When someone dies, the first steps are usually pretty clear: you fill the family’s refrigerator with meals, go to the funeral or attend a viewing, send bereavement cards, or sit Shiva. But after the initial period, the process tends to go off-script. We don’t want to remind a person of a loss, and the fact that he or she is grieving, says Rebecca Soffer, co-founder and CEO of Modern Loss, an online community offering resources and conversations about loss and grief. So, in response, we tiptoe around directly addressing it, try to skip over it completely, or don’t say anything at all. Though almost universally well intentioned, we might say things that are hurtful or unhelpful because we’re focused on helping ourselves get through the uncomfortable moment rather than really being there for the grieving person.
So we asked Soffer and Jenni Brennan, professor at The National Center for Death Education at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., to offer their tips on what to not say to someone who’s grieving.
1 What not to say: “How are you doing?”
When you offer this well-worn phrase, the person is most likely hearing something different: Something like, “Please tell me you’re doing ok, because it’s uncomfortable if you say you’re not doing well,” says Brennan. When faced with this question, people are more likely to respond with “fine” or “OK,” rather than really communicating their feelings.
What to say instead: “It’s really tough right now for you.”
“Acknowledge that what they’re going through right now is very painful,” says Soffer. Don’t gloss over their feelings—let them have the chance to grieve fully and without judgment.
2 What not to say: “They’re in a better place.”
During such a confusing and personal time, it’s better to be cautious than assume a belief system that the griever might not subscribe to, says Brennan. This phrase can also seem to de-emphasize the pain he or she is feeling in the moment. The person is still gone and not with them—and that’s what is hard about loss.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re suffering.”
“Certainly the person is glad [their loved one is] not suffering anymore,” says Brennan, “but it doesn’t make the pain any different.” Focus on the person who is experiencing pain at that moment.
3 What not to say: “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
Everyone reaching out with offers of support can be overwhelming. It also puts the responsibility on the bereaved to reach out for help.
What to say instead: “I’ll come over to do a few loads of laundry,” or “I’ll drive carpool for the next month.”
People are more willing to accept support if it’s specific rather than wide-open offer, Brennan says.
4 What not to say: “You can always…”
If someone loses a partner or a child, and you might tell them that he or she can always get remarried or have another child, thinking that you’re helping them to see the silver lining. But to the bereaved it can sound like you’re suggesting a loved one is replaceable. “This plays on one of the biggest fears: that they will somehow forget that person and that they’ll not be as important in their life in the future,” says Brennan.
What to say instead: “Tell me about your loved one.”
When dealing with the present pain of loss, it can be hard to look towards a future that’s full of unknowns, says Soffer. Help to focus on the memories by asking specific questions and being an active listener.
5 What not to say: “I know how you feel.”
Though everyone will at some time experience loss, it is an overwhelmingly personal experience. You’re never truly able to know how someone experiences the loss, and claiming that you do can feel invalidating.
What to say instead: “I can imagine how you’re feeling.”
Brennan always recommends giving the person a chance to identify how he or she feels, rather than speaking for him or her.
6 What not to say: “This all happens eventually”
Everyone does experience death and loss as a part of life, but this perspective might minimize the actual loss at that moment. This phrase is often tossed around when people lose their parents, Brennan says.
What to say instead: “You must really miss them.”
The loss of a loved one is likely the source of the pain—focus on that, rather than brushing it aside as a non-negotiable aspect of life.
7 What not to say: “She would have wanted it this way”
Unless the person planned for his or her funeral, there is no way to know his or her preferences would have been. Speaking for the deceased may invite unnecessary quarrels between friends and relatives, who all have different relationships and views of what the deceased would have deemed appropriate.
What to say instead: “I’d like to honor them this way.”
Tie your memorials it to your actual knowledge base. Tap into your memories and information about the person, and acknowledge that it symbolizes the relationship you two shared, rather than the whole person.
8 What not to say: “You’re handling this better than I expected.”
“They might just be putting on a happy face,” says Brennan. Your surprise might reinforce the idea that he or she shouldn’t be suffering the loss of a loved one.
What to say instead: “You might not be feeling great, but that’s ok.”
Let the person have complete freedom to feel how he or she wants—even if time has passed since the loved one’s death, it is comforting to acknowledge that each moment without them is difficult.
9 What not to say: Nothing at all.
“You’d be surprised how many people never reach out because they’re very uncomfortable,” says Soffer.
What to say instead: “Remember when?”
One of the most helpful things you can do for a grieving person is share a memory of his or her loved one—even if you feel like you’re not in the inner circle. “You’re giving them a perspective on that person that they’d never otherwise get the chance to have,” Soffer says.