Grief and loss are universal emotions. Just about everyone is touched by them at some point in their life. If you have the privilege of living into adulthood and old age then you will likely experience loss in many shapes and forms. There is the loss that comes from the death of a loved one or a cherished pet. There is the grief that can be felt on a national scale suffered from events like 9/11 and theater shootings in Colorado.
Grief and loss stem from other avenues as well. These include divorce, job changes, moving, medical issues, infertility, natural disasters and much more. Loss comes in all shapes and sizes and impacts each person uniquely. Just because someone appears to grieve differently doesn’t mean they are right or wrong. This is imperative to remember. Grief deserves respect; in both ourselves and others.
For those of you who have been through major losses, you have most likely experienced how often people say inappropriate things that can really disappoint. It is such a fragile time in one’s life and you may be extra sensitive to everything. Many people don’t know what to say to someone who is hurting. Often the person will attempt to make you feel better by trying to give you an answer as to why the loss occurred or tell you how you should feel. You may have also experienced those people who just avoid you because your loss is too uncomfortable for them. These people don’t understand that all you need is caring and comfort, or maybe they just don’t know how to give it.
While the list of “Things Not to Say to People Who are Grieving” is quite long, for the purposes of this article I am focusing on the five that stand out to me as very common mistakes.
After sharing these ill-advised responses, I have offered some insight to the grievers to help them understand and to give them hope and encouragement. My top five worst things to say to someone who is grieving are:
1.“I know how you feel.”
When someone is going through a loss they are often consumed by feelings that are indescribable and overwhelming. Even if you have experienced the same type of event, such as the death of a parent or the loss of a job, this doesn’t mean that your emotional reactions to the event will be the same. While a miscarriage for one person may have little impact; for another it may spiral her into a significant period of grief. And while you may “know how they feel” the one grieving needs to be heard first and foremost. The grieving person needs your listening ear and comforting shoulder. This is about them. Keep the focus on them and off of you. You can share some of the commonalities you have from your similar experiences at a later time when the grieving person’s feelings aren’t so raw.
To the griever: Your feelings are uniquely your own and nobody can fully understand the depth of your suffering. Even those who may be sharing your loss may be grieving differently than you. Your grief deserves its own attention. If someone tells you they know how you feel in a way that makes you feel minimized or dismissed, move on to someone else who can give you the support and comfort you need. This is a confusing time and it is important you talk to people you feel can handle you right where you are. If you know someone who has been through a similar experience and that brings you comfort; then by all means lean on them.
2.“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
A while back I did an all-day workshop on loss. During one of the exercises people wrote on the board the stupid or hurtful things people have said to them. This response elicited strong negative feelings from those in attendance. While this may be your belief system and even the belief system that the griever adheres too, saying it to someone who is in the midst of suffering is not encouraged. I think people often say this because they don’t know how else to comfort the person or they feel a need to make sense of the situation. Please be considerate of the other person and keep that thought to yourself for the time being. This is especially true when you don’t know the person’s belief system.Even people with a very strong faith system question God when they are going through grief. This is normal. The loss the griever is experiencing in the moment usually feels like much more than they can handle or ever imagined experiencing. Statements like the above can make the person feel minimized, angry and they may want to distance themselves from you due to their mixed feelings towards God’s role in their loss. This statement tells the person that God wants them to feel this pain or that God had a part in it. The grieving person needs time to process their feelings towards God as they move through the stages of grief.
To the griever: I have no idea why you are suffering the loss you are experiencing. “Why?” is a normal question that is often asked. No one has that answer. The situation is overwhelming. Feeling like it is too much to handle is normal and natural. You are only human after all. I hope you will seek out others who understand the difficult time you are having. This is a time when you need the safe support of those who can help you through such a confusing and dark period. Don’t try to handle these feelings all by yourself. Please allow yourself to lean on safe and understanding people.
3.“You shouldn’t feel that way.”
