Grief is one of the most universal of human experiences. Virtually every single person you know, including yourself, will eventually lose a loved one. Grief is the great equalizer, experienced by everyone in spite of their wealth, education, health or fame. While some people experience loss earlier and more traumatically than others, grief will one day be a companion to us all.
So with grief so prevalent, you might think that we'd all know how to reach out to a bereaved friend, colleague, or family member. You'd think we'd have compassion and sympathy down to an art. But, unfortunately, that's not the case. Most of us, though well-meaning, haven't a clue what to say to someone who is grieving. In fact, we often do or say exactly the wrong thing.
Since the publication of my book Transcending Loss over 15 years ago, I have heard from hundreds of grievers the hurtful things that well-meaning people have said to them. Don't let yourself be one of those people who inadvertently hurt the very person they mean to comfort.
1. Don't Ignore Their Situation
Don't avoid someone or not acknowledge their loss because you don't know what to say or because you don't want to upset them. By ignoring their experience, you make them feel as if their loss doesn't matter.
Do Say Instead:
"I can't imagine what you're going through but I am so sorry for your loss."
"I am heartbroken for you."
Acknowledge their loss. If you knew the person who died, share a story about them. Grievers love to share memories and hear stories about their dear ones. If they happen to cry in your presence, that is perfectly okay! Tears are a natural way to move emotion through the body.
2. Don't Minimize or Deny Their Pain
"At least you had ____ years together," or "At least they're not suffering anymore."
Either of these comments may be true, but they minimize the loss and implicitly suggest that the griever shouldn't be grieving.
"It was God's will"
This is not the time for a theological discussion. In general, this comment does not help grievers feel better.
"He/She is in a better place now."
Perhaps... But this doesn't address the griever's loss.
"You can have other children... get remarried... You have other siblings."
These comments imply that people are replaceable, which they are not.
"Time heals all wounds."
Actually, time alone does not heal. Time plus active grief work does lead to a kind of "healing," but the loss will still be a lifelong aspect to their lives now.
Do Say Instead:
"You must miss him so much."
"It is devastating to lose a loved one."
"I can't imagine how painful it must be to lose someone you love so much."
You don't want to try to minimize their loss. You can't take away their pain. Instead, use words that validate and empathize with their pain.
3. Don't Offer Vague Attempts to Help
"Let me know if I can help."
While polite, this response puts the burden of action on the griever.
"Call me if you'd like to talk."
Grievers rarely have the energy to reach out. Don't put the burden on them to call you.
Do or Say Something Concrete Instead:
"I'll call you tomorrow and we can talk if you feel up to it."
"Here is a frozen casserole to take the pressure off of dinner tomorrow night."
Just show up with a basket of cookies, a homemade dinner or a bouquet of flowers. Or show up and wash their car, mow their lawn or take care of their kids for an evening. Also call and just check in, letting them know that you're thinking about them. If they don't return your calls, don't take it personally. Some people will want a friend to listen and others would prefer to retreat. Still others may prefer the anonymity of an online support group. Either way, reach out and then respect their wishes.
4. Don't Expect Them to "Get Over It" or "Be Their Old Selves"
"Isn't it time that you move on, get over this, quit wallowing?"
Grief has no time line. It's not a two-week, two-month, or even two-year process. Closure is a myth. In fact, grief is a lifelong process and is not something that you get over. Grievers must learn to live with loss and integrate it into their new experience of the world.
"When will you be your old self again?"
The answer is "never." After a major loss, an individual is irrevocably changed. Understand that they are going through a process of intense growth and change. Be patient as they discover who they are.
Do Say Instead:
"I know that you move forward with your dear one's love ever present in your heart."
Just because the physical form of the person has died, does not mean that the relationship has died. A new relationship is emerging, based on love and memory and spirit. Honor the fact that they will have a continuing bond with their loved one.
"I know that you're becoming a new person and I'm here for you as you grow." How they interact with the world is different now. They are growing and you want to support that process.
Know that if your heart is open, you will find words and deeds of compassion. And when words are simply inadequate, the healing power of a heartfelt HUG cannot be underestimated.
For more by Ashley Davis Bush, click here.
For more on death and dying, click here.