Grief. I know it well. We are old friends, Grief and I. We first got acquainted in 2015: the year we lost my sweet cousin Taylor and my sister-in-law Rita within a month of each other. Grief introduced itself to me and moved into our guest room. It invited itself to our family gatherings and overstayed its welcome. But we figured out how to manage.
And then came 2016: the year I lost my mom very suddenly. It was then that Grief became a monster. An ever present danger that started to take over our entire home and leap out at us around corners and alleyways. Whenever joy began to peak through our darkened cloudy days, Grief met us where we were and blocked out the sun. There was no more managing. Just Grief.
By the time my Papa died in 2018 I felt like Grief was our constant companion. You may be familiar with this feeling as well. In fact, you may know it better than I do. And I’m sorry for that—but also thankful for you. Because anyone who is grieving becomes an instant ally, a friend, and a Grief Club member in the never-ending battle to find “the new normal.” I have found that the biggest uniting factor for those in the Grief Club are the well-meaning but hurtful things people often say to us in the midst of our grief. I’ve come up with some examples of things you should steer away from saying to someone you are trying to love well in their grief.
Trust me when I say, I know and firmly believe that these things aren’t said out of malice or out of unkindness. I’ve come to realize that most of the time these utterances that seem harsh or unhelpful are most often said and received from a place of misunderstanding. Meaning either that the “sayer” hasn’t suffered a great loss and experienced deep deep grief, or the “griever” feels that that person doesn’t understand the depth of their loss.
To give a bit more of a rounded out list, I reached out to my dear friend Kristina, who is also intimately acquainted with Grief. Her grief though, is entirely different from mine. She and her husband have lost 4 babies. 2 of them, her sweet Layla and Ford, were lost half-way through her pregnancies and she delivered them. Let that sink in. She did it twice. Sandwiched and bookended between and around her 3 beautiful children, is the reality that her family is missing 4 more precious laughs, tears, and hearts. Her grief has spanned an entire decade.
And yet just within the last year I sat on the couch in her playroom mere months after she lost her son Ford, and together we cried over something someone had said her. Of course that person didn’t know what they said was hurtful. But as soon as she told me—I knew in my bones what she felt. And I knew I wanted to write this list as a reference for you. Our grief is different. But it’s also the same. As it is with all people who grieve and are met with well-meaning but sometimes misplaced words.
So with her help, dear friends, here are a few things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving. As usual, with my opinions I like to give the disclaimer that this is not an exhaustive list. I also think it’s important to note that people experience grief very differently. Because of that I know that we all receive some of these examples very differently. What was/is hard for me may not be as bothersome to another. This list is in no particular order of importance. However, I do feel like most, if not all, of these things will land somewhere on the the scale of “I would rather you didn’t say that” for those grieving.
So. Without further delay. Here are some things you shouldn’t say to someone walking through grief.
1. Anything that Minimizes Their Grief
Every person who grieves is grieving all the way wherever they are on their grief journey. That means that the size, shape, and strength of their grief changes and/or looks different from the outside but it is still fully happening. Being surprised by the length of someone’s grief or encouraging them toward the brighter days ahead of them can make the griever feel alone. And in that process it will make you become an unsafe person for your friend to turn to. Some examples of what minimizing grief can look like:
- This too shall pass.
- Everything works out like it’s supposed to.
- Oh, you’re still having a hard time with that?/ I didn’t realize you were still grieving.
- Better days are ahead.
- It seems like you’re doing better.
- You are so strong I know you can get through this.
2. “At Least” Statements
Grief leaves us with the very least. There is no “at least” when you are left with nothing but the void the one you lost has left. I wish there was a way to doctor these statements up, but there just isn’t. Instead, I’ve included some hypothetical thoughts the griever may think with these examples.
At least you can still get pregnant.
Really? How do you know? My body just betrayed me and I never want to think about getting pregnant again.
At least they lived a long/good life. OR They’re in a better place.
But now the rest of my life will feel worse without them. How can THAT be good?
At least you have other children, family, etc.
That doesn’t minimize the fact that there will forever be one less person at my table or stocking hung at Christmas.
At least it happened before you could get attached.
The moment I saw the positive I fell in love and dreams started forming.
At least you got X amount of time together.
No time with someone you love will ever feel like it’s enough.
At least you got to say goodbye.
Nothing about someone dying is made better or easier by being able to “say goodbye” to them.
This one needs a caveat. Empathy is almost always welcomed (at least by me). Sitting with someone who has also suffered great loss often is a comfort. It really is like being part of a really sad club no one wants to be in. And finding someone else who is a member can make things feel less lonely. With that being said, comparing grief, even if you are a fellow club member, isn’t helpful. Grief is intimate and individual. Because of that, it’s important to remember that we can never know EXACTLY how someone is feeling in their grief.
I felt the same way when X.
Something more helpful: I remember feeling similarly and I know it’s different, but I am so glad to walk next to you during this.
I know exactly how you feel.
Something more helpful: I wish I could know exactly the right words to comfort you, but I know from my own experiences that there are none. Just know that I am so sorry for your loss.
My dog (or any animal for that matter) died last week so I know what you’re going through. *CRINGE*
Nothing can make this one more helpful. Just please never say this.
4. Vague offers of support
These are the most well-meaning statements, I think. They come from a place of not wanting to overwhelm a friend and also from a desire to support them. But it also places the burden on the griever, having the exact opposite effect intended. Try offering concrete help and support without any pressure.
- I’m here if you need anything.
- Let me know if you need anything at all.
- Call me anytime to talk!
- I’d like to bring you dinner. I will drop it off on your porch. Would Thursday or Friday work better?
- I’m running to the grocery store and am going to grab your favorite coffee creamer and drop it off, what else can I grab for you?
- I’m planning on going for a walk tonight. I’ll walk down your street at 6:30. If you feel up for a friendly face I would love to see you. But if not, I totally understand!
If you are a friend looking to support someone (now or down the road) who is grieving, I hope these examples will help. We in the Grief Club know that you have the best of intentions. We know that our grief can make you uncomfortable. And we know that you don’t know what to say. In those instances, just a reminder that you’re thinking of us, or thinking of the one we lost, is more than sufficient.
Being several years into grief it looks different than it did in the beginning. It took me 3 full years to be able to say the words “My mom died” out loud without losing it. Even now when I think of her voice and the way she said my name (if you’ve lost your mom you know that’s a sound you’ll never forget) my breath hitches in my lungs. My grief is still here. It isn’t drowning me anymore, but it is still the ever-present house guest who sits too close to me on the couch when I’ve had a hard day and wish I could call my Mom. It’s still hidden in the background of Kristina’s family photos tucked away with the dreams of what might have been with the babies she’s lost. Nothing means more to our “club” than those of you who want to love us well and strive to walk beside us as we navigate our life without ones we love. One day, if/when you enter our club, I promise to drop dinner off on your porch, send you a card saying that I’m praying for you, and to never. ever. compare your loss to when my dog died.