When someone you care about loses a loved one, knowing how to best support them can be a challenge. You want to be helpful and show how much you care, but you might be afraid of saying the “wrong” thing. The thought of supporting someone experiencing something so deeply painful may also just make you uncomfortable (sometimes it can trigger our own fears or memories of loss). Don’t let these fears stop you from reaching out – you may be surprised at how often people avoid reaching out to those who are grieving out of fear or discomfort. While nothing you can say will take their pain away or bring their loved one back, they need your love and support now more than ever. There are better ways than others, though, to help someone you care about who is going through a loss. Some comments, though well-intentioned, can be more harmful than they are helpful. Here are some things to avoid saying to someone who’s grieving:
Any sentence that begins with “at least…”
When someone is hurting, it’s tempting to search for things that we think might help them feel better or look on the bright side. The reality is that losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things a person can experience; and looking for a silver lining can make the person feel that you’re minimizing their loss. Comments like, “at least they died doing what they loved” or “at least they went peacefully” try to make grief logical by looking for reasons why the grieving person should not feel sad. Grief is an emotional experience, not a logical one. Allow them to feel the full depth of their sadness. Feeling their feelings is as important to their healing as it is painful.
“I’m here for you if you need anything”
It’s certainly important that this person knows they can come to you if they need something, but it’s unlikely that a grieving person will take you up on vague offers like this. They may not be able to quite articulate what they want or need during this time, so offering up specific things may be more helpful. This could look like asking them if you can drop off a hot meal, do a load of their laundry, or pick their kids up from school.
“I know exactly how you feel”
It may be tempting to try to show empathy if you’ve also experienced the immense pain of losing a loved one. However, it’s important to keep in mind that every relationship is different and that everyone experiences grief in their own unique way. It’s best to give that person the chance to identify how they’re feeling rather than speaking or thinking for them. Assuming you know how they’re feeling can actually make this person feel even more isolated. Keep in mind that you can still be empathetic without trying to convince them that you know how they feel by saying, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this. I can see that you’re in pain and I’m so sorry.”
“They’re in a better place”
For many people, having faith that their loved one is in a better place can be very comforting. Remember though that not everyone shares the same belief system and it’s important not to make assumptions based on your own values (or what you think theirs are). Even if you know that this person does believe in some sort of afterlife, a comment like this can sometimes make the grieving individual feel guilty by implying that they should be glad that their loved one is gone and no longer suffering.
While all of these comments can be hurtful, the most hurtful thing you can say is nothing at all. Always reach out to people who are grieving, even if you don’t really know what to say. Grief can be incredibly isolating; and having as many caring people around as possible will be essential in helping someone to heal. Let them know that you’re there to listen and give them your undivided attention. Be patient with them, even if at times they sound like a broken record – repeating details of their loss can be one way of coming to terms with it. If they don’t feel ready to share, be willing to sit in silence with them and simply be a shoulder to cry on. And remember, this person will likely continue to grieve long after the sympathy cards stop coming. Continue to check in on them and encourage them to reach out for professional mental health support if you think they might need extra help coping. For more tips on how to encourage someone you know to see a counsellor or therapist, check out our article on that here.