Grief has played a significant role in my life for a long, long time. Starting at a young age, I've watched numerous family members become ill and die. I’ve lost a lot of people, including both of my parents. I’ve been through the bereavement process many, many times. It’s devastating, soul-crushing, rotten, and at times the losses feels bottomless.
What’s gotten me through these difficult times are my friends. I have wonderful friends who are tremendously supportive, who are my family. Somehow they know what to say and do to bring me comfort. I suppose they’ve had a lot of practice.
However, not everyone has been able to comfort me in the way my friends have. For example, I had people come up to me at my father’s memorial service and say, “You were doing really well during the first part, but then you broke down at the end and cried.” Thank you, Mr/s. Obvious. And if a memorial is not the place to cry over a lost loved one, where then?
Death can be awkward. We don’t really know how to deal with it in North America. We live in a death-denying society, where it’s not spoken about unless absolutely necessary. We’re not taught how to express our thoughts and emotions around death. More often than not we’re taught to rein in those emotions, whether explicitly or by example.
It’s no wonder then that many of us don’t have the right words to express our condolences to a person or family who is grieving. When we don’t know what to say, we tend to revert to old clichés, which can be more hurtful than saying nothing, regardless of our good intentions in doing so. If you’ve suffered a loss, you probably know what I mean.
The following is a little guide I put together to help you better navigate your conversations with those who are grieving.
What NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving:
Your loved one is in a better place now.
At least they’re not suffering any more.
You'll always have wonderful memories.
You're lucky you had so many great years together.
You’re only given as much as you can handle.
Your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.
At least s/he lived a long life.
There is a reason for everything.
It was her/his time to go.
S/he had a good life.
You need to be strong for the children.
I know just how you feel.
Now you have to be the man/woman of the house.
You can still have other children.
You’re so strong.
Time heals everything.
You’ll find someone else.
You’re doing so well.
We all have to go some time.
It's time to move on with your life. Life goes on.
What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
I have no idea what to say, but I am here for you and I will just sit with you.
It’s ok to be angry.
You don’t have to be strong.
I don’t know what to say.
I can see that you are really hurting.
It is hard to understand why these things happen.
What you are experiencing/feeling is absolutely normal.
This just really sucks right now.
Grieving is hard work. No wonder you’re so exhausted/tired.
How are you taking care of yourself?
It sounds like you are doing what you need to do.
Are you eating? Sleeping?
What kind of supports do you have? (counsellor, general practitioner, family, friends)
Allow yourself time. Don’t let people rush you.
You don’t ever really “get over it.”
I hear your pain/exhaustion/anger/loneliness.
My favorite memory of your loved one is...
I wish I had the right words. Just know that I care.
Don’t try to fix or placate, just acknowledge that you are hearing them and seeing their pain, and that their pain is just fine and very normal. You don’t need to say much, if anything. Sometimes simply the comfort of your presence is all someone needs.
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