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5 Things a Grieving Person Wishes You Wouldn't Say - ChapterTwoTraveler.com
5 things a grieving person wishes you wouldn't say

5 Things a Grieving Person Wishes You Wouldn’t Say

December 16, 2017

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Have you ever had a friend or loved one who lost a spouse or partner, a parent or a child? You see them at the funeral or run into them during an errand and don’t quite know what to say. It’s awkward. You feel compelled to say something but you don’t know what to say.

We’ve all been there at some point or will experience this awkward moment at some time in the future. Having lived through this recently I’ve compiled a Top 5 List of What Not to Say to a person who is grieving, and what to say instead.

I lost my husband, Ron, in September 2015 after a 10 month battle with a rare cancer. Well, I didn’t lose him. He wasn’t lost or misplaced. I hadn’t forgotten where I left him last, like a child who unknowingly leaves a beloved doll in a taxi cab. He was stolen from me. Stolen from us. And yes, I’m still bitter, even after two years. Stupid cancer! But that’s what people say when someone dies. They lost someone.

Ron died 3 days before my 49th birthday, 5 days before my youngest son turned 19 and 10 days before what would have been our 27th wedding anniversary. And again, I’m still bitter. Cancer is a monster.

My husband, Ron, in better times.

The first year after Ron’s death remains a blur. If not for pictures I wouldn’t be able to recall most of what happened during that year. I know there were holidays, and all of those “firsts” without our family’s husband and father. I know I went to work every day. But the rest is pretty much a blur. My sons and I quickly perfected the “smile, though your heart is breaking” facade. 

grieving, celebration of life, tears

Smiling through our tears. My sons, Jared and Conner, and I, after Ron’s Celebration of Life ceremony.

Looking back, one thing stands out in my mind about that first year. Well-meaning people making well-meaning statements that hurt more than helped. They seemed to have a phrasebook of what to say to a person who is grieving, as we heard the same phrases repeated over and over again.

These phrases are likely passed down from generation to generation as a child hears adults say these well-meaning, yet thoughtless, phrases. It’s what they’re raised to say to a person who has lost someone.

Well-meaning or not, these sentiments land like a thud on the ears of a person who is mourning the death of their loved one.

While they have only the best intentions, and sincerely mean what they say, people don’t realize the burden they have placed on the griever by saying these tried and true phrases which are interpreted very differently than intended.  

Here is my countdown of 5 things that made me cringe (or feel punched in the gut) every time I heard them after my husband’s death.  

But don’t fret if you’ve ever said one of these phrases to a person who is experiencing a loss. We get it; running into someone who is grieving is awkward for both of us. It’s a delicate dance of what to say and what not to say.

Use the below as guidance and you’ll be better prepared the next time the situation occurs 🙂

#5 I know just how you feel.

This phrase was typically followed by the well-meaning person launching into a story from their own lives in an effort to support their notion of knowing just how I felt.

No, well-meaning person, you couldn’t possibly know just how I feel.

Every loss is felt and experienced differently. Your experience is entirely different from mine. And, in case you don’t remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about me, unfortunately. And I don’t want to hear about your mother’s cousin’s husband who also died from cancer.

Instead, say “I can’t possibly know how you feel right now. But I want you to know how sorry I am.” Now that? That’s the truth. I hear that and it makes total sense. My brain can process this sentiment despite my grief. And in this moment I feel your empathy and compassion for what I’m going through. And I know that you are there for me, not yourself.

#4 He’s in a better place now.

Firstly, well-meaning person, how can you possibly know where he “is” right now? He didn’t just run over to Olive Garden for an endless bowl of salad and breadsticks. Secondly, you haven’t been to this imaginary “better place” so you really have no idea if it’s a better place or not. Thirdly, having him at home with his family right now would be the “better place.”

Instead, say “I’m so sorry. I thought the world of Ron. He will live on forever as we will never stop sharing our favorite stories about him.” You see, by keeping his memory ever present he is still here with us, if only in spirit. And that’s a better place.

