Monday, January 22, 2018

What to Say (Or Not) to A Person in Grief

[Reviewed and updated November 20, 2023]

Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don't mean much to you, may stick with someone else for a lifetime. ~ 
Rachel Wolchin

When a death is anticipated or when someone we know has died, the words we choose to write or speak to a caregiver or to a person in mourning can carry significant impact and can be remembered for a very long time. The newly bereaved are especially vulnerable and sensitive. Depending on what is said and how it is expressed, our words can be perceived as helpful and comforting, or as unkind, insensitive and hurtful.

If you know someone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of someone dearly loved, here are some Words of Comfort you might safely choose to say:

· I'm sorry.

· I care.

· I love you.

· You are so important to me.

· I want you to know I'm thinking of you.

· I'm here for you, and I will continue to be here for you.

· I wish you comfort, and I hope to be among those you find comforting in the weeks and months ahead.

· I'm praying for you.

· I want to help.

· I'm glad you feel like you can talk to me about __________'s death. I'm here for you and ready to listen whenever you'd like.

· I want to know what happened. Tell me about it.

· I know what I went through when my __________ was dying and it is very painful. What is it like for you?

· I understand your need to cry and I'm okay with it. You can cry in my presence whenever you need to.

· It's okay to feel the way you do.

· Of course you're angry. I'd feel the same way, too.

· It's good to let those tears out.

· I want you to know I loved __________ and I miss him/her ~ but I know my missing can't compare with yours. Tell me what it's like for you.

· I'd like to stay in touch with you; here is my telephone number / email address.

· I understand and respect your need for privacy as you grieve. If you need to be alone, please say so.

· If you need me, I'm ready to receive a phone call from you anytime, day or night.

· I'd like to bring in a meal for your and your family. Would Monday or Tuesday this week work for you?

· I'd like to lend a hand with some of your yard work. How about one day next weekend?

· I'll be glad to take your kids to the park this Saturday morning.

· I'd like to spend an afternoon or evening in your home, so you can get away from your caregiving responsibilities for a little while. Is there a time when you need to be gone?

· I know _________ died 6 months ago / a year ago today and I am thinking of you.

· How are you surviving?

· How has life been different for you since _________ died?

· What do you miss the most?

· When is the worst time for you?

· What do you do with your sadness?

· What helps you during such a difficult time?

· What memories are most special? Most difficult?

· What gift of the heart from this person will you always keep?

· What dates will be most significant for you this year?

· What are some next steps for you now?

· What beliefs or fears are you struggling with?

· I believe that one day you will see the light of day again.

· You may not have any hope right now, but I will hold it for you until you're ready to hold it again on your own.

Be aware of what is not helpful to the person in mourning. DON'T

· Expect your friend to mourn or heal in certain ways or within a certain time frame.

· Deliberately avoid the subject of death, change the subject, or act as if nothing has happened.

· Talk about your own losses, especially early on; this shifts the attention onto you.

· Use judgmental words like "should" and "shouldn't".

· Begin a sentence with the words "At least . . ."

· Offer unsolicited advice.

· Compare one loss with another, or offer judgments about which loss was worse.

· Take it personally if your friend rebuffs your invitations. Try again another day, and realize that grief requires being left alone at times. The mourner needs some time to turn inward, to ponder the deeper meaning of life and death.

· Try to change what your friend is thinking or feeling.

· Talk down to the person, in a patronizing way, as if you are the expert.

· Try to fill up every moment with conversation. Become comfortable with silence.

· Ignore warning signs of self-destructive behavior: alcohol, drugs, depression, suicide. Confront the person directly, or organize an intervention with family and friends.

· Wait for your friend to initiate contact (i.e., call, write or visit).

· Wait until tomorrow or make promises you cannot (or will not) keep. Follow through with whatever you have planned or promised.

· Wait to be asked; this places the burden on the mourner.

· Expect gratitude for your efforts. A person in pain is focused inward and self absorbed, with little room for gratitude. If you offer help, make sure that it is wanted, and don't feel hurt or rejected if it is not.

· Push or expect the mourner to sort through and distribute a loved one's things.

· Take away the mourner's autonomy by doing too much for her or making major decisions that rightfully belong to her.

· Expect the mourner to begin to reenter social life on other than his/her own time frame.

· Try to rescue someone from her regrets; she needs time to sort them out, until she is eventually able to forgive herself.

· Force food on the person if he is not interested in eating.

· Expect the mourner to be "over it" within weeks, months or even years.

· Try to do everything by yourself, or try to fix everything.

Words to Avoid: These overly simple, empty phrases minimize the mourner's feelings, diminish the importance of the one who died, and take away the person's right to mourn: 

· Give it time.

· Keep busy.

· Count your blessings.

· You must be strong now.

· At least she didn't suffer / he's not in pain anymore.

· It's time to put this behind you now, to move on, to let go.

· S/he lived a good, long life.

· Try not to think about it / dwell on it / talk about it.

· This will make you stronger.

· Be thankful you had him as long as you did.

· She wouldn't want you to be so sad.

· Life is for the living.

· It was God's will.

· Everything happens for a reason.

· God never gives you more than you can handle.

· He's in a better place now.

· This is a blessing.

· Now you have an angel in heaven.

· Time heals all wounds.

· I know exactly how you feel.

· You're young; you can have more children.

· Be thankful you have another child / other children.

· Let me know if you need anything, if there's anything I can do.

· You must not / should not feel that way.

· I'm sure you did all you could.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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