4 Things NOT to Say to a Grieving Loved One

Updated

Grief is part of the human experience, but it can make us feel unsure when trying to comfort someone. You want to make your loved one feel better, not worse. It’s enough to keep you from saying anything at all.

That’s understandable, but your silence can unintentionally send the wrong message as well. Keeping quiet can prevent you from connecting, leaving the other person in isolation longer. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

In this guide, you’ll learn things not to say to a grieving loved one, what to say instead, and how to approach your conversation. With a little help, you’ll have more confidence giving comfort and giving support. 

Things to Avoid Saying to Someone Who’s Grieving 

You’ll have a moment where you’ll want to say something helpful to your loved one. But it’s easy to get tongue-tied or say something awkward. You may say something insensitive without realizing it.

Here are a few of the most common unhelpful comments you may have heard when talking about grief and loss. You’ll also learn why these comments don’t help and get something better to say instead. 

1. “Don’t cry, you need to be strong.” 

When you tell someone to be strong, you’re telling them how to feel. This comment is more about how comfortable you are with emotional expression than it is about the other person. Your comment casts a judgment on their feelings.

If you don’t know what to do when someone is really emotional, that’s fine. But if you feel tempted to tell someone to bottle up their feelings because it makes you anxious, take a step back. Their grief is about them, not you. 

What you can say instead: “How are you feeling today?” “Whatever you’re feeling is OK.”

These messages are more open and inviting. One moment your loved one may need to cry, another they may need to laugh. Both emotions are normal and OK. A grieving person is vulnerable and somewhat adrift as they adjust. Acceptance promotes freedom as they heal. 

2. “Just try to focus on the good memories.”

This is somewhat like telling a person how to feel. When you feel uncomfortable with someone else’s sorrow, you may believe that reminding them to think positively will help them feel better. It’s often a well-intended comment but doesn’t help in the end, especially when figuring out what to say when someone dies.

Staying positive is a nice goal when you’re feeling discouraged about something. Grief is much more complex than that. It can involve regret, pain, laughter, fear, loneliness, and many things in between. Thinking about just the good memories suggests that the uncomfortable ones aren’t part of the story.

What you can say instead: “Tell me about a memory of your loved one that means a lot to you.”

A grieving person often has many memories rolling through their mind. So talking about them can be a good way to process the change. Instead of telling them what to think about, ask them what means the most. This puts them in the driver’s seat, allowing them to pick one that doesn’t fit into a category.

You never know what they’ll choose, and their answer today could be different next week. Ask them to share, but honor their choice.

3. “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Many people saying this probably think they are giving comfort, indicating that the grieving person will be able to handle whatever comes. However, this statement makes several assumptions. First, it suggests that God is handing out difficult things to people. It can make them wonder why they got chosen to receive something so painful. How do you know how difficult their grief is? 

Second, this comment assumes that the grieving person will handle everything that comes their way. The truth is that not everyone can manage the weight of grief on their own. It can develop in unexpected ways as time passes.

A person who seems functional at the funeral may develop panic attacks or have complicated ongoing grief months later. If they don’t handle it well, what does that say about them?

What you can say instead: “I’m here for you no matter what.”

This statement avoids the tricky task of trying to define God’s intention or how the other person may react. Instead, it simply states that you are there for support. Whether they feel OK one day and a mess the next, you are there. You avoid placing a judgment on their situation, offering only compassion.

4. “If there’s anything I can do, just call me.”

This statement is so easy to say and it sounds like the ideal type of support. But a grieving person is unlikely to take you up on this. Why? Because they are swimming in a sea of emotions and adjustment. It’s taking up all their brainpower just to get dressed in the morning and go about their day.

Strange as it may sound, the act of reaching out can seem too difficult. Instead of getting support, they may freeze up. They may make assumptions like these:

  • “Suzi’s probably busy doing something, I don’t want to be a bother.” 
  • “I’m just making a big deal out of nothing.” 
  • “I need something, but I don’t know what.”

