Here are 5 things NOT to say to someone who is grieving:
- The house is too big for you now. Figuring out what to do with a loved one’s "stuff" after they’ve died is hard enough. Clean it out right away or keep it for awhile? There’s no right answer. So a friend or family member telling the griever that perhaps THEY should consider moving may not be welcomed at all. The bereaved are already faced with so many decisions and so much paperwork, they may not feel at all ready to add anything else to that list. And let’s face it, moving to a new house can be exhausting under the best of circumstances. Also, while some may find it hard to be in the place where their loved one no longer is, the prospect of moving to a place they’ve never been may be even harder. So, is the house too big? Maybe. Is it too much for the griever to handle on their own? Perhaps. But if they’re not ready to make the move at the moment, it’s a decision that every person around them needs to respect. A better idea would be for friends and family to offer help with things like the yard or general maintenance of the house, as a way of helping the griever.
- Do you think you’ll get married again? Prior to working with the bereaved, if you asked me “what do people commonly say to a person who has recently lost a spouse?” I would never put this on the list. Because who would say this to someone? Um, a lot of people. In fact so many widows and widowers tell me that friends and family can’t help but ask this question in some form or another. Are you dating again? Are you going out to meet people? I wrote about this recently and the response was clear: this is a very personal topic and people feel very strongly one way or the other. Regardless of which “side” the griever is on, it’s just not something they want out there for general discussion or casual conversation. If the griever brings it up fine. Otherwise, don’t ask.
- You were so lucky to have him/her for the time you did. Most likely it will be the adult child of an older parent who will hear this, but not always. Bottom line, no amount of time is enough time with the people we love. And feel free to tell the people who say this just that.
- He/she is in a better place now. Really? Because I think the best place is for them to be here with me. Overall this is a pretty desperate statement, something someone says when they really have no idea what else to say. The problem is that it feels so wrong to the griever. Not to mention the religious implications that go along with it. We can’t make assumptions about a person’s belief system, and even if we know what their faith is, we don’t know if this loss is causing the griever to question that faith a bit. Even if the griever and the one saying it do share a belief in a better place, it may still be hard for the griever to accept their loved one being there.
- I know how you feel. This may be the hardest of all. Because, yes, this is a genuine attempt to relate which is all we can try to do with one another. And this may not be so bad if you’ve lost a spouse and the person you’re talking to has also lost a spouse. Still, grief is unique, just as each griever is unique, and every situation from one person to the next is just so different. Even within our own family, and even when we think we understand and we can relate, we can never truly know how a person actually feels. A better thing here would be to say, “I can only imagine how you feel”. In so many ways the same sentiment, yet a wholly different approach in trying to connect.
The real issue with the above statements is that they can leave the bereaved feeling disconnected and misunderstood. When that happens to me, when I’m struggling with someone who has hurt or offended or upset me in some way, I try and break it down to one simple question, “did they intend to upset/hurt/offend me?”. Because to me, intention is everything.
I believe in the goodness of people and I think for most people their intention is to try and help. The trouble is, they just don’t know what to say. They’re lost, confused, scared. This grieving person in front of them is a puzzle they don’t know how to solve, and they’ll try anything to make it less awkward. Yes, this results in more awkwardness a lot of the time. And let’s face it, a quick awkwardness may be the best case scenario. Because this lack of understanding, and this not knowing how to comfort someone who is bereaved can result in something so much worse. It can leave a griever feeling misunderstood, isolated and alone.
Still, when thinking about the person who says or does the wrong thing – what was their intention? And if you can’t say or believe they intended to help or do good, then we can at least ask ourselves, “did they intend to do harm?”. Usually this one is easier to answer.
Because no matter how hurtful or misguided or simply wrong a person may have been at an attempt to say something to the griever, in almost every case I would guess they did not intend to make the griever feel worse. And if I’m wrong, I would always prefer to error on the side of believing in the goodness in people.
This information is important because while it shouldn’t be the griever’s job to be open-minded and accepting of those around them it certainly makes it easier if we can find the space to do that.
Forgiving those who don’t understand, for what they just can’t understand, is one way to connect to those around us. It’s part of the personal and even spiritual growth that a griever can experience through their loss. Forgiving the people who don’t know any better, and simply say the wrong thing because of it can help decrease our isolation and in the end… make us feel less alone.