Based on my personal and professional experience, I have identified five phrases that should never be spoken to a griever. In fact, they shouldn’t be spoken to anyone. Ever. The top five fall into a category that the Grief Recovery Method refers to as “Intellectually or Spiritually True: Emotionally Unhelpful.” These statements may make logical sense, or might fit in with a religious/spiritual belief, but when delivered within the context of disappointment, sadness, loss, or emotional incompleteness, they can sound insensitive and compound the feelings associated with loss.
Warning: It is likely that you have used each of the top five at some point in your life. And that’s okay. You were probably trying to be supportive and had no idea what else to say. But there is an even greater chance that you have been on the receiving end of the top five during a period of grief and loss. And chances are you were left feeling annoyed, irritated, or disappointed with the person who was trying to make you feel better.
Counting down the top phrases to avoid:
5. Just give it time
There is nothing magical about the passing of time and its ability to help a griever recover from the pain associated with their loss. If anything, the passing of time only permits the griever to perpetuate old, bad habits as they attempt to “get over” the person who has died. Time itself does not have healing power; it’s the actions that you take within that time that will determine your outcome.
4. They are in a better place
This can only be true if the griever has received confirmation that the person who died is, in fact, in a better place. And where or what is this “better place?” The vagueness and generality is overwhelming, at the least. It is also important to understand that the griever may not believe in an afterlife.
3. God only gives you what you can handle
When a friend said this to me, my initial response was, “Then God doesn’t know me very well.” This statement contributes to the myth that if a person is “strong enough” or has “enough” faith, then they should not be adversely affected by the loss. It’s also important to recognize that the loss of a loved one may lead the griever to experience a faith crisis or feelings of isolation or abandonment by God. Using statements that represent and project your faith may be uncomfortable for the recipient, especially when their grief is deepest and most painful.
2. I know how you feel
No, you don’t. You have no idea. How could you possibly know how another human being is feeling? Even if you have experienced a similar type of loss (death of a spouse, death of a parent, etc…), you do not have even a remote understanding of what another person is feeling in relation to their own loss. Each person’s relationship and corresponding loss is unique.
And the #1 phrase to NOT say to a griever (or anyone for that matter) is……
1. Everything happens for a reason
Proposing the idea that the death of a loved one, or any other loss, is part of some universal design and should be accepted as such is completely inconsiderate. This single phrase could be enough to send any griever over the edge, into the deep sea of frustration. No person has the answers as to why certain events occur in our lives, nor does anyone know what the future holds. If you choose to use this phrase, be prepared with an answer when the griever asks, “What is the reason?”
Now that I have discussed the top five phrases NOT to use, I will share some phrases that you can and should use when talking to a griever (or anyone for that matter):
1. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling
Because you can’t. And that’s the truth.
2. I don’t know what to say
Because you don’t. And that’s okay. It’s better to say nothing than to revert to the phrases listed above. Silence can be golden. Filling a space with words is not always useful or helpful.
3. I’m sorry for your loss
Because you are. Grievers are the experts on their loss. They are not looking for advice or lessons from others, especially since the advice usually isn’t helpful or useful. They are looking for someone who can be present and supportive.
And that someone could be YOU.
If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, read more of our articles on grief and grieving.
This article was written for the eFuneral Resource Center by Laura Sefcik, MPH, MSW, LISW, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist.® For many more helpful articles and a series of questions and answers, please visit the Grief Recovery Method®Guidance Center at Tributes.com. For those interested in finding, comparing, and selecting a funeral home, please visit eFuneral.com.
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