#3 Let me know if I can help with anything or, Let me know if you need anything.

Oh, great. Now I’ve got to call you and ask you for the help you offered. You see, with this well-meaning phrase the person genuinely wants to help but they have no idea what sort of help is needed. So they extend a generic offer of help.

But what the griever hears is “tag, you’re it. Call me.”  Now the burden of receiving help is on the griever, not the giver.

Every time I heard this phrase my heart and brain translated it into “I really don’t know what to say in this awkward moment so give me a call and I’ll let you know if I can help.”

And you know I’m not going to ask for help, so these phrases really just feel hollow and empty. Even I don’t know what I need right now so it’s impossible for me to articulate it to you.

Instead, say “I’m going to drop off dinner on Thursday night. I’m not coming in for a visit; I’ll just leave it on your porch in a bag.” Or send a text saying “I just left a bag on your porch. Some TP, paper plates, napkins, paper towels, and other essentials I thought you could use.” Or, “How about I come over and help address those thank you notes? Then I’ll drop them off at the post office. I’ll bring the stamps.”

If you truly want to help a person who is grieving, do something for them. Anything. But don’t make them ask for it.

And if you do drop off a meal, please use disposable containers. The old days of using the act of returning the bowl or pan as part getting the grieving person out of the house are over.

#2 How are you doing or, How are you guys doing?

Again, another well-meaning phrase said by someone who doesn’t really know what to say. It’s an awkward moment. And, they’re afraid of saying something that may upset the person who is trying to carry on without their loved one, so the expression which comes to mind first is to ask how I’m doing. Or how our family is doing.

However, this is another phrase that translates into being all about the well-meaning person instead of the griever. We see that wince of pain on your face as you silently pray “Say you’re fine. Don’t make me feel awkward while I try to make polite conversation with you. I really don’t know what to say. Say you’re fine!” Gah!

What I want to say is “Oh, you know, it’s all rainbows and unicorns over here. We’re just having a bounce house kind of day without Ron being here anymore. How do you think we’re doing? We have the lost the person we love the most in this world. Our life sucks right now!” That’s what I want to say.

But, I know they are asking how I’m doing because they really don’t know what else to say, so instead of my witty, sarcastic inner voice coming out I smile and say “fine. I’m doing fine.” Or, “fine, we’re all doing fine.”

Even though I am the one dealing with the death of my husband I feel the need (burden) to make sure you don’t feel awkward in this moment; to take the pressure off of you. Because if I said what I really felt it would make you feel terrible for asking and it would be very awkward for both of us. So instead, I say I’m fine. Or, we’re doing well. But we’re really not.

Instead of asking how I’m doing, let me know you’ve been thinking about us. Tell me something that happened recently that reminded you of Ron or of our family. Express how much he meant to you.

Ask specific questions about how Conner is doing in college or if Jared is still enjoying his job. Or when are Jared and Leslie getting married? Ask us where our next family vacation will be.

Know that we are trying to put our lives back together and slowly we are getting back to center. For now, we’re fine, so don’t ask a generic “how are you doing?” Because you probably don’t have enough time to hear how we are really doing.

And, last but not least, the # 1 worst thing to say to someone who is grieving – NOTHING.

#5 Saying nothing

Saying nothing to the person who is grieving is the most unbearable and uncomfortable situation – for both parties.

I’m talking about the people who, for all intents and purposes, are presumed to know about the death. Fellow church members, neighbors, colleagues, for example. From the outside, they have no reason to ignore your loss when you run into each other. But they do. They say nothing.

I get it. Some people just don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. It makes them uncomfortable, so they say nothing at all.

But here’s the thing. When you, the well-meaning person, say nothing to someone who is grieving, you put the burden on us to have to decide what to say. You force us to make it easier for you, to make you feel better. We have to think and decode the situation with a brain that is numb.

