What Not to Say to a Grieving Person

Three Things Grieving People Don't Want to Hear

I want to tell you three things that grieving people wish no one would ever say to them again.

One of them is, "I know exactly how you feel." We tend to say that to someone when we’ve had a grief experience of our own, some kind of loss. We’ve had a taste of it, and there are aspects of what they’re going through that we might be familiar with. But when we say, "I know exactly how you feel," it’s like we’re elevating ourselves to their level. It’s like we’re trying to steal the spotlight from them. But we don’t know exactly how they feel. We know how we felt, and we know what our experience was like when we lost someone, but we don’t know what their experience is like. They are a unique person—their loss was unique.

A second thing they never want to hear is, "You’ll be fine." We say that because they seem so devastated and we want to assure them that the day is going to come when the sun is going to come out again and it won’t hurt quite as much as it does today. But, once again, saying "You’ll be fine" makes it sound as if this loss that they have experienced is just another bump along the way of life—that it’s really not all that significant, that it shouldn’t trouble them too much. What it really does is diminish the worth of the person who died. It says that the person who died is not really worthy of being all that troubled about. So don’t say, "You’ll be fine."

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The third one is the biggest. Any sentence that begins with, "Well, at least . . ." Whatever you’re going to put after that—just forget it. Things like, "Well, at least you can have more children," "Well, at least you can get married again," "Well, at least they didn’t have to suffer," "Well, at least . . ." The reason we’re saying these things is that we’re trying to help them have perspective. We’re wanting them to look on the bright side. What we’re saying might actually be a good perspective, and it might be true, but the question is: is it helpful in this moment?

Maybe the grieving person says, "Well, at least . . ." If they do that, you can agree. But don’t be the first one to say it. Don’t, in your desire to give them perspective about their loss, actually diminish their loss in the process.

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