Five Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Friend

woman alone swinging on the beach

Humans have evolved quite a lot over the centuries.

While we have various things at our disposal that our ancestors were not privy to, such as access to better health, faster information, and more awareness around mental health, our approach to grief is still relatively misinformed.

This article explores what grief is and what to say (and what not to say) to someone grieving the loss of a loved one.

Reaching out for support.

If you are struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one and need someone to lend a supportive ear, get in touch with one of our specialists who can help.

Grieving process

man with grief crying

Much of the research around bereavement illustrates just how ill-prepared we are when it comes to grief, including our own and others.

Can you imagine how jammed internet search bars are with queries such as “what to say to a grieving friend,” “what not to say,” or, most commonly,” I just lost my dad, and now my friends are all acting weird?”

Once someone close to you dies, it may feel like other people’s vocabulary flies out the window.

That best friend who always knew what to say in times of crisis has somehow left the building, and you, the griever, are left to interpret what all this means while trying to make sense of your new reality without your loved one.

How to talk to a grieving person

Let’s start by saying that most people mean well.

In their endeavor to support a grieving loved one, many people say or do things that they think will help or provide comfort and support.

Unfortunately, most of the sentences uttered by others are either an attempt to “fix” a grieving person or somehow “blue sky” them out of their mourning.

Finding the right words

Let’s be clear – words matter.

People make an entire living out of words alone. Wars begin and end with words. And as some biblical quotes convey, “life and death are in the tongue.”

So if words are that significant, can you imagine how much what you say or don’t say to someone whose life has been obliterated by the death of a loved one matters?

Finding the right words to say to a grieving friend can be tricky.

After all, conflicting information on bereavement is everywhere, on the internet, books, online forums, etc.,

Platitudes

Let’s look at some of the most common sentences you’ll likely hear after the death of a loved one.

In our experience, sentences that begin with “he lived a long life” or “she is in a much better place” are some of the most common; however, they rarely (if ever) help a griever; the opposite is true, they sound (and feel) dismissive.

While some platitudes may have a grain of truth, perhaps your loved one is in a better place, or they did live a happy, long life, essentially, these sentences are intellectual and factual.

They speak to the mind; the problem is, it’s the heart that’s broken.

The things people say

Understanding recovery

“I know how you feel” is another one. But, then, come the comparisons, “I lost my grandmother five years ago, so I know how losing your mother must feel.”

The truth is, no one knows how you feel.

Your relationship with your loved one was unique; the connection you once shared can never be replicated, and you will likely grieve that special bond to varying degrees for the rest of your life.

So, to clarify, no one knows how you truly feel. Knowing what to say to a grieving person can be helpful, and we will cover that shortly.

But first, let’s look at what not to say to someone who’s grieving.

1. “At least they lived a long life.”

This is one of the most used sentences people tend to say to someone grieving.

Again, most people mean well, but for grievers everywhere, let’s unpack this sentence in more detail to establish how helpful (or unhelpful) it is to those mourning.

”At least”.

Let’s begin with the words “at least.”

“At least” conveys that something needs to be rationalised, almost like a takeaway a griever can learn from their loss.

Grief is not always pathological (although it sometimes can be).

It’s not a lesson to be learned, and people rarely want takeaways from the experience of loss; grief is a natural response to loss and cannot be contained or controlled, much less rationalised.

Let’s explore the below sentence:

“Hey, at least they lived a long life!”

There are various connotations in this sentence; for example, if you have lost an elderly parent, you may feel like your grief isn’t that important because your loved one died at ninety-seven.

It implies that although it’s normal for you to feel sad, you should also be grateful that your loved one was around for so long. So, again, there’s a sense of rationalisation going on here.

What needs to be acknowledged is that you have more memories of your loved one because of how long they lived.

And this can have a particular impact on how you grieve and process the loss over time.

2. “You are so strong.”

This statement implies that there’s not much room for your grief – it’s like someone telling you that you can’t break down or fall apart because other people are relying on you to stay strong.

But that’s not all.