Do we ignore the elephant in the room and also say nothing? Do we wait and see if you will eventually say something. Do we ask if you’ve heard the news?

What if your answer is “yes, I’ve heard.” Then what? Now we’ve put you on the spot and things get really awkward. All of these thoughts are racing through our minds while we continue to dwell on how to make it easier for you. 

And in the season of grieving it is really, really burdensome to have to take care of someone else’s feelings.

Instead of saying nothing at all, offer a hug and say “I don’t know what to say.” The rest of the conversation will flow very easily after that. Let the person who is grieving guide the direction of the conversation. Take your cues from them.

The only time you should say nothing at all is when the other person is talking. Let them talk. Listen with both ears. Don’t interrupt and don’t interject your own life experiences unless asked for suggestions. Truly, I don’t want to hear about your family’s history of cancer. Sorry, I just can’t.

What I do want to hear is that you care, that you think of my husband frequently and it brings a smile to your face. I want to hear all of the good things you remember. If you’re a childhood pal tell me about all of the trouble you two got into – and how much fun you had doing it. Just say something, anything, please.

The next time you encounter someone who has lost a loved one just be natural. Don’t worry that you’ll say the wrong thing. We know the situation is just as difficult and awkward for you as it is for us.  

Have you lost someone you loved? What was the most awkward thing said to you and how did you handle it? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear all about it.


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  1. Reply


    January 19, 2018

    I just want to say thank you for this post. We “lost” my dad suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of 2007. I was a couple months from turning 21. It was about a week after my sister’s 16th birthday. And my parents had just celebrated their 29th anniversary the month before. This last October marked 10 years. It seems so odd to me that he has now been gone 1/3 of my life. I took this year pretty hard. And I have flashbacks of some of those well-meaning people. My heart goes out to you and your boys. Truly grateful for your bravery in writing this.

    • Reply


      January 20, 2018

      Thank you, Kalia, for your kind words. I am so sorry to hear of your father’s passing. It stings whether it’s been 10 years or 10 months. The feeling is still new no matter how many years have passed. You and your sister were so young and still in need of your father’s guidance in life. I am just so sorry. You have become an amazing young woman and I know your dad would be so proud. Hugs!

  2. Reply


    January 19, 2018

    Well said. I can’t imagine all you have been through. I think one of the worst things said after my in-laws passed away (MIL in 2010 and FIL in 2014) was, “It will get easier as time passes.” What does that mean? It’s just like when people would say that when my boys were younger. But I say, it doesn’t get better (or easier); it gets different. You have to find a new “normal”. How is that easy? Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Reply


      January 20, 2018

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Kim. I agree it doesn’t get better or easier, just different. I’m so sorry for the passing of your in-laws. It is most definitely not easier, no matter how many years pass. Hugs!

  3. Reply


    February 5, 2018

    My best friend “lost” her husband 7 years ago to brain cancer. One minute he was fine, the next he had a seizure, and the next 14 months were a nightmare for her. I think she would totally agree with your blog post. The comments you mention are the exact ones that bothered her as well. We laughed and cried over all of it then and since then. She has come out on the other side, and is just now happily remarried to a wonderful man who is nothing like her first husband. ( I think secretly we were all prepared to hate him for not being Scott, but he’s wonderful.) And, she was NOT looking for anyone, so you never know! Hang in there. I think she would say each year is slightly better than the last with lots of tears out of nowhere along the way. I hope you had good friends to help you through then and now. Thinking about you!

    • Reply


      March 26, 2018

      Oh, Melanie, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s husband. Cancer is such a beast. There’s just no way to prepare yourself for the loss of a loved one. It’s so difficult to watch someone who fought so valiantly succumb to cancer in the end. I glad she had a good friend in you! I love the work you and Ann are doing at yayas2cents.com. All students deserve a college education and scholarships have definitely eased the burden for this (now) single mom.

