’t work. Sadness is the normal, healthy response to loss, especially the death of a loved one.
- “Call me if there’s anything I can do to help.” Few grieving people will ask for help because they are usually too overwhelmed to assess and prioritize their needs. Friends should offer to do something specific and remember to get permission before taking action.
- “You must be really strong. I’d die if that happened to me.” What you perceive as calm strength is more likely the numbness of shock. You may be surprised how many grief-stricken people pray for God to let them die. Death of a spouse or a loved one, or a spouse leaving the marriage for whatever reason can be so excruciating to a grieving person it would be a welcome relief to die than have to face such heartache. The last thing they need is for someone to imply that they are disloyal for trying to make the best of the life they have.
Any conversation with a person who is heartbroken offers you the opportunity to help. You can help by first acknowledging the pain and grief they are experiencing. You can especially help by staying quiet, listening without advice or judgment and making no suggestions to fix the situation. And, lastly, you will have offered them help by giving hope and encouragement they will get through their pain and brighter days will come once again.
I hope you find this information helpful. More than anything else when someone is grieving please keep in mind that little things truly mean a lot. The reward for being patient with your loved one or friend is a gift that is so needed since learning to live again alone will take time.
Keep an eye out for my next post with a list of helpful things to say to help a grieving person.