By: Kelly Daugherty, LCSW-R, GC-C
Over the many years of providing grief counseling to thousands of children and adults, I have heard the stories from my clients of what their friends and family members said to them after the death of their loved one and how most of what they said was not helpful or quite harmful. I have always said that I wanted to write a book of all the stupid things people say following a death.
I remember when my Mom died many people said the usual statement of “I’m Sorry”. I wanted to say to all of them they did nothing to cause my Mom’s death so not sure why they were sorry and honestly, I did not find it helpful at all. I do know that some grieving people do find that statement helpful, I was just not one of them.
When I was in college, I had a good friend experience the death of her Father. As young college students, most of us didn’t know what to say to our friend. I remember her saying that when someone said “That sucks” she felt like he got it. Yes, it did suck that her Dad died at such a young age and the way she felt did suck!
Since going through that experience, I have struggled with what is the right thing to say that might make a difference. The reality is that nothing anyone says is going to take away someone’s grief. What may be helpful to one person may not be helpful to someone else.
Some of the statements that clients have reported they didn’t find helpful were:
“He’s in a better place.” Most grieving people believe that the better place would be here alive with them.“It was God’s will.” Or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Many grieving people struggle with their spiritual and religious beliefs following a significant loss and don’t find these helpful and grief is hard.
“I know how you feel.” That statement is not accurate. Even if you have experienced the death of a loved one doesn’t mean you know how they feel. Each person’s grief is unique and cannot be compared.
“What are you going to do with the house?” Many widows are asked this question at the funeral which is probably the most inappropriate time to ask that. The general guideline of grief professionals is that a grieving individual shouldn’t make any life changes for at least a year including moving unless they absolutely must.
“I don’t know how you are doing it.” Grieving people don’t have much of a choice, they have to keep going on with their life even when it is hard, and they don’t know how they are doing it either.
Making a statement with “At Least” is never empathetic. "At least she isn’t suffering.” “At least you got to say goodbye.” “At least they went quickly.” All of these are not helpful. “Stay strong.” Grief is hard and they are going to need to lean into their grief to help them on their healing journey.
“Everything happens for a reason.” This statement following a death is usually not helpful and people don’t understand the reason why someone had to die. Personally speaking I do believe that I had to go through my grief and death of my Mom as a teen to become a grief counselor so now 25 years later I can say that something positive came out of my Mom’s death, but if I was told that directly after the death I wouldn’t have believed that or understood that.
“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Grief is a normal natural process that includes a multitude of feelings including sadness.
“Time heals all wounds.” My belief is that grief is not something you ever get over, but something you learn to live with and everyone’s grief journey is different. Some people may be doing better after a year but not everyone experiences relief after a year and can take longer.
Some statements that people may find more helpful:
My go-to statement is “I am thinking of you during this difficult time. I hope that your happy, positive memories of your loved one help you through the upcoming difficult days and months.”
“I wish I had the right words to say, but I know nothing I say is going to take away the pain you are feeling”
Share a story or memory of the deceased person that may bring a smile to a grieving person's face.
“I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here when you are ready to talk about him”
Give a hug to someone instead of saying something that doesn’t feel empathetic or genuine.
“I am thinking of you and your family and will keep you all in my thoughts and prayers.”
“I am sending healing thoughts your way.”
“Please know that I care.”
“What you are going through is really hard.”
“It’s ok to have bad days and you will experience grief bursts and that’s ok.”
“Where there was great love, there will be a great loss.”
“You will never get over this, but you will get through it and I will be there for you to help.”Just be there with the person, sit with them, hug them, call them often and check in on them.
I hope this blog will help you when you are reaching out to a family member or friend who is grieving. Before saying something think about whether it be helpful to you if you were going through a loss and it wouldn’t be helpful, don’t say it.
The next blog topic in this series will focus on tools to help yourself if you are going through a loss.