What you can say instead: “I’m bringing over supper next Wednesday. Do you want chicken or beef?”

You know life isn’t normal, so make a specific offer. Pick something they probably need help with and make a specific offer. Give them two choices so they don’t have to think too hard in the moment.

And if they say, “Oh we have food covered for a while, thank you,” that’s a chance to come up with something different. Even if you don’t settle on something right then, the conversation has been opened. 

Take the initiative to figure something out. But even so, your loved one is more likely to come up with an idea because they know you are serious about doing something specific. Follow up soon, don’t let too much time go by. At some point, they’ll run out of food offers or they’ll have chores and errands to do. Keep following up and you’ll find some way to help out. 

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Quick Tips for Talking to a Grieving Loved One

Spending time with a grieving person is one of the most loving things you can do for them. So now that you’re with them, what do you do? How do you handle tough moments? These quick tips will give you some guidance and a few helpful ideas.

Just saying “I’m sorry” can be enough

You don’t have to say flowery words or try to guess what they’re feeling. We want to make grief simple and straightforward so it’s easier to understand. But the truth is often more complex than we’re comfortable with. Deep emotions can be hard to put into words, so sometimes the simpler message is easier to share and recognize.

With grief, it’s best to keep things simple and honest. “I’m sorry for your loss,” may sound like a cliché, but it is enough in many situations

Resist the temptation to tell stories about yourself

Compassion is so important when talking with a grieving person. But sometimes we misinterpret this and end up oversharing our own experiences. And grief can make us feel awkward and our words sound clunky. We want to be relatable, but oversharing makes it more about you than them.

It can be more comfortable to hear ourselves tell our own stories about grief than to listen, especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. It’s understandable, but not all that helpful.

If you feel like sharing stories, consider ones that focus on the deceased person. Share something heartwarming, funny, or meaningful that you believe your loved one will enjoy. Make your conversations about their experience.

Let them talk at their own pace

When someone is sharing their thoughts and feelings about grief, their pace may not be what you expect. If they tell long stories or follow lots of tangents, that’s their narrative. They may not be comfortable talking about certain topics. Or they may not know how to express certain thoughts or feelings.  

You may be tempted to ask questions and guide the conversation, but try to resist this. It shouldn’t sound like a police interview where you’re pressing for details. Invite them to share more if you’re curious, but ultimately let them take the conversation where they want it to go. 

Silence is OK

You may not have any idea what to say in some moments, and maybe your loved one won’t either. This is totally normal and common, but it might make you squirmy. It’s so easy to fill up the silence with chatter and platitudes. Meaningless comments about life and death can make a grieving person feel like they aren’t being heard. 

Silence is part of grief sometimes. And when you don’t have words to say, that’s when your simple presence can mean so much. So when you’re tempted to talk just to make sound, say more by staying next to them in silence.

Be available again in the future

Grief goes on for much longer than just the weeks surrounding the funeral. And for many people, the process of unfolding their emotions can take months or years. To truly be supportive to your loved one, make yourself available again and again in the future. 

Think of grief as a bunch of thin layers on top of each other like the skin of an onion. As time passes, it may take a while to peel off every layer. And the grief looks a little different at each place. They are on a journey, and you can help them through it by joining them frequently.

Supportive Words for a Grieving Loved One 

It’s hard to watch a loved one struggle with grief. It’s easy to unintentionally give the wrong message because you aren’t sure what to say. Take heart that you don’t have to say anything amazing or special to show you care. Just keep it simple and stay connected.


Sources:

  1. “Helping Others Cope With Grief.” Federal Occupational Health, 2001, foh.psc.gov/nycu/copingtips.pdf
  2. Michigan.gov. “How to Say I’m Sorry to Those Who Grieve.” State of Michigan, www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcs/How_to_Say_Im_Sorry_Grief_617763_7.pdf
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