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How to Avoid Saying the Wrong Thing to Someone Grieving

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJuly 11, 2019

Many years ago when my wife and I lost our first two pregnancies less than six months apart, a friend of ours reassured us that “everything happens for a reason.” I was furious. While I knew she meant it to be helpful, I found the remark deeply uncomforting. Rather than acknowledging our grief, her comment seemed to dismiss it.

You’ve probably been on both sides of this dynamic. When faced with another person’s grief, you want to be comforting, but you worry that you’ll say “the wrong thing” and inadvertently make it worse. When faced with your own grief, you may have been told things that were unhelpful, or even upsetting.

My patients who have suffered a loss often share with me the less-than-helpful comments they hear in response to their grief, which I’m including below. Please don’t feel bad if you’ve said some of these things. We’ve all missed the boat at times in our efforts to be helpful. I believe that behind nearly all of these responses is a genuine desire to be supportive.

  • They’re in a better place.
  • At least they’re not suffering anymore.
  • Time will heal this.
  • You’ll feel better if you _____ [fill in the blank].
  • This too shall pass.
  • You’re lucky you had 36 years with your dad.
  • I’m surprised you’re still so upset about this. 
  • Everything happens for a reason. (my personal pet peeve)
  • They’re together now. (in response to a person’s parents dying close together in time)
  • Why are you upset? You weren’t even his. (after the passing of the person’s dad, who was not her biological father)
  • Your parents dying is a blessing in disguise -- you won’t have to watch them grow old and feeble.
  • It doesn’t get easier. (referring to the person’s own loss 40 years earlier)

The common theme in most of these statements is an attempt to tell the person it’s not as bad as they think it is. And while the comments were meant to be comforting, they more likely felt invalidating, as though the person shouldn’t feel the way they do.

The thing is, many of these statements may be true. The person may no longer be in pain. They did have a long, full life. With time, the pain of grief may ease. But when we’re dealing with a loss, we’re not asking people to tell us something true about life –- we want to be met where we are, just as we are.

So what is helpful? Thankfully, it’s very simple.

  • Show up. The most important thing is to be present. Your continued presence may be especially appreciated after the acute period of loss and grief, after some time has passed, when most people have returned to life as usual but the pain remains for the one who is grieving.
  • Express your care and concern. You can use whatever words feel natural for you -- you don’t have to follow any prescribed phrasing. Just let the person know you’re with them and you care about them.
  • Acknowledge and validate their feelings. More than anything, we need the space to feel what we feel when we’re grieving. Any response that tries to point out a silver lining is likely to feel like a rejection of the person’s feelings, as though they’re “grieving wrong.” You can validate their experience even if you know their perspective will change over time -- the passage of time has a power that words lack. 
  • Be aware of your own feelings about loss. Most of us have our own feelings about death and other forms of loss, and if we’re not aware of them, they can color our interactions with the grieving person in unhelpful ways. When you recognize your own “stuff,” you can focus more directly on the other person.
  • Listen. Offer a listening ear if the person wants to talk. You probably don’t have to say much, and you certainly aren’t expected to “solve” their grief. Just having someone they can express their thoughts and feelings to can be an invaluable part of healing. Or you might even sit in silence with them.

You never know the difference you might make in a person’s life by meeting them in their grief. I’ll always remember the kind words from one of my in-laws after our pregnancy losses. She probably had no idea at the time that it would still mean so much to me more than a decade later, but we remember the people who were there for us when we were hurting.

More than anything, remember to let yourself be imperfect. It’s easy after reading articles like this to feel like there’s a “right way” to comfort those who are grieving, and to think you have to be really careful so you don’t “mess up.” On the contrary, more often our efforts to “get it right” can be part of the problem.

Instead, be with the person just as you are, focusing on presence over perfection. Imagine the spirit in which you would want this person to meet you if you were the one hurting, and then meet them in that way.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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