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.
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.
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.