As a grief counselor and someone who has lost far too many people that I love, I have some tangible insight into the mind of a grieving person. Grief leaves people feeling utterly shattered by their loss. Many times, the loss is layered with the circumstances in which they lost someone. The lingering memories of a long cancer battle. The traumatizing memories of a car accident or an act of violence or the shock of losing someone in an instant, for no apparent reason. Grief has layers and layers of pain that survivors have to process.
If you are someone who hasn’t experienced loss first-hand it is natural to ask yourself “How can I help someone who is grieving”? It’s a loving thought and an important one to explore. Many are surprised to learn that the majority of my clients report that one of the hardest parts of grief is the isolation they feel not just from the loss but from the awkwardness they feel from the closest people in their lives. They feel they have crossed over an imaginary line that separates them from people, their people. Trust me, they can sense your fear and confusion as to what to say. They are also easily stung by some of the things you do say.
So if we know we need to choose our words carefully and at the same time treat the person as the same person we know and love, where do we begin?
What Not to Say
- I know how you feel. While this statement may seem empathetic it can leave someone feeling like you are putting yourself in their shoes. Everyone experiences grief in their own way. Rather than saying I know how you feel try “ This loss is so painful, if you want to talk about how you’re feeling or just cry, I’m here.”
- They are in a better place. This is one of the most common statements made to someone who has suffered a loss. While we hope the deceased is in a better place the fact is, they are no longer here and never will be again.
- You need to just__________ This one is fill in the blank. We want to solve, we want people to distract themselves from their pain. You need to keep busy, you need to make a scrapbook of your memories, the list goes on and on. Instead of “you need” offer up permission to not do anything. Take all the time you need, take it minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. I will be here for you.
- They lived a good life. Great, they lived a good life, but I want them here with me. This is what your friend or loved one thinks when you offer this up. There is a misconception that if someone loses someone who has lived longer than say seventy-five, they should be thankful they had them for so long or thankful their loved one lived such a good, long life. The truth is, this loss can be even harder because this person has lived their entire life with the person they lost in it. They are grappling with how to live life without someone who was a constant. Rather than they lived a good life, try “I know what a huge loss this is, it’s going to take time to wrap your head around it, I’m here.”
- I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say. This statement is incredibly hard to absorb. While well-intentioned, it puts the grieving individual in a position of trying to find the right words for you. Instead of I’m sorry or I don’t know what to say try “My heart is breaking for you and I’m here for you”.
If you are reading this, it means you care enough to try and understand how to bring comfort to someone you love. Here is a fact, you will not say all the right things. You are hurting because they are hurting. There is no perfect thing to say. The best thing you can say in as many variations as possible is “I’m here for you”. Walking beside someone in their pain may mean no words at all. It may mean meals delivered, flowers dropped off or an invitation for a hike. It is being there for them even when it’s uncomfortable for you.