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One of the only certainties in life, is death. We will all experience the death of a loved one at some point in our life. Whether is be a parent, child, relative, or pet, we are destined to have to deal with the loss of a loved one. For most, it will not be a solo experience. Unfortunately, no matter how much experience one may have, coming up with the right words to soothe those grieving is almost impossible. I do not necessarily have the right answers for what you should say to someone grieving; however, here is my top 10 things you should never say to someone after the loss of a loved one.
Now, I know this sounds terribly dreadful and uncomfortable. There lies some good news, though: nothing you say can alleviate any pain someone feels when they lose someone they love. Nothing. Period. End of story. That should make you feel instantly better. You no longer need to feel the burden to “say the right thing.”
The bad news: rarely does anyone actually say nothing. We, as humans, feel pressured to say something, anything, to alleviate the pain of those we care for in our lives. Usually it just comes out incredibly inauthentic and uncomfortable. Take for instance a response I heard a grown man said to a little boy the other day when he said his father had died: “No need worry about that. My dad died when I was young, too. I turned out fine.” WHAT?!?!? That was the immediate response? I was absolutely flabbergasted. Luckily, most of us will not make such a troublesome statement, but I have compiled the top 10 things I heard after both the death of my father, and then again with my mother. Although decades apart, the sentiments were the same and perplexing for me.
- I’m Sorry.
- They are in a better place.
- How can I help?
- Time heals all wounds.
- It gets better.
- You’re so strong.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- What happened?
- I know how you feel.
- Anything that sounds like they should act or feel a certain way.
Let me explain these a little further…
One of the most profound moments in my life was when a younger me said I was sorry about someone not getting a job they wanted. The response I got, “Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything wrong.” I thought about that statement for days. How often do we say sorry for things out of our control? The answer is ALL.THE.TIME. This has stuck with me since that day.
This thought is especially true when said to someone after the loss of a loved one. When you say you are sorry, what is the appropriate response? It’s okay? Don’t worry about it? Neither of those things are true. Every time someone says “I’m sorry” when they hear my parents are dead, I stand there awkwardly and say, “Thank you.” This also makes for more awkward moments because people aren’t sure where to go with that response. However, I know nothing else to say because it’s just downright weird to me these days when people apologize for things which they have no control.
They are in a Better Place.
Before my next statement, I want to make sure you are aware I know those who say this have wonderfully big hearts and are grasping for any positive words during such a hard time. With that being said, this response (especially in the days after death) evokes a gutteral rage I cannot explain. My thought is, “what do you mean a better place?! A better place is right here, with me! My ______ should be alive and here with ME! I am the better place!”
I do understand there is a religious aspect to this statement. For the most part, people who say this often mean “The Great Beyond.” For many not living the immediate effects of the loss, this sounds perfectly reasonable. In the moment of loss, though, many forget all the religious teaching and just want to feel the loss. For others, they may not even believe in an afterlife. That brings a whole new level of frustration, thinking someone is trying to push their beliefs on you when you are in such a vulnerable state. It’s just best to steer clear of this phrase!
How Can I Help?
This statement, in and of itself, is very thoughtful. Again, those with the wonderfully big hearts just want to do anything they can to help. The problem with this phrase is the question mark. Asking someone how you can help after the death of a loved one is like asking how to create world peace. There is a big ole’ blank. When someone is dealing with loss, grief tends to overcome the brain and all rational thought. You probably know you need help, but you have no idea what you need or how to ask for it.
Instead of asking, “how can I help,” try making an action plan. Make statements of action, such as, “I will bring you dinner tonight.” “Please allow me to help clean your house for your guests.” “Who should I call?” All of these statements have a specific goal without much thinking for those grieving. They also feel like actual help instead of another burden to think about while you are trying to grieve.
Time Heals All Wounds.
WRONG! I wonder if anyone ever, in the history of everdom, has believed that all you need to heal from the death of a loved one is some time. There is never enough time to heal a grief wound. The instances of overwhelming grief come less and less, but they always remain. Spare yourself some hard conversations and steer very clear of this tragic phrase.
It Gets Better.
Say what?! Do you mean the day of losing someone you love? I should hope all days aren’t that bad. However, this phrase comes off very aloof during a very personal time. No matter how much time passes, the fact your loved one is gone still remains. It does not get better. There is no replacement.
You’re So Strong.
This statement has a very strong effect on me, whether it is something said to me or I just hear it spoken to someone else. There is such a strong underlying message many do not even think about. Saying you’re so strong is taking away the permission to be sad. It is meant as a compliment, but it translates to, “you’re so strong, you do not need to feel this pain.” It is unfair. At some point, that message is internalized and one feels they cannot feel all their feelings. They feel they have to be strong for everyone around them. Truth be told, no matter how strong, emotionally, physically or mentally, the death of a loved one is devastating. We need to normalize the process of feeling and dealing with the pain it causes. No matter how innocent the phrase sounds, it has a deeply impactful message.
Everything Happens for a Reason.
This is a hard no phrase for someone after the loss of a loved one. Can anyone ever explain any reason why your loved one should leave this world? The answer: absolutely not. There is never a good reason for the death of anyone you love. Even after the death from a long term illness, those left behind do not feel like death is the reason for anything else. This is not comforting in any way. In fact, it is very disturbing to hear after the loss of someone you love.
Naturally, humans are curious people. The question “what happened” comes up often, even in death. The question, in and of itself, is not the part that gets us in grieving; it is the timing. In the days and months following the death of a loved one, you are left trying to figure out what life is like with the void. Even if your immediate daily routine isn’t altered, your mind has to find the balance of new normal. When someone asks what happened, your mind has to go back and relive the loss over and over. The amount of pain and hurt that conjures up isn’t worth satiating the curious nature of humans. Please just be content in the knowledge we have lost someone and it may take a very long time before it can be spoken about without major emotional wreckage.
I Know How You Feel.
As I stated before, death is an inevitable part of life. Very few people are able to complete their life cycle without having to experience loss of a loved one. With that being said, every single instance is different. We make and build different relationships with those in our life. Each individual marks a very unique bond. When we lose that bond, it is unique to our specific relationship. Even if you have lost the same loved one before, you do not know how it affects each individual person. Saying you know how someone feels invalidates the unique experience. Please don’t ever assume or say you know how someone is feeling.
Anything that sounds like they should act or feel a certain way.
Humans are naturally emphatic creatures. The majority of us walking this earth want to alleviate hurt and pain by saying the “right thing”. Unfortunately, that usually comes from personal experiences or beliefs, and we forget we aren’t all the same. Saying something that makes another feel like they need to act or feel a certain way can do more damage than good. Projecting feelings and emotions can weigh heavily on those grieving the loss of a loved one. The best way to handle speaking to someone after the loss of a loved one is just to let them know you love them and are there with open arms and ears if needed.
Final Thoughts on What you Should Never Say to Someone After the Loss of a Loved One
I know this was a lot of information to work though. I basically just told you to rewire the compassion portion of your brain. These phrases are ones we have heard and repeated for many, many years. Truth be told, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to say any of these things to someone grieving a loved one, it is just comforting to not have the extra stress of dealing with awkward comments while grieving. It took many years dealing with the death of both my parents and communicating with others about my experience to learn this information. (If you are interested in the 5 Lessons I Learned with the Death of my Parents, click here). Just remember, grief is unique and should be treated as such.