“You are so strong” can also sound like a warning to many grievers. 

The translation here is that if a mourner gets too sad, vulnerable, or shares too much about their loss, the other person won’t be able to handle it and won’t stick around to offer support.

3. “He did what he came here to do, and it was his time to go.”

The above is a slightly trickier statement than the rest.

Some people may experience great comfort in knowing that their loved one achieved great things and that it was their time to go.

Others may find this statement downright maddening. 

So what if my loved one did what he came here to do, he still had lots more to do, and now he can’t, which sucks.

Grief recovery experts say that the best way to manage platitudes from others is to hear the intent, not the content.

Although all that is much easier said than done.

4. “There is a reason for everything.”

Perhaps everything does happen for a reason, or maybe it doesn’t.

Either way, this statement is neither here nor there; when emotions are raw and painful, like they are in grief, reason doesn’t come into the equation.

Again, no one wants to hear about lessons or takeaways in grief, but this statement implies that they should.

5. “You’re going to grow from your loss.”

This platitude will likely induce the most rage in grievers, especially those at the acute end of grief.

Losing a loved one can be an excruciating, scary, and confusing experience, to say the least – it can wreak havoc on many aspects of a person’s life, often impairing how they function (or not), as the case may be.

There may be some truth to this statement; in years to come, an individual might grow from the pain of loss, but it’s not something people want to hear, particularly at the beginning.

“You’re going to grow from your loss” may feel like an unwanted lesson the individual did not ask for; the person may also feel like they are being punished for something they did (or didn’t do).

Think about how it would feel if someone said the same thing to you when your heart has just been ripped out of your chest (metaphorically speaking, of course!).

So, what do you say to a grieving person?

Most of the worst things people say to someone grieving are often about fixing, minimising, or putting timelines on a person’s loss.

They are often directive, sometimes even judgmental,” are you seriously not over it? It’s been fifteen years!”

In addition, some of the worst things people say (often unknowingly) aim to rationalise or explain the loss,” she was such a good person; God wanted her to be with him.”

The best approach for supporting those who are grieving

best approach for supporting those who are grieving

Ultimately, grievers want to know you are not going anywhere, that your relationship is safe and that there is nothing they could say or do that could push you away.

Grief breeds more fear of loss. 

For the griever, a chronic trauma occurs, a deep-seated fear that other people will die or leave.

As someone in a supportive role, here are some things you can say to a grieving loved one that may help:

  • I wish I had the right words; just know that I care.
  • Hug them instead of saying something (this is a very powerful one).
  • My favourite memory of your loved one is… (again, powerful, it keeps the person’s loved ones’ memory alive, and talking about happier memories shows you care enough to remember).
  • I know you may not be ready to share anything right now, and that’s okay, but if you ever need to unpack anything at all, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, I’ll be there.
  • You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
  • I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way possible.
  • I am just a phone call away.
  • I am so sorry for your loss.
  • Don’t say a thing; sit with the person.

Most grievers may not always know what they want or need, especially those in early grief.

However, simply knowing that you are there is enough.

Admitting that you can’t make someone’s pain better but will always be there can be highly reassuring to grievers.

According to some grief experts, the best way of supporting a grieving loved one is to take a non-active approach; this involves not telling your loved one what to do or how to feel but making it clear that you care and are sticking around, come what may.

Ultimately, no magic words can make a person’s grief easier or better. But knowing this can be empowering.

What we can do to help those we love is acknowledge the magnitude of their grief and understand that they are still the same person even after their loss.

Centres for Health and Healing 

If you are struggling with losing a loved one, the Centres for Health and Healing team can help.

We acknowledge how challenging it can be to live with the pain of loss and offer a compassionate, safe space for people to process their grief and ultimately find healing.

You are not alone. Speak to a friendly specialist today.

Additional resources

  1. The 10 Best and 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief, Grief.com
  2. 5 Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving (& 5 That Someone Would Love to Hear), Pure Wow, Stephanie Sengwe, January 14, 2022
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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