Finding the right things to say after losing a loved one doesn’t come easily to most people. Dealing with death and tragedy isn’t something we experience every day, or often, in most cases. How do you know how to deal with insensitive comments? Similarly, how do you know what NOT to say?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Insensitive Comments to Avoid When Talking to a Grieving Person (and What to Say Instead)
- How to Deal With Insensitive Comments While Grieving
Most people feel awkward and uncomfortable when confronted with loss. It’s easier to ignore someone’s pain and suffering rather than figuring out how to console them. This leads to insensitivity, and it can be harmful to any relationship.
One of the excuses we often use for not knowing what to say to a grieving partner or to someone who’s recently lost a child, for example, is that no one taught us how to deal with death and grief. While our society as a whole can get away saying something similar to this, because it’s generally true, it doesn’t mean that we should lean on our ignorance at the expense of others.
Saying the wrong thing can be hurtful to a bereaved person when they’re already struggling with a significant loss. In this guide, we’ll share how to deal with insensitive comments when you’re dealing with grief, as well as what not to say to someone after a loss. The more you know, the better equipped you are to provide support.
Insensitive Comments to Avoid When Talking to a Grieving Person (and What to Say Instead)
Offering condolences can be stressful and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a few basic rules to follow to get you through many of these awkward moments when you don’t know what to say to someone who’s mourning the death of a loved one.
To begin, think back to how others made you feel when you were the one dealing with a similar tragedy or stressful situation. If you want to determine the right thing to say, start with a reflection on how you might feel if someone made an insensitive comment to you. Then, think of what would’ve made you feel better to hear.
Words carry a lot of meaning, so consider yours wisely. The following are some examples of poorly chosen words and what you might say instead.
“You’re still young, and there’s plenty of time for you to get remarried.”
Instead say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope in time your heart starts to heal from this devastating pain.”
Comments like these, while well-meaning, can have a disastrous effect on the recipient, and it’s simply not the right thing to say to a grieving widow. When you tell someone that there’s still time to find a new spouse, it minimizes the love and connection they had with their deceased partner.
Your good intentions will likely offend the widowed individual and create a rift in your relationship. Whenever dealing with this type of loss, it’s best not to make light of the situation or include humor in your condolences. The same is true for any type of loss, not just a significant other.
“You two can always try again for another baby.”
Instead say: “I am deeply sorry for the loss of your precious baby. May you find peace and comfort in the coming days.”
When offering encouragement to newly bereaved parents of a stillborn child or miscarriage, choose what you say with the utmost sensitivity. Losing a child at any age or stage in the gestation or birthing process is devastating. No other pain can compare to when a child dies.
It's painful and offensive when you tell a grieving parent that they can always replace the child they lost. Parents begin the bond with their baby when they discover they're expecting. When that child dies, so do the parents' hopes and dreams of a future life with their baby.
“I’m sure your life will get easier now without having to see your son go through his addiction.”
Instead say: “I know the past several years haven’t been easy for you. I’m so sorry that things had to end so tragically for you and your family. My deepest condolences.”
Suggesting that the death of a child addicted to drugs is one of the best possible outcomes for a bereaved parent is insensitive, offensive, and cowardly. Dealing with an addicted loved one is one of life’s most significant challenges to overcome.
The years of pain and abuse families of addicts endure are heart-wrenching. When an addicted child dies due to an overdose or another type of accident or tragedy, it doesn’t relieve a family of a problem. This type of loss is as profound as the death of any other close family member.
“I’m so sorry your dog died. Maybe now you can feel free from the burden of caring for an animal.”
Instead say: “I’m so sorry for the loss of your beloved pet. We’ll all miss hearing of your adventures together.”
A pet companion fills a particular void in the life of its owner. Often, pet owners become as attached or more attached to their pets as they do to the humans in their lives. Pets provide unconditional love and emotional support, and they're constant companions and loyal to the core.
Suggesting that they somehow are a burden to look after adds to the grieving owner's pain of loss. A pet is like a beloved child to many people, and they consider it an honor to take care of their furry friend.
“Your mom lived a long life. It was her time to go.”
Instead say: “Your mom was an amazing person and touched so many lives.”
Saying to someone who’s just lost a parent that their family member’s ‘time was up’ is cruel to express condolences. Though this is a common phrase, it’s insensitive. No one wants to experience a parent’s death.
As adults, we know and understand that all life must come to an end. Regardless of how old a person is when they die, it’s never a ‘good time’ for their family to lose them. Instead, focus on the loved one’s memory and legacy.
How to Deal With Insensitive Comments While Grieving
Suffering the loss of a loved one or another type of devastating blow might leave you with heightened sensitivities. This is normal, and it’s okay to let yourself fully feel your emotions. It’s common to find yourself scrutinizing what people say to you as they offer their condolences.
While most people don’t mean to be rude or insensitive, what they say can still cause damage. The tips below help you get past the things people say so that you can move forward and focus on your grief.
Gracefully acknowledge their words and walk away
Acknowledging a person's condolences doesn't mean you have to accept what they have to say. You can politely nod your head and walk away from the offending person if you so choose to. Nothing written in the etiquette books says you have to remain in their presence, entertain them, or take any abuse.
Sometimes the simplest thing you can do is walk away from an uncomfortable situation. With any luck, the person who offended you might come to the realization that what they said was out of turn, and they'll apologize to you or clarify what they meant to say.
See things from their perspective
A kind way of treating an uncomfortable situation is by placing yourself in the other person's shoes to try and see things from their perspective. Many people don't know what to say to someone who's grieving. What comes out of the mouth of someone who's feeling insecure is usually a combination of nerves and discomfort.
Although this doesn't excuse them or make you feel any better about what they say, it does give you some control over how you react to their insensitive comments. Remember, it’s the thought behind the message that truly matters.
Say something funny in return
An excellent way to combat an inappropriate comment is to fire back with a well-placed joke or a bit of humor. Of course, depending on the timing, you may not feel like being funny or witty.
If the situation calls for it, try diffusing it with laughter, even if the humor comes at the offender's expense. A little bit of comic relief from all of the stress of grief might be the best antidote for your suffering. It’s also a reminder to them to choose their words carefully.
Cut people some slack
There are so many things not to say to someone who is grieving that thinking of the ‘right thing’ can cause someone to go into panic mode out of fear of saying something wrong. Life is hard enough without overly stressing about how to best handle sensitive situations.
If you look at things from the perspective that people are generally well-intentioned and don’t mean to be rude with what they say, it’ll make things go much smoother for you and them both. Try not to take things too seriously when you’re already dealing with a tragic situation. Turning a disastrous moment into one that brings humor and a bit of joy to the day may turn your mood around and give you a short reprieve from your grief.
Ignore the offender
One thing you don’t have to do is give away any of your energy defending how someone made you feel with their insensitive comment. You have the power to control how you react to others and what they say.
While no one has the right to make you feel worse than you already do, they also don’t have the power to manipulate your emotions with comments made in poor choice or bad taste. Choosing to ignore the things people say is one way of dealing with insensitive comments and the people who make them.
Handling Insensitive Comments with Grace
Finally, there’s no right way to handle the unease or awkwardness of poorly chosen words in a bereavement situation. Everyone has a different tolerance for how much they can take in addition to the stress that accompanies grief.
When faced with an insensitive comment made by someone offering their condolences, use your best judgment on how you think you should respond at that particular moment. Not only can you help someone understand the power of their words in the future, but you can get the support you need.