What an awful thing to say to someone who is suffering a loss. Yet, amazingly, this has been said to many who are struggling. Grief is one of the most unpredictable emotions. It changes you forever. Everyone has a right to grieve in their own way with whatever feelings they are experiencing. You and I have no right to tell them how they should feel. When the grieving person is responding in a way that doesn’t fit with what another deems acceptable, then often that person will make a judgmental statement or behave in a way that is hurtful to the griever.I remember when I received the news that my brother had been killed. It was first thing in the morning. It was shocking. Since my family lived out of town I had to spend the day coordinating the quickest way to get home. It wasn’t until the evening that I called my best friend from college. When I called her I told her what happened in a very matter-of-fact way. By that time I was completely numb; there was no sobbing, hysteria, etc. I didn’t hear from her for three weeks. When I did talk to her she said she didn’t call because I didn’t seem that upset about it! We didn’t speak for a year.That is an example of how my friend had an expectation of how I “should have” been when I called her. She made judgments about me because I didn’t respond in the way see deemed appropriate. And this is someone with whom I had been close. She was not able to take into consideration what had gone on for me all day and to understand where my head was. In fact, her clear lack of support made her judgment of me very evident. It took a while to make amends in that relationship.
To the griever: Whatever feelings you are feeling from hour to hour, day to day are normal for you and your situation. Please be careful not to feel guilty about your feelings. Not all the feelings you have will make sense to you. Surround yourself with people who can handle the depth of your feelings. The hurt that you feel when someone you think cares cuts you off or tells you not to feel that way is significant. Tell them when they hurt your feelings. If they keep failing at supporting you reach out to others who do provide the support you need. Sometimes the people who can understand your feelings may surprise you.
4.“Time heals all wounds.”
What a popular saying. Is it true? Maybe for some things. I don’t think it is time that necessarily heals the hurt, but what we do about our loss during that time. Either way, telling someone that time heals all wounds when they just lost their child, or when their husband of twenty years walks out is not really what they need to hear. Ask yourself what the point is in you saying that? How is that helpful? Please try and respect that the griever is in a very fragile state and doesn’t need trite answers or platitudes. If you don’t know what to say, you could say, “Just wanted to let you know I will be thinking of you and praying for you.” That is very kind.I imagine if we interviewed those who have been through various losses and asked them if they agreed with the statement “time heals all wounds” we would get mixed responses. From my own life I can say time has greatly helped with some of the losses I have experienced, such as hurtful situations in relationships, different transitions etc. I think it was a combination of time and my own personal growth. However, there are several other losses that “time hasn’t healed” and never will. While I may not walk around crying every day or talking about it, the injury is still deep and impactful.
To the griever: If someone or several people say this to you I apologize for them. It is a trite and aloof comment. Feel free to respond “Well it doesn’t feel like it.” Or just brush them off and seek out others who will not try and tell you that you will feel better soon or in time. While that may be true it isn’t what you usually want to hear. The timeframe of your healing journey is yours and will be walked through at your own pace.
5.“Call me if you need anything.”
This one is a personal pet peeve of mine. Others may not put it in their top five worst things to say to someone who is grieving, but I like to be different! This statement reminds me of when someone asked you how you are doing, but you know they really don’t care or have time to listen. Here is the deal. When someone is going through a loss then you can be pretty sure they are going to need something. Whether it is to go to the grocery store for them, put gas in their car, drive their kids somewhere, cook for them, clean their house, wash their car, cut their grass etc. My recommendation is to just do these things for them. You call them and say “I am coming over tomorrow morning to cut your grass.” Or, “I am going to the grocery store this afternoon and I need your list.” While some grievers may be comfortable asking for help, others are not. If fact, I know many people who won’t ask because they don’t want to bother someone.To the griever: I encourage you to let others help you and support you. Let someone cut your grass or clean your car or your house. Receive help. Now is the time to let others do for you. If you know you have a need, ask for help from someone you believe will be reliable. I am guessing many people have offered for you to call them if you need anything; so do it. I know it can be risky to ask for what you need, but now is not the time to be superhuman. I hope you will give yourself permission to receive the physical support you need.In conclusion, there are many stages in the grieving process and each of us will travel through them differently. Understanding this can be very healing for both you and others who are suffering through the confusing maze of loss. I hope you can be more accepting of both your own grief process and that of another.
To the griever: There is support out there for you! If you don’t feel you are receiving enough support or just need more, please consider reaching out. You can call a grief counselor. Grief counselors can be found in private practice, hospice, churches and your local community mental health centers. There are also support groups for grief such as loss of a loved one, divorce, supporting aging parents, etc. Please don’t struggle alone. Transitions can be difficult and it is human to need some support through them. I hope you will give yourself the care you need and deserve.