Saying the Wrong Thing to a Grieving Person, Part 2

I blogged last week about people saying “the wrong thing” to someone who is grieving and promised to circle back to that topic this week. By “wrong things,” I mean something that makes the grieving person feel worse rather than better. It might be something that makes the grieving person feel judged or misunderstood or it might make them feel more alone or isolated. Last week I focused on people asking questions or bringing up topics that are triggers for someone grieving. This week I want to focus on the types of questions or comments people say that make grieving folks think, “They should know better than to say that to a grieving person!”

As I touched on last week, as a grieving person, I often don’t know that something is going to upset me, so it’s difficult for me, in the moments when I’m thinking clearly, to really be upset with someone else for saying the “wrong thing.” Part of the problem is that grief can make those moments of clear thought few and far between. I also recognize that I have said the “wrong thing” to people many times.

Further complicating all this is that some of the people who have said the “wrong thing” to me are people who I know to be kind, thoughtful people. Here are some examples of things I consider to be the “wrong things” to say to a grieving person:

  • “You’re not over it yet?”
  •  “Oh, are you still sad?”
  • “But it’s been X days/weeks/months/years, shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
  • “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too.”
  • [Upon noticing you’ve lost weight because grief killed your appetite] “I’m jealous that you’ve lost weight.”
  • “You’ll find someone else.”
  • Anything that begins with “at least,” as in “at least he’s no longer in pain” or “at least you still have one parent left” or “at least you got to see him before he died.”

It can be easy to see these “wrong things” as tone deaf, callous, malicious, rude, and even cruel. But I think there are some other possibilities. For example, when someone says “You’re not over it yet?,” they could mean

  • I have been so lucky in my life that I’ve never lost anyone important and I honestly have no idea how grief works, what it feels like, or how long it takes.
  • When I lost someone important to me, other people said this to me, so I thought it was a normal thing to say.
  • I care about you and it makes me feel helpless when I see you in so much pain. I wish you were no longer in pain. When will your pain end?
  • I’m having a tough day and now, on top of everything else, I have to be compassionate toward you. I’m experiencing compassion fatigue.

When someone says “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too,” it’s easy for a grieving person to feel frustrated or even invisible. They might think, “You don’t know how I feel! I am not you. What you felt when you lost your loved one is entirely differently from how I feel!” Or they might think that your loss of a father is nothing like their loss of a sister. And these things might be true. After all, as I’ve said many times on this blog, every grieving experience is different. I know, for example, that my experience of losing my mother has been very different from losing my husband. But I can avoid feeling angry at the person who says “I know how you feel. I lost someone I loved, too” by giving them the benefit of the doubt. They could mean

  • I want you to feel less alone and if I tell you I have also felt grief, maybe you will feel less alone.
  • I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I do know that you feel very sad and I know how sad I felt when my loved one died.

Once I started consciously giving people the benefit of the doubt, it became much easier to respond without anger in the face of people saying “wrong things.” Here is what has been working for me:  

  • I treat questions like “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?” and “Oh, are you still sad?” as authentic questions. Someone asked me a few weeks ago when I thought I would be over my husband’s death and I said, “Gosh, I don’t think I’ll ever be over it. I hope I’ll be able to move forward at some point, but today is a tough day. Thanks for your concern.” It’s not the most graceful response, but it’s honest and treating the question as an authentic inquiry rather than a judgment helped me see the person asking as curious rather than disapproving.
  • I remember how many “wrong things” I myself said before I started really paying attention to grief when my husband died—and even after my husband died because I defaulted to speaking without carefully thinking about what I was saying. I have said “wrong things” to my husband’s brother and mother, both of whom are grieving as powerfully as I am. They gave me the benefit of the doubt, attributing genuine concern to me, which I appreciate—and although I did say the “wrong things,” my intentions were good. I am trying to extend that same grace to others.

Here are some pointers for folks wanting to know how to avoid saying “wrong things”:  

  • If you ask questions, try beginning with “what.” What do you need, what do you feel, what are you feeling, what can I do, what do you want, what do you miss? Yes/no questions almost always come across as trick questions. “Are you still sad?” seems to imply that the person should not still be sad. “Shouldn’t you be feeling better by now?” seems to imply that the person should be feeling better now. Rephrasing those questions to begin with “what” makes them “What can I do to help you in your sadness?” and “What do you need to feel better now?” (Note that the grieving person may say “I just want to feel sad now” or “There is nothing that will make me feel better now.” Those are fine answers and answers I have given to similar questions.)
  • Don’t give advice unless asked to. You might say, “I have experience with this and would like to share what I learned, if that’s ok.” Then if they say no, keep it to yourself.
  • Skip any compliments on how you think the grieving person is handling their situation. This includes remarking on weight loss. Focus on offering support, not appraising their response to grief or their body.
  • Any comment that includes the phrase “at least” is best not made. These comments minimize the loss and are examples of toxic positivity. As uncomfortable as you may be seeing someone else sad, feeling sad in the face of loss is completely normal and healthy.