5 things a grieving person wishes you wouldn't say
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5 Things a Grieving Person Wishes You Wouldn’t Say

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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.

-xo

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10 Comments
  1. Reply

    Kalia

    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

      chaptertwo

      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

    Kim

    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

      chaptertwo

      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

    Melanie

    February 5, 2018

    Shara,
    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

      chaptertwo

      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

    Carol

    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

      chaptertwo

      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

      chaptertwo

      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!

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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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