Death is often referred to as life’s great equalizer.
And, it’s true, we all die eventually.
But the manner in which a person grieves the loss of a loved one is varied, complex, and unique to that individual.
Grief is multi-layered and full of many other emotions, such as anger, guilt, and abandonment.
Because of its complexity, many of us don’t know how to react to or approach someone who is grieving. In a rush to do the right thing, we often opt instead for doing the easiest thing, which is to come up with a canned phrase of sorts that lets the person know we are aware of their suffering but doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, and despite our best intentions, using a one-liner to offer help or condolences to someone who is grieving often does just the opposite. On a recent Emotions Mentor podcast, I spoke with my friend Maree Cottam about her own grieving process after the death of her first child.
Maree shared many wonderful insights into the complexity of grieving. She also talked about a few things people say and do that can make the grieving person feel deflated and angry in the midst of their sorrow.
In addition to the things we discussed on the podcast, here are nine things not to say to someone who is grieving, along with a few ideas of what to say:
1. I know how you feel.
The truth is, you can never really know how another person feels. Even if you’ve gone through the same type of experience, you processed your grief and emotions in your own way.
Saying you know how someone else feels transfers the focus of the conversation to you, which can make the other person feel both invalidated and unloved. Comparing grief does nothing to make anyone feel better. This is the time to let your loved one focus on their own feelings. It is the time to listen.
2. How are you doing?
This may seem like a harmless phrase, but the question “how are you doing?” is so rote in today’s culture that it almost instantly implies that you are looking for an answer like “fine” or “okay” and that you are asking only out of customary politeness.
This can lead the grieving person to feel that others expect them to be okay or to be stronger than they feel. It also doesn’t allow the griever the chance to really talk about how they feel. Instead of asking “How are you doing?” try saying something like, “you must be feeling awful!” Let them know they don’t need to be “okay” or “fine.”
Let them have the time to feel, to be angry, to cry, and to shout and scream if they need to.
3. They’re in a better place.
This deemphasizes the pain of the moment and also presumes the griever believes in such a statement. Even someone who is religious—and practices their religion in the way you do—may have a different, nuanced belief in life after death.
They also likely feel in the moment that the best place their deceased loved one could be is right with them.
4. Let me know what I can do.
Much like “How are you doing?” this is a toss-away phrase.
The last thing a grieving person needs is to feel the added responsibility of asking for help.
Instead, step right up to the plate and tell your friend how you’re going to help: “I’ll be over Tuesday night with a casserole and some rolls,” or “I’ll start taking your kids to the park on Wednesdays for a few hours so you can have a break,” or “Let’s go out for coffee tomorrow morning. I can pick you up at 9 if that works for you.”
On-the-spot service without any conversation can also be immensely helpful to someone who is grieving. Stop by and mow their lawn without saying a word. Or leave a pre-made dish on the doorstep with directions for freezing and reheating.
5. At least you can . . .
This phrase usually ends with something like “at least you can have more children,” or “at least you can remarry,” or “at least you had 10 good years.” This brushes away the loss and minimizes the importance of the person who passed away.
Instead of trying to offer up a “bright side” to the situation, help your friend remember the person they lost.
Encourage them to talk about their loved one. Share your own memories if you have them. One of the most heartfelt things you can do is to write down something your friend’s loved one did to make a difference in your life. A shared story about the friend’s lost one can bring a measure of peace and a reaffirmation that their life was meaningful.
6. It could be worse.
This one goes hand-in-hand with the phrase above. This is not the time for comparisons. For the person who is grieving, there absolutely could not be any thing worse in the present moment. Respect that.
7. Everything happens for a reason.
Like the phrase “they’re in a better place,” this presumes a belief and negates what your friend is feeling in the moment. A phrase that carries a similar sting is “God never gives us more than we can handle.” This can make the person who is grieving feel like a failure if they aren’t handling things so well.
8. It will get better/easier.
While this is undoubtedly true, it is not a thoughtful thing to say to someone in the throes of grief. Like so many of the other sayings on this list, it trivializes the person’s current state of mind and can even imply that the griever is taking too long to grieve or is processing their emotions incorrectly.
Saying nothing can be just as bad as saying something offensive. People who are grieving need to be acknowledged—as does their grief. Don’t avoid a friend because you don’t know what to say.
Feeling like their friends have been avoiding them while they grieve can intensify the griever’s sorrow and isolate them from the love and comfort they need. If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I love you. I’m so sorry this has happened.”
Essential Oil Tip
If you’re looking for something to give a grieving friend, consider one of Maree’s favorite oil blends. The griever can diffuse the blend or apply it topically and breathe in deeply as they process their emotions.
A 10 mL bottle of the blend could be the perfect addition to a gift basket or a hand-written note left on your friend’s doorstop after mowing their lawn or doing some other act of service.
Grieving Blend—To a 10 mL glass bottle, add 20 drops frankincense, 10 drops doTerra Citrus Bliss, and 10 drops Douglas fir. Top off with your favorite carrier oil.
Alternatively, give your friend a bottle of each oil with directions for applying 2 drops frankincense and 1 drop each of Citrus Bliss and Douglas fir to their pulse points throughout the day.
PS. Check out more about natural ways to deal with your emotions, such as depression or anxiety, with the Essentially Happy book!