We often do not know how to address people who have recently lost a loved one. Sometimes we use coined phrases that we may have heard others say, but they are not actually helpful. Or we simply may be uncomfortable with the pain ourselves, so we try to shift it away for the griever through words. However, these things do not actually help someone who is hurting. Grief does best when it is experienced. Not sugar coated, not painted into a nice image, not avoided…just experienced. It is only through experiencing the depth of our emotions, that we can eventually welcome a sense of healing. This post is written to highlight some common phrases to generally avoid when addressing someone who recently experienced a loss and also to offer some helpful alternatives.
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
Dr. Earl A. Grollman
5 Common Phrases to Avoid When Someone Dies:
- “They are in a better place.”
This phrase can be very triggering, even for those who believe in heaven or an afterlife. Even if we know the belief system of the person who is grieving, this phrase brushes over the current pain. Brushing over pain is arguably one of the worst things we can do to someone who lost a loved one.
- “It will get better.”
Now is not the time for this. Yes, it most likely will get better. But stating this discredits the current feelings of hurt.
- “There is a reason for everything.”
This phrase is well intentioned, but again, this is not the time to speak of reason. Death just hurts. There is no need to immediately analyze it. Letting the griever have space to feel their emotions rather than subconsciously encouraging them to think through it is much more effective.
- “I know exactly how you feel.”
No you don’t. If you lost a mom, dad, grandpa, sister, or brother too…it does not mean the relationship quality or experience was the exact same. Inversely, this phrase can causes more discomfort for the griever and often it takes away from their personal experience of pain. Instead, something like “loosing a parent is really hard”, helps separate your experience from theirs, all while acknowledging that you have shared in the experience of grief too.
- “They are with my (friend, mom, uncle etc) now.”
That’s a nice thought…sometimes. But these well intentioned phrases often cause more frustration for the griever. Instead of moving the attention to the person being with someone else, know that immediately after a death the griever likely cares more about the fact that their loved one is not with them.
- “I am so sorry. I can only imagine how much you are hurting.”
Expression does not need to be complicated. Simply stating your apologies can be a good and simple way to address a person grieving.
This phrase, along with continuing to check in is powerful. For people close to us, continuing to check in is important because it is not uncommon for people to avoid reaching out. Stating, “I am here for you” and following up every so often demonstrates that you actually are.
- “I wish I knew what to say, just please know I care for you.”
It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. Say that. Avoiding a grieving person because you don’t know what to say can actually produce more harm. Avoidance can perpetuate a griever’s feelings of isolation. Because believe it or not, you are not the only person avoiding them out of confusion on what to say.
- Give a hug.
Sometimes the best way to express condolences is through a hug. Of course, make sure you mentally check in to see if it is appropriate for the relationship you have with the person who is hurting.
- “When can I bring you dinner?”
People usually do not ask for help. Instead of saying, “what can I do?” Insist on helping by bringing food, it’s one less thing for them to worry about.
*It is important to note that of course, there can always be exceptions to these phrases. For more on effective communication, check out 31 Empathetic Statements that Show You Care.
-Written by Emily De La Torre, LMHC