What to Say & What Not to Say to People Who Are Grieving
What to say
“I remember a wonderful experience I had with —————–. Let me tell you about it”
“Cry if you need to.”
“What are you having trouble doing?”
“Which bills need to be paid?”
“What needs maintenance?”
What not to say
“Death is for the best.”
“Get over it. Everybody dies.”
“God wanted —————–.”
“God took your mother/father/sibling/loved one away from you because of the way you live your life.”
“Death means nothing.”
“It’s good —————–. died because you never know what could have happened later on.”
“—————– and —————–. got divorced after their child died.”
“You’re in the wrong stage of grief. You should be in the —————– stage of grief.”
“Come back when you’re finished with the anger stage of grief.”
“Your loss is not as bad as —————–‘s loss.”
“Your loss is not as important as —————–‘s loss.”
“You need to get out.”
“It’s time to get married again.”
“You need to find closure.”
“You shouldn’t be feeling this way anymore.”
“When did —————– die?”
“How did —————–die?”
“I wish we could have the old you back!”
Before You Say Or Do Anything
Ask yourself the following questions:
Am I saying this to ease my own discomfort with the other person’s grief?
Am I doing this to ease my own discomfort with the other person’s grief?
Never make decisions for a griever without their express permission to do so. If the griever asks you to make decisions for them, request guidelines for making those decisions.
Never put words into a griever’s mouth. When a man I barely knew asked how my husband died I said, “He was shot.” When the man later found out that my husband had committed suicide, he accused me of lying, insisting I had originally told him that someone had shot my husband. Saying my husband had been shot was easier than saying he had shot himself to a man I did not know well enough to trust with details about the worst day of my life. I no longer talk about my husband’s death.
Never judge a griever for crying or feeling sad in one situation, then laughing or enjoying themselves a short time later in a different situation. Grievers cry or feel sad when they are reminded of their loss. Grievers have the right to both cry and laugh in the same day.
When one of my sisters got married, I suddenly started silently sobbing during the service. Everyone in the church saw me sobbing. My father died the next day. At the funeral days later I laughed and talked and laughed, not wanting to be a spectacle of grief again.
Never fix up a date for a widow or widower unless they have asked you to get them a date. I had been a widow for less than two weeks when one of my friends told her a man he knew was interested in asking me out. My friend told the man he should ask my out because, “What the heck! She’s single!” That friend is no longer in my life. The man who was interested in me had the decency to ignore the friend’s advice.
Never send a gift or card to the griever in the name of the dead person.
Never keep talking about how the dead person might have died after a griever tells you they don’t talk about the death.
Never tell sick or sarcastic jokes about the dead person.
Never decide that someone who has not experienced a certain kind of grief is the best person to help a person newly going through that kind of grief.
I knew a new widow, a divorced woman, and a married woman. The three women had known each other for decades. I met the widow four years before her husband’s death from a long illness. I met the divorced woman and the married woman through the new widow.
As a long time widow myself, I did my best to prepare the new widow for the aftermath of her husband’s death. I one day mentioned to the divorced woman that I planned to call and check up on how the new widow was coping. The divorced woman informed me that the married woman was the best person to help the new widow. When I twice said, “But she’s not a widow”, the divorced woman repeated that the married woman was the best person to help the new widow because they talked everyday. Before her husband’s death, the new widow had complained to me more than once that her married friend had never tried to understand her husband’s illness nor what his failing health meant in their lives. The married woman had no idea how to help the new widow.
Think before you make assumptions. Everyone I know thinks I watched the PBS series Downton Abbey. I did watch it until lead character Mary Crawford became a widow with a baby. Since I had lived as