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July 9, 2020 Beyond The Dash

The 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

...And 10 better ways to say what you mean instead

The 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who is Grieving
Sometimes the most well-intended condolences sound insincere. Find out how to deliver sympathy without causing offense. (Shutterstock)

For people who have never experienced grief, expressing sympathy can be an awkward procedure they'd rather avoid. What can you say to console the inconsolable? 

Many of the phrases uttered to the bereaved in funerals are empty, inconsiderate and sometimes downright offensive. Here are top 10 things you should never say to a person who is grieving.

1. "She is in a better place now."

If you believe in a heavenly afterlife, you might be tempted to point out the 'bright side' to someone who's lost a loved one. Unfortunately, to a griever, this can sound like you think the death was for the best. 

Say instead: "It's a huge loss. I'm so sorry." Tell it how it is. There doesn't need to be a positive spin on death. It's something you can't sell as a good thing, so try to be comfortable acknowledging the tragedy. 

2. "At least he's out of pain."

These kinds of condolences make sense when a prolonged terminal illness has strained the family for some time. However, it's unkind to imply that the death was a good event. This is no comfort for someone who may still be struggling to accept both the illness and death as reality.

Say instead: "Your family has been through a lot. I hope you can begin to heal from this loss soon."

3. "I'm praying for you." 

It can be borderline offensive to say this to someone who is not religious. Even if you are praying for a grieving person, avoid saying this entirely if the grieving person doesn't share your beliefs. This type of condolence can spark anger or resentment if the person has been overloaded with unwanted religious messages since the death occurred. 

Even within religious communities, this throwaway sympathy can come across as devoid of meaning. Although you may think you're helping, saying this effectively says, "This is in God's hands, so I don't need to help you." 

Say instead: "Your family has been through a lot. I'm hoping things turn around soon." 

4. "I'm here for you."

Saying this should not cause offense, but might be interpreted as an empty sentiment. If you really want to express your availability, be specific. 

Say instead: "Let me take you for coffee soon." Show your loved one that you are there for them rather than saying it. Invite them out, bring over a meal or ask how they are doing.

5. "Let me know if there's anything I can do for you."

Some people might never take you up on this, despite needing help. Take the burden of asking for help off of your loved one by telling them what you are willing to do for them. 

Say instead: "Can I help with anything? If you want to get out of the house I'd love to babysit sometime."

6. "I know how you're feeling." 

If you've also experienced loss, you might feel that you have wisdom to impart. If this is the case, saying you know exactly how another griever is feeling shows that you still have a lot to learn. Though it may be true, it's never comforting to hear that your feelings aren't unique. This statement comes across as unsympathetic 

Say instead: "I lost my mother in 2001. Let me know if you need someone to talk grief with."

7. "I don't know what I would do if I were you."

You may see this as expressing admiration of a griever's strength, but it really only serves to remind them of the overwhelming, hopeless situation they are in. Sentiments like this can increase feelings of isolation. Even those with a brave face may be in unimaginable pain. 

Say instead: "I know you've had a hard time, but I'm proud of you for being so resilient. Let's take some time to talk soon." 

8. "How are you holding up?"

This phrase isn't a bad way to start a conversation with a close friend or family member about grief during a private moment. However, avoid saying this at a funeral, in a card or in front of others. 

Say instead: The answer to this question is likely to be "not good." If you ask, be ready to listen carefully, offer support and sink into grief with the person you are comforting. 

9. "Time heals all wounds."

Actually, it doesn't. Time is a factor in healing, but only if the person in pain is acknowledging and processing the loss day by day. There are many people who never deal with trauma in their lives, and time does nothing more than seal the grief in. 

Say instead: "You're doing a great job. I'm proud of how you're handling everything. Let's talk soon." 

10. "I'm sorry for your loss."

While the sentiment may be true, this phrase is repeated so often at funerals that it is essentially meaningless. It goes without saying that you are sorry for a loss. 

Say instead: Nothing. Sometimes there are no words. This phrase is a silence-filler anyway, so why not leave it at that? After all, there are no words that will comfort them. 

If you need to say something, rephrase your condolences to avoid the cliche by saying, "This is a horrible loss. I've been thinking of you."

Condolence tips

These are general tips for expressing condolences, but make sure you are listening and reacting appropriately to what the grieving person is saying. For example, if they express relief that a terminal illness has come to an end, don't avoid discussing it directly. Whatever you say, your intention will carry weight.  

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