Months after my sister passed away, I met up with a woman who had lost her son. The first thing she said to me was, “I think grief is the loneliest journey there is.” She was right. And that’s exactly why writing this is so difficult...and so important.
Let's face it, grief is hard. But it can be made even harder when people (even well-meaning people) say sh*tty things. Unfortunately, I think a lot of society's go-to grief responses need to be seriously revamped. So, below I've outlined the top 10 sh*tty things we need to stop saying immediately, 2 things that aren't exactly hurtful but aren't particularly helpful either, and 5 things people who are grieving just might want to hear.
These are the sh*ttiest things to say.
This is a bathroom from a restaurant in Barcelona. I don't remember the name, but it involved pirates.
1. “They’re in a better place.”
This is, by far, one of the most common (and most hated) things that grieving people hear. Like many comments on this list, saying someone's loved one "is in a better place" is like reshaping a pile of poop into a wedge and calling it a slice of cake. No. Cake-shaped poop is still poop. Also, some people just simply don't believe in the existence of an afterlife. And there are few things less comforting than being told you should take comfort in something you don't believe exists.
2. “They’re not suffering anymore.”
This comment is particularly infuriating when the person who passed away was not suffering to begin with. For example, my sister had special needs and passed suddenly and completely unexpectedly. While she was developmentally much younger than her age, she was happy, loved, and far from suffering. Every time someone told us that “at least she’s not suffering anymore” (which happened a LOT) we had to muster all the strength we didn’t have to keep from strangling them with our bare hands. And even if someone was suffering prior to their death, it's not like reminding their loved ones of this will somehow lessen their grief. It won’t.
3. “It was their time/God’s plan.”
Really? And what exactly qualifies you to make that assessment? Oh, right. Nothing. I have never quite understood why people think this comment would be helpful. But it's not.
4. “Everything happens for a reason.”
This one makes me so angry I can barely come up with a coherent response. Listen. Sometimes in life horrible things happen. Horrible, tragic things. And we try to find meaning in them, because otherwise we would feel completely helpless and paralyzed. We dig deep to find strength within ourselves in order to cope with and survive unimaginable pain. Because humans are incredibly resilient. But saying "everything happens for a reason" feels like a cruel attempt to get a grieving person to feel grateful for their loss, because it taught them some life lesson or showed them how strong they could be. No. Just no.
5. "At least __________________."
This phrase is maddening because it is another attempt to create a poop-cake (see #1) or put a positive spin on something that is not spinnable . There are endless examples of these types of comments: “At least you had the time you did with him/her.” “At least they didn’t suffer.” “At least they’re not suffering anymore.” “At least you can have more kids.” “At least you can remarry.” Please, just stop. Force-feeding someone a silver lining is never a good idea, particularly when the thing you're insisting on putting a silver lining around is the death of a human being.
6. “What are you going to do with their clothes, room, etc?”
A: None of your gd business.
But, seriously. We had people asking us about what we planned to do with my sister’s room practically 24 hours after her sudden passing. Truth is that people choose to do all kinds of things with their loved one’s belongings and space. And none of it is right or wrong. And there’s no correct time table. So, stop asking your friend about it. It's rude. And hurtful.
7. “You should __________________.”
Please stop telling grieving people what they should do or how they should feel. “You should feel grateful that you had that time with him/her.” “You should keep busy.” “You should see a counselor.” “You shouldn’t feel angry/guilty/disappointed about that.” “You shouldn’t look at it that way.” “You should really get out of the house more.” It is normal when we see those we care about suffering to want to help them. However, instructing them on how you think they should feel or behave is not helpful. At all.
8. "They wouldn't want you to be so sad."
Oh, great. So on top of grieving the loss of my loved one, now I also have to feel guilty that my grief is hurting (or would hurt/upset) the person I lost? This is a mind-F of epic proportions. Please don’t put this on your friends (or yourself).
9. “It’ll get easier/better.”