  4. Reply


    March 26, 2018

    Shara- I first went to your blog to see what you had to say about traveling, which I love to do. Then I read this article about things not to say to people who are grieving. I’ve been on both sides of this fence and you’re right- it is painful. Thanks for the suggestions of things that can be said and actually be helpful!

    • Reply


      March 26, 2018

      Thank you for the kind words, Carol. And I promise the travel posts are coming. I’m so glad you stopped by! The death of a loved one is never easy and doesn’t get easier very quickly. Travel is what restores my soul. I look forward to swapping travel stories with you 🙂

  5. Reply

    Ruth Murdoch

    September 17, 2018

    Hi Shara, thanks for taking the time to write this post. I concur with some of the things people say, and it’s great to get another perspective.

    I’ve just celebrated my late husband’s life ten years after his passing by inviting his friends to tell me funny stories about Mark or how he came into their life. It was lovely reading over 90 messages and helped me and them to keep his memory alive. I think about him daily and nothing will ever stop that. I am now remarried to the most wonderful man in the world (yep, lucky to have two in my life) and we talk about Mark like he’s an old friend of both of ours.

    Would it be okay if I shared your post on my Facebook page please?

    • Reply


      October 7, 2018

      Hi Ruth, Thank you for your kind feedback. I love the idea of a 10 year celebration. I may do that at 5 years, if not, most definitely will do it at 10 years. Such a great idea to be able to read affirmations of how well your husband was loved and thought of. Congrats on finding a second soulmate. How wonderful! Please feel free to share on your Facebook page.

      Thanks again,
      Shara Jones

      P.S. Just had a look at your site. So gorgeous! Your pictures are stunning. Well done!

  6. Reply


    July 31, 2019

    My brother tragically ended his life in May. Five weeks afterward, I invited my in-laws over for a birthday celebration for my MIL. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my BIL and SIL yet my husband had told them of my brother’s death but when they showed up, they said hi, no words like “I’m sorry for you loss” but instead sat down at the table and my abrasive BIL began with, “What do you think of Robin Williams and mental health?” Then to make things even more painful he begins talking about how he doesn’t believe in God, he proceeds to attack all faiths and then attacks my religion. I was so upset I ended up yelling at him!

    I hope nobody ever experiences something this cruel and egregious.

    • Reply

      Shara Jones

      August 1, 2019

      Hi Michelle, I am so, so very sorry to hear about your brother’s passing. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain you are going through right now. I’m sure you’re still trying to process the shock. Thank you for reaching out to me with your story. There is no valid excuse for the behavior of your BIL. I am glad you were able to yell at him and not bottle it up out of politeness. There were, and still are, many times I just want to explode at people. I wouldn’t blame you at all for staying away from family events where your BIL and SIL will be. I can eventually excuse people who just don’t say anything but there is no excuse for crass comments at time like this. My heart goes out to you. {{{hugs}}}

  7. Reply


    September 22, 2020

    My dad died this month. He was 81 but seemed healthy. Very unexpected and sudden…all over in a matter of a couple seconds. (Heart attack, they think.) So hard to wrap my brain around that he is gone, and gone so fast. Over 1000 people came to the visitation (big family!) And yes, some said the wrong things. But i feel like i said some weird/wrong things too! I guess in my attempt to convince myself i was okay?? Or, just in my shocked state probably came across as numb and unemotional.

