Death and thus grief are universal experiences we will all face, and yet that does not make the topics any more comfortable to discuss.
When a friend, family member, or even acquaintance has lost someone important to them, it can be difficult to know what to say. You don’t want to make them more upset and you don’t want to say the wrong thing, so people often wind up saying nothing at all. Below are 5 things to avoid saying to someone who is grieving a death and some ideas of what to say instead.
“Wow, it’s already been 6 months!”
Six months (or even a year) can seem like a very long time to someone who is not grieving. But in the life of someone experiencing grief, 6 months into the grief journey is just the beginning. At around 6 months, the finality of death is often just starting to sink in, so pointing out that it has already been 6 months can feel like you expect the person to have moved on or be doing better than they are. Instead, try switching just 1 word out; try saying, “it’s only been 6 months.” This lets the person know that you understand that grief is a long journey and they can take as long as they need.
“You are so strong”
People might seem like they are doing well on the outside, but they may be feeling something very different internally. Saying “you are so strong” is usually meant as a compliment but can make people feel pressured to continue staying strong. Instead try saying, “I can see that there are moments of strength and resiliency, but I’m here for you in difficult times too if you would like to talk.” This lets someone know that you are aware there is more beyond the surface and are open to talking about it.
“You have to stay strong for (the kids, your partner, your mother, etc.)”
This sentiment implies that it is weak to show emotion in front of others who may be grieving the same loss (such as that person’s child, parent or partner). But it has been shown that it is healthy to model appropriate displays of emotion such as showing your children that it is ok to cry or talk about the deceased. Instead of encouraging someone to stay strong for others, you may want to say something such as, “your son/daughter is lucky to have you to help remember their mother/father” or “I’m glad you have ______ to grieve with.”
“I know exactly what you’re going through”
When you have experienced a similar death, it is natural to identify with another going through something similar. But the truth is, there are many factors that impact the way we grieve: who we lost, how they died, what the relationship was like, financial concerns, the other relationships in our lives, etc. Saying you know exactly how someone feels does not leave much room for that person to tell you about their unique loss. Instead try saying something like, “I have also experienced loss so I understand the enormity of it, but I understand that everyone grieves differently and I am here if you want to talk about how this experience has been for you.”
The bottom line is that death and grief are difficult subjects to talk about. It is natural to want to avoid talking about something that is sad, painful and scary. However, I have found that it is always better to say something rather than nothing. And it’s ok to acknowledge your discomfort. You might try saying something like, “I don’t know what to say but I’m here for you” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I am here if you’d like to tell me” or a simple “I’m sorry this happened.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Curiale is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist (AMFT) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In her words, “I strive to create a nonjudgmental, safe space for clients.”Learn More + Book an Appointment With Samantha