Don't Say That - Ten Things Better Left Unsaid to Someone in Grief

Right after my father died, after a year-long bout with Cancer, I got a call from a well-meaning friend. “Just put it all behind you,” he said. I got that he was trying to be helpful, but I had no idea what he meant by that: Did he mean the last year trying to support my dad through a terrible experience, my whole relationship with him, the last few weeks with the Hospice, the funeral and memorial? It was a confusing thing to hear.

I was, and continue to be grateful for all the friends and loved ones who showed up to support me during that time. And I also experienced the things people often say to the grieving, that are actually annoying or irritating, well-meaning though they may be.

My earliest experience as a counselor was as a grief counselor. I continue to do a lot of grief counseling and bereavement work. And I feel honored to be able to sit with people during this profound time. Inevitably during the course of the therapy, people tell me about the things people say that are better left unsaid.

I get it - people often feel like they should say something to their bereaved friends, but they don’t know what to say.

My friend and colleague Frida Ferrick is a grief counselor in California. She’s put together a list of the ten most common things people say to bereaved loved ones that are really not helpful. In my last blog, I offered some basic questions and answers about grief, and touched briefly on how to talk to grieving friends and loved ones. I also said I’d offer more in this blog about comments that bereaved people often hear, that are best left unsaid. I thought I’d share Frida’s list of common things well-meaning people say that aren’t helpful, along with some of my comments:

  1. “This happened for a reason.”  This is not helpful when a person first experiences a loss; they are not ready to hear this — or to hear that the departed is in a better place. I remember in the movie Steel Magnolias, Daryl Hanna gives a beautiful speech to Sally Fields about her daughter who has died (played by Julia Roberts). “It should make you feel a lot better that Shelby is with her kin…She will always be young, she will always be beautiful,” Hanna said. “I guess I’m a little selfish,” said Fields, and with a steely look said, “I’d rather have her here.”
  2. “You need to be strong!”  When you are in grief, you need to be able to feel whatever comes up for you. You might be surprised at the intensity of your emotions. And it takes a great deal of strength to withstand when intense and difficult feelings that accompany grief. It’s not helpful when people try to tell a bereaved person how to feel. There are no wrong or inappropriate feelings.
  3. “Shouldn’t you be getting better already?”  This can particularly shaming to someone who is struggling with grief. Grief does not follow a time line.  When you love someone, it takes a long time to get used to living without him or her. For some people, it takes years to recover from the death of a loved one.
  4. “I know exactly how you feel!”  No, you don’t.  Even if you have someone special that died, everyone’s experience is different.
  5. “Do you need anything?”  Someone in grief may not be able to respond. They don’t have a lot of energy, and they often don’t know what they need.  It would be better to just help with the simple everyday chores, bring food and cook a meal, volunteer to run errands, watch the kids, etc.
  6. “Keep yourself busy. Don’t think about Herman.”   When you experience the death of a loved one, your mind will keep coming back to the loss. It is appropriate to grieve the passing of someone in your life. As time goes by, you will gradually not think about that person all day long. But telling someone it’s time to stop thinking about a deceased loved one is like telling them they’re doing it wrong. It’s not helpful and will likely lead to that person feeling like they can’t talk to you.
  7. “I know someone who would be perfect for you!” I remember my father was devastated after my step-mother died. Not long afterwards, a family friend suggested “you just need to go out and get laid.” That made both my father and me pretty angry. A bereaved person will go out when they are ready.  It does not help to push them. If you have lost someone else dear to you, and you are in grief, you many need time to be socially active.
  8. You should do…” (whatever someone else thinks you might do to feel better).  “Shoulds” are not helpful when the person in grief is trying to figure out what they do need. People in grief often wonder whether they are doing it right, if their experience appropriately honors the loved one they have lost. Suggesting that they should do (whatever) is confusing and often makes people wonder whether they are handling their grief appropriately.
  9. “I don’t think it’s healthy to sleep so much.”  “You need to get out.”  Social contact may feel overwhelming to someone who is grieving. And trying to push them to be social before they’re ready is not helpful. I’ve talked to many bereaved people in grief counseling who have tried to re-enter their social sphere too soon, and have found it overwhelming and disturbing. The person in grief will get out when they are ready.
  10. “You will feel better soon,”  No one knows when the person in grief will feel better.  There is such a mix of sadness, loss — perhaps anger and guilt.  People feel guilty about returning to their “normal” life.  It takes time to integrate all of this.

Grief is confusing and disorienting, not only for the people who are bereaved, but also for the friends and loved ones who are trying to support them. More often than not, people need to be held and listened to, rather than told what to do or to receive “helpful ideas.” It can be helpful to offer help with just the mundane things of life — laundry, grocery shopping, picking the kids up from school, etc.

If you’re confused about how to help, I’m happy to talk with you. If you need help dealing with someone else’s loss or grief, I’m available. I’m also available for those who need grief counseling or help coping with death or terminal illness. I can be reached at ken@insight-counseling.org or (812) 371-6330. People can also find resources through hospital social workers, clergy and local hospice organizations, such as Hosparus Health in New Albany and Louisville.