What *Not* to Say to a Grieving Person

Updated: May 16, 2019

What is the first thought or reaction you have upon hearing that someone in your second tier circle (a distant family member, friend of a friend, or business colleague) has died?

Your response might depend upon the circumstances. If it’s unexpected as in the case of an accident, maybe you feel shocked or surprised. If a person’s death is due to advanced years or life threatening disease, perhaps your first reaction is sadness or relief.

Death is an event that many of us in American culture handle very poorly. We don’t prepare well for it. We don’t want to talk about it. Further, when we do talk about it, we’re uncomfortable.

Over the years, I’ve lost quite a number of people close to me. Consequently, I’ve thought about this topic often. Having been on the receiving end of several well-meaning, but hurtful, condolences it occurs to me that if there is more discussion around death and grieving, we can be less awkward with each other.

So here is my short list of condolence “Don’ts.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” If you’re a police officer delivering news to a deceased’s loved one, OK. If you’re a friend or acquaintance, just don’t!

This statement coming from anyone other than a bureaucrat sounds incredibly trite and perfunctory. Many people make this statement because they can’t think of anything more original. Be original and try saying, “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”

“You must be relieved that s/he’s no longer in pain.” Seriously?

Please don’t presume to know how a close friend, significant other, spouse, or parent feels upon losing a dear one to illness. Maybe it is a feeling of relief, but that person might also be feeling a whole host of other emotions.

“I know (understand) how you’re feeling.” Excuse me, but you haven’t a clue as to how I’m feeling!

“With time you’ll feel better.” Really? And you know that how?

Recent studies have shown that grief lasts much longer than we previously realized. Not only that, but depending upon the circumstances of a loved one’s death, time doesn’t always make it better.

“You’ll find your ‘new normal’ with time.” I’ll admit this statement personally annoys me.

Numerous well-meaning people said this after my husband died. Every time I heard it, my thought was, “You must be joking! There is nothing normal, new or otherwise, about losing my husband to cancer.”

“S/he is in a better place now.” Again with the assumptions…

Maybe an afterlife is a part of your religion, and that’s great. When expressing condolences to others, err on the side of wisdom. Don’t assume that their religious beliefs are similar to yours.

Bottom line, don’t make assumptions.

You don’t know anything about what a deceased’s loved one is feeling! You may think that you do and you truly don’t.

The most helpful (and obviously memorable) condolence I ever received was after my younger sister was killed. A friend’s mother came to me and said, “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling because I’ve never lost a sibling, but if I can help you in any way please let me know.”

Her condolence was honest, respectful, and genuine. It meant the world to me when I heard it.

The next time, you find yourself offering condolences, think about my friend’s mother. Say something that’s honest and respectful, instead of clichéd and potentially offensive. The grieving loved one will appreciate your effort.

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