It is hard to explain why this comment can feel so jarring and unhelpful. I think it is because grief and love are so interconnected. I remember a grad school professor once said that “the greatest evidence of love is grief.” So, "it'll get easier" can sound a lot like: “Don’t worry. One day you’ll be totally fine with the fact that your loved one is not here! Horray!” Not only is that not true, but for many people who are in the depths of grief, imagining that one day their grief will lessen is not actually a comforting thought.
10. “You're going to have to move on.”
Not only is this comment problematic because it falls into the same category as #7, but it’s also sh*tty all on its own. The phrase “move on” communicates the idea of putting something (or someone) ‘behind you.’ Think about it. Someone says, “You were reprimanded by your boss last week? You have to move on!” What’s the message there? Something bad (and usually fairly insignificant) happened, but it’s over now. So, the best thing to do is to stop thinking about or feeling upset by it. Telling someone who is grieving that they need to “move on” can feel very much like being told to “get over” their feelings or forget about their loss and, in turn, forget about their loved one.
These are only slightly better.
1. "Call if you need anything."/"How can I help?"
Like most, these comments come from a good place. You want your friend to know that you’re there if they need you. However, the truth is that when they need support, they’re probably not going to call (for all kinds of reasons). And they very likely have no idea what you could do to help. So, it’s better to take the initiative. If it’s around the time of the service, ask if there’s something they realized they need that you could bring/pick up. If it’s been a couple weeks, call or text them and ask if they would be up for getting some coffee or fresh air. And give them day/time options. Maybe they’ll take you up on your offer. Maybe they won’t. But they’ll appreciate that you didn’t wait for them to reach out to you.
2. “I know how you feel.”
This also comes from a good place. You want your friend to understand that they are not alone. And maybe you've experienced a similar loss. However, it's important to remember that each loss is unique. And each person processes grief differently. So, don’t assume that you know exactly how your friend feels or what they’re going through.
These may actually be helpful.
***Disclaimer: Below are the comments that my family and I generally found to be the most kind, respectful, and comforting. However, it’s important to note that not every single person who is grieving will find comfort in the same words.
1. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
Sometimes the simplest response is the best one, or at least the safest. However, I would still be careful. Shortening this to "sorry" or even “sorry for your loss” can come across as flippant, particularly in writing. You’re not saying, “Sorry you stubbed your toe.” Remember you’re talking about someone losing a person they love dearly, so your words should reflect the weight of that.
2. “I can’t begin to imagine how painful this must be.”
Even if you have been through your own tragedies and losses, this communicates that you understand your friend is going through something incredibly painful, while not presuming to fully understand exactly how they’re feeling.
3. “I don’t even know what to say.”/"There aren’t any words.”
There is absolutely nothing that you (or anyone) can say that will take your friend’s grief away. Acknowledging that can really validate their feelings and honor the magnitude of their loss and the love they have for the person who passed. My mom has said repeatedly that the best thing anyone said to her when we lost my sister was, “There aren’t any words” because, as she said, “there wasn’t.”
4. *Say their loved one’s name.
In my opinion, there is no simpler or more powerful way to acknowledge and honor those who have passed away than to say their name. Hearing people refer to my sister by name (even casually) fills my heart in a way I can't describe. Every single time.
5. Share memories/photos/videos...or ask them to share.
This can be a mixed bag for people. Some people cannot look at photos or videos , because they are too painful. However, I (personally) found that hearing people tell stories or share photos/videos of my sister was THE single most comforting thing anyone could do. Even friends who never met my sister shared things that reminded them of her (based on stories I had told). I think this meant so much because when you lose someone, their absence is agonizing. And it can almost feel like they disappeared and that (to the world) they suddenly don’t or didn’t exist. Both sharing and hearing stories about her remind me of how loved she is and helps ease my fear that she will be forgotten.
Again, there is absolutely nothing you can say that will take away your friend’s grief. When it comes to showing support, it is far more important to be present and listen than it is to try and say some magic words that don't exist. Let them know that you care and show them that you are there for them. And remember that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m not sure if you want to talk about it today, but I’m here to listen.”
No one is perfect. But we can all try to do better. Because grief is hard (and lonely) enough.