  8. Reply


    September 25, 2020

    You hit the nail right on with this. I have lost so many people this last year, however losing my Grandmother, she was 85, and had been my mother in every single way but the word, my own mother not being a stick around mom. losing my gramma i felt as though my own heart was going to stop beating. She was my go to person whom I hardly went a day or two without talking to her, and just when I didnt see it coming my husband became violently ill, just when we thought we had beat his infection that we had been fighting for a few years, only to be told that, they ( the hospital) would make him comfortable. 17 years we had been together, 3 kids. He was to turn 40 the end of July this year, he passed away on the 13th in the morning. 3 weeks before our oldest 17th birthday, and 2 weeks before his own birthday. our younger 2 children are 15, a boy and girl. And for me, watching them try to navigate their own feelings of greif and how to cope without the one and only person who was our safe place is so paralyzing. I feel as though we were robbed. I know we were robbed. Its barely been 2 months and I feel so angery, beyond just a bitter feeling. Our forever wasnt even close to long enough, and im often on shaky ground with 2 left feet. Im angry that the word has continued to turn and time is still moving forward without him and without my grandma. People continue to live on as though they were someone or some event that didnt take place. To us its a struggle daily to just get up, to even find the energy to even breathe. No one knows how we feel and unfortuantly we really know they dont care either. So stumbling apon your 5 things not to say really gave me a sasifactoy feeling. I am glad im not the only one person that wants so badly to tell people how we are really feeling, and make them feel as uncomfortable as we felt in those moments. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Reply

    Ruby Mora

    January 8, 2021

    I lost my oldest son 3 years ago on January 3rd, 2018. The absolute worst week of my entire life, and every day since.
    First, I’m sorry for your loss and pain. I haven’t experienced the loss of my husband , so I can not imagine what it feels like. I wouldn’t even want to speculate.
    I do know about the things people say when they don’t know what to say. “In a better place”, “Not suffering anymore”, “I know exactly how you feel”, “everything happens for a reason”, or ” God has a plan”. The worst was people trying to tell me how to morn my son or saying, It’s time to move on or get over it.
    It’s been three years and still feels like it just happened.

  10. Reply


    May 8, 2021

    I’m in agreement with all of “words not to say” I have one more that I’m not sure everyone will feel the same. My oldest daughter passed away on January 8, 2013. My youngest daughter took this the hardest, ( I have 3 daughters) her and I often spoke about writing a book of quotes “not to say”, to someone who is grieving. Most of which you spoke. Especially, “let me know if you need anything”. When my youngest passed in May of 2020. I again heard many of the same things spoken. But why oh why tell me “ you cannot imagine “. How exactly should I take it, you’re glad it’s me and not you. I’m not sure why it makes me feel worse. But no they cannot imagine and I pray they never do.

  11. Reply

    Elizabeth Fischel

    October 25, 2021

    You are so right when you say we each experience grief and loss differently. I’ve had my share, no need to give details. But some of the things you recommend saying are the very things that made me cringe. I really did NOT like hearing “I can’t imagine how you are feeling.” To me it felt like they were saying, “Gee, I really can’t relate, so I guess you’re on your own.” I would have preferred a simple, “Loss is hard.” and a hug. I did not feel the same way you did about the word “loss.” To me, it’s a perfect word for someone who is so terribly missed. They are just lost to us. I prefer acknowledging that rather than “They’re in a better place.” I’m totally with you on that one!! Or, “You’ll all be together again one day.” Right. Maybe. But today I’m hurting like hell. And I actually liked hearing, “Let me know if I can help.” It made me feel less alone, and it gave me permission to reach out if I needed to. I did not feel like this put any burden on me at all. And I would definitely NOT have liked someone to push in and say “I’m bringing dinner to your house on Tuesday.” Dinner on Tuesday was never, ever what I needed. What I did need were things like someone to take care over the overgrown tree my neighbors were complaining about. But how can anyone else anticipate that that’s what you need? They can’t. You have to tell them. So I did. And the few people I asked for that kind of help were so happy to be able to do these things for me. We are all different. We hear these intended words of comfort differently. They hit us differently. So my advice to responding to someone in grief is, keep it simple and heartfelt.


Shara Jones
Norfolk, VA, USA

HI! I'm Shara, the life traveler behind this blog. I became a widow two days before my 49th birthday. And so began the second chapter of my life. Join me as I journey through this new phase of life, 50+ years old, staring down the barrel of early retirement and everything that encompasses being happy and healthy in the second chapter of life.

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