The Best Things and the Worst Things
Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, but I do believe that most people are sincere and mean well. However, good-hearted or benevolent intent is no deterrent from the risk of saying something stupid.
We have all been guilty of offering clichés. We do so because they make US feel better. Such platitudes often say more about OUR discomfort than about helping. They try to make sense of or rationalize things like death, loss and grief, because in such situations, all of us would like to be able to “FIX” the situation or at least make it better.
Unfortunately, many comments can appear to minimize the loss if they suggest that the person should just accept the situation because somehow it “makes sense.” Sadly, it doesn’t make sense to THEM.
Comments evoke responses, some positive, others negative or even angry. Yet, even when something is said that is less than helpful, more often than not, the grieving person decides not to respond. They just smile benignly, swallow hard and try not to let it bother them. But it does!
But in this information age, I am not sure that is good enough anymore. What follows is a list of the worst things to say to a grieving person, and my explanation of why I believe the comment, however well intended, is not helpful, or even hurtful.
The 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief:
“At least he lived a good long life, many people die young!”
It doesn’t matter how long a person lives, when they die, it is always too soon for the person who cared about them and misses them. It is certainly difficult to lose someone who is young. But the 90 year old who has been married to their spouse for 60 years feels that the death is the worst thing that could happen, at the worst time, in the worst possible way. The worst kind of loss is always YOURS. Find a way to validate the difficulty of the loss, rather than trying to find ways to make it “meaningful”, or even “a good thing”. It doesn’t feel like that to the grieving person.
- “She is in a better place!”
This cliché hurts. Of course we want to believe that our loved ones are in a better place, and that they are OK and happy. However, this statement is often of little comfort even when we have faith and believe in a life hereafter. Because we feel we are NOT in a better place. In fact, this is a rotten place to be and we don’t like it. We want our loved one back here with us, in THIS place. That’s how we feel, and an acknowledgement of that will be much more helpful.
- “He brought this on himself.”
When someone dies, we often try to find a cause, because that helps us to rationalize the WHY of the situation. But even if someone did smoke, eat or push themselves into a life threatening situation, this comment is not going to help. The grieving person will then find ways to blame themselves for not preventing what happened. Sometimes there is no meaning to tragedies, and even if there is, we don’t always know what the reason is, so there is no need to point it out.
“There is a reason for everything.”
I’m not sure there is a reason for everything in life. But even if there is, the grieving person isn’t going to see that right now. The motive behind this comment is simple: we rationalize that IF there is a reason, then that would make the situation meaningful rather than arbitrary. But we can’t bring meaning to a situation that simply doesn’t make any sense to the person. By trying to apply logic and provide answers, you may actually be trying to meet your OWN needs at the expense of the grieving person.
“Aren’t you over it yet, it’s been three months already.”
Ah yes, the old “three months and you’ll be over it” syndrome. This is the biggest fallacy about grief, because there is no one neat orderly time frame. People mistakenly think that in 3 months (or whatever interval) you will get “back to normal.” But for the grieving person, everything is different. It is taking them time … often longer than people who haven’t been through it seem to think … to discover and to feel comfortable with their new definition of normality. You will be more supportive if you encourage them to be patient, even when their time frame is not what you or others expect.
- “You’re young; you can still have another child.”
This is the cruelest things we can say to a parent who has lost a child. The comment is intended to say, “It’s OK. Everything will work out fine.” But it is NOT OK to that Mum. Sometimes we have to let people go through the pain. Sure she may have other children. But how many others does she have to have before she forgets THIS one? Sometimes there is no meaning and no answers, and we must resist the temptation to try to provide what does not exist.
“She was such a good person; God wanted her to be with Him.”
To the grieving heart the response to this comment is: “Yes she was a good person, but I wanted her here with ME.” I refuse to believe in a God who takes people away from us because He “needed another good person in heaven.” Are you kidding? Besides, the older I get, the more I might wonder why God hasn’t wanted ME with Him yet!! (although to some, the answer may be obvious!!!)
- “I know how you feel.”
No you don’t! Nobody knows how anyone else feels, and when we try to suggest we do, that somehow minimizes the grieving person’s experience. It is much better to say, “I can’t begin to imagine how difficult this must be for you; TELL me how you feel.
“She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go.”
Hopefully there is a pattern emerging here in all these comments. This one is another attempt to try to bring meaning to a situation we don’t understand. And the problem with the statement is that even if this life was well lived and fulfilled; yes and even if “there is a time to be born and a time to die”; nonetheless, for the grieving person, it happened too soon.
To be honest, while there may be some merit in encouraging people to be strong, the difficulty is that they don’t FEEL that way. In fact, they feel weak when they are emotional, or not appearing to be doing as well as people think they should. So perhaps it would be more helpful and better understood if we assured them that we know they ARE strong even though they may not feel it right now. Let them know however that you recognize that they are hurt and wounded; but you accept that and want them to know you are willing to walk with them as long as it takes to find themselves again.
The 10 Best Things to Say to Someone in Grief
- I am so sorry for your loss
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can
4. You will be in my thoughts and prayers
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
6. I am always just a phone call away
7. Tell me what you miss most about them
- We all need help at times like this; I am here for you
9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything
10. Best of all: Say nothing, just be with the person and let your caring presence do the talking
So, to accentuate the positive for well-intentioned caregivers:
- Be supportive, but don’t try to “fix it”. Recognize that the person has had loss, and try to understand how that has changed their world.
- Acknowledge and validate the person’s feelings. Never say, “You mustn’t feel …” but rather try to find out HOW they are feeling and why.
- Rather than telling someone what to do, ask what they want or need to do, and offer to do it WITH them. This will empower them to do things for themselves, albeit with your help.
- Continue to be supportive throughout the process, recognizing that is not a period of time like 3 months, but being there in the difficult moments, significant days like birthdays, anniversaries and such, especially when others have faded from the scene, that will make all the difference.
But that usually takes a while.