Grief is exhausting. Part of that is being on the receiving end of comments by other people who have no idea what they are talking about. Though they may be trying to be kind or offer wisdom, their words can be insensitive, rude or even toxic. Sometimes all you can do is walk away. It is not your job to educate them. Yet I would like to try to do that here. If you are the one grieving, you can share this post with them. If you know someone who is grieving, read on.
The overwhelming theme of grief is pain. There is the pain of loneliness and the pain of yearning for and mourning the deceased. When the deceased is young, there is an element of shock too. We think that death is for older people so we are hit even harder when life is “cut short”.
When a spouse dies, pain is also felt in a cascading parade of collateral losses. The social implications are immediate and significant. You lose having someone to share life with, talk to on a daily basis and do social events with as part of a couple. You lose someone who loved your kids as only another parent can love them and someone. You lose someone who helped make home feel like a safe place simply by their presence. You lose everything associated with the future including your dreams, your plans to build something together whether it was a home, a business, a family, or even some unnamed adventure. You lose the person you vacationed with, laughed with, had sex with, shared a meal with…all the joyous parts of life included that person. And now he or she is gone.
I understand these losses. I have also lived through these losses.
Two things made my grief hurt even more. The first was others’ judgement. Judgement of choices involving the amount of time I spent crying, how I expressed my sadness or didn’t express it, whether I went out or stayed home, whether I chose to date or was a recluse…basically anything I did was subject to other people’s opinions as to whether it was good, healthy or appropriate. Judging the wounded is certainly not helpful to them.
The second was when people would repeat some platitude in an attempt to offer comfort. Yes, offering comfort is a good thing but to do it well requires a bit of thoughtfulness. If you want to avoid saying the wrong thing, remember to tread carefully. You are approaching someone with a shattered heart, even if he or she appears to have it together at that moment.
As a general rule you are not in a position to offer wisdom, even if your intent is to be kind. Grieving people hear the platitudes below as dismissive of their feelings, condescending, or just plain rude. While you may say them because you have no idea what to say, may I suggest that it is better to be silent than to say the following things for the reasons I attempt to explain by way of the “inner dialogue” response. I also offer an alternative as to what you might say instead. Then, after the list of platitudes to avoid, I do offer suggestions on helpful things to say.
These Platitudes Are Hurtful to Grieving People
Platitude: He or she is in a better place.
Inner dialogue: You know this? How do you know this? Why is it supposed to make me feel better when I am in a horrible place of grief and loneliness. What if I don’t believe in an afterlife?
What I wish you had said: “With all my heart I wish I could bring your husband back.”
Platitude: You are so strong.
Inner dialogue: Really? Did I have a choice? You might think you are encouraging me but it isn’t working. It feels like you have no idea how much I cry or what it took for me to show up here today. I lay on the floor last night and sobbed till I vomited and almost choked. It feels like you have no idea how much I am hurting.
What I wish you had said: “It must feel like the weight that’s been placed on you is beyond bearable. What is overwhelming you right now? Maybe I can help you with some of it.”
Platitude: He or she isn’t suffering anymore.
Inner dialogue: Yes but I am suffering. Me. The person standing in front of you that you don’t seem to see. I am suffering right now. Please hear, see and acknowledge my pain.
What I wish you had said: “I’m sure you are suffering but you don’t have to be alone unless that’s what you prefer right now. Would you like to meet for coffee? When would it suit you?”
Platitude: You are young. You’ll find somebody else.
Inner dialogue: Perhaps you think you are offering hope. But what you fail to recognize is that I don’t want anybody else. I want my old life back. Suggesting that I will find someone else implies that my loved one is replaceable. You are dismissing my loss.
What I wish you had said: “You are walking the path that no one ever wants. I am so sorry you did not get to grow old with him. My heart hurts for you for this devastating loss.”
Platitude: Everything happens for a reason.
Inner dialogue: This is one of the stupidest and most insensitive things anyone could say. What reason? Even if you can offer a reason it doesn’t stop the pain.
What I wish you had said: “What possible reason could there be for this tragedy? It is beyond understanding how this could happen to you and to him. I am so sorry this happened.”
Platitude: God doesn’t close a door without opening a window.
Inner dialogue: Have you ever truly suffered? If so, would this comment have helped you? Losing a spouse is not some trivial event. I will never look back and be glad the life I planned for was wrenched out of my hands.
What I wish you had said: “You are going through a horrible thing and it’s devastating. Please know that I see your pain and am available if you want to cry, scream or have someone to just sit with you in it.”
Platitude: Time heals all wounds.
Inner dialogue: Do you know this from personal experience with suffering? And how do I get through time until then? What about the ugly scar this has left on my heart? Most people I know who have truly suffered say that the pain is certainly less intense over time but the wound itself will never fully heal.
What I wish you had said: “I know your life will never be the same. I’m here for you whenever you need someone to listen.”
Platitude: I hear the first year is the worst.
Inner dialogue: I’m sorry but that isn’t true for a lot of people. The pain is intense the first year but in my own experience it felt like the second year was worse. The support and tenderness offered the first year diminished significantly the second. Everyone else had moved on and expected me to do likewise.
What I wish you had said: “Please know that I’m with you for the long haul. Whether it’s five months or five years or fifty years, I am willing to help you as you grieve this devastating loss.”
Other Guidelines On What To Say
Given how easy it is to say the wrong thing, I’d like to offer other guidelines on what could be helpful to say to someone who is grieving. Yes it is uncomfortable. Our culture prefers to pretend that grief is not a universal experience. We don’t like to talk about it and we don’t generally know how to approach it. First, your guiding light should be to validate the feelings of the grieving person. Meet them where they are rather than trying to make them feel better by pointing out some supposed silver lining.
If you knew the deceased, talk about him in a positive way. Share a story about him, what you loved about him or what you will miss. Yes the grieving person may cry, but this is not bad. Be present with her in her tears. Witnessed tears offer healing. If it is appropriate, offer a hug or hand to hold.
If you did not know the deceased, express regret that you did not get to meet him.
Acknowledge the loss and the sadness that goes along with it. “I am so sorry to learn of your husband’s death.
“My heart breaks for you. I am so sad for you.”
If you want to offer help, be specific. Instead of asking “Is there anything I can do?” to which the answer will almost always be “No,” think of something that you can do and offer that on a specific time frame. For example:
I’d like to drop off a meal, what day works best for you?
Can I babysit or pet sit for you this week or next?
Do you need help with [name a specific task you can do]? When can I come over to do this?
Would you like to meet for coffee or lunch or go for a walk? Can we pick a date and put it on the calendar?
You might ask if there is a certain time of day that is hardest and if so, can you text, email, or pray for them at that time.
You could say that you realize there are no “right words,” that nothing you say will be adequate. It is more important for you to recognize that your role is simply to be a witness to another’s grief and pain, not to try to fix what cannot be fixed or to cheer up someone who is rightfully mourning for a loved one. “I see your sadness. I know there are no magic words so just know that I care for you and am here to sit with you if you’d like.”
The most important thing you can do in your efforts to help someone in grief, is to offer them support and validation where they are, not try to move them off their grief. They will do so when they are ready, on their own time frame. If you can do this in love, you will be giving them what is truly helpful.