Grief and death are not subjects we like to talk about in the United States despite the fact that we will all die someday and we will all lose someone we love. It should be a common conversation because very little else in this life is so common. We won’t all graduate from college, get married, have babies or retire one day, but grief and death are certain regardless of your background or status.

So we should all know what to say to the grieving, right?

If you have lost someone close to you, then you know most people just don’t know what to say so they go for the standard platitudes or try to make you feel better somehow. As well-meaning as people may be, these attempts often do more harm than good.

In an effort give people some ideas on how to truly help the grieving, this is a list of what not to do. Full confession, I have said all of these things and I have had them all said to me, we’re human, but if we don’t start to examine how we treat grief, we will never learn how to do better.

  1. Never start a sentence with “At least…” It may be an effort to look on the bright side of someone’s passing, for instance, they are not suffering anymore, they lived a long life, etc., but these statements really only invalidate the pain that someone is feeling. It is the same as saying, you shouldn’t feel sad about your grandma dying. When someone is grieving, it is so important for them to really feel whatever emotions that come up for them. Those emotions may make you uncomfortable, but it isn’t about you. This isn’t the time to offer advice and grievers don’t expect you to say the magic words that will make everything okay. It just isn’t possible.
  2. Comparing your losses to theirs. Everyone grieves differently and if you have lost someone before you may be tempted to compare your loss to someone else’s. This is very likely not going to be helpful because the loss may not be the same. I mean if you both lost your father in tractor accidents, then sure, you may be able to relate, but if you lost a pet or a distant acquaintance, don’t try to draw similarities to someone who just lost a child or a spouse. All grief is as unique as we are as people.
  3. Being generic with your words. “I’m sorry for your loss,” is the standard American response when we hear someone is grieving. It’s like a catchall for when you just don’t know what to say. The problem is that millions of people do say it and eventually it becomes white noise to the griever. Like when someone says “Have a nice day!” or “How are you?” It may not even sink in to the griever anymore; it just may get a nod and a thank you. What can be more helpful is to be specific, “I’m sorry that Jan died.” Using the deceased’s name and the word “died” gives a signal to the griever that you are okay talking about it. You can handle talking about the person that died and that may be what they need.
  4. Avoiding the loss or the griever. When you don’t know what to say or feel uncomfortable being around someone when they are emotional, your first instinct may be to avoid the subject of the loss or to avoid the griever altogether. This can be incredibly painful to the griever because it may lead them to believe that you don’t care about them and their loss. Let them know that it is safe for them to express their feelings and that it’s okay to talk about their loved one. This will help the griever more than anything you could ever do for them.
  5. Making it all about you. If you have a story to share about how the deceased person touched your life, please share it, but if the story is more about you, then save it for another time. Like the warning about comparing your grief to someone else’s, talking about your feelings of loss to the griever can put them in the position of comforting you.

What should you say to a griever?

You should be there as a witness to their grief. They need to express their feelings and thoughts in a safe environment where you are focused on them. Anything that invalidates their feelings or actions, will cause more harm than good. You don’t need to give advice or make it better. You don’t even need to say anything, just be fully present with them.

If being around someone that’s grieving is uncomfortable to you, it may be time to ask yourself why that is. Is there a grief in your past they you haven’t fully processed? Are you afraid of what will happen to you when you become the griever? This may be your wake up call to learn how to help those that are grieving, so you can learn what may help you when it is your turn to grieve.

Grief eventually visits us all, but we can support each other by coming to it with the intention of just being there for each other. No casseroles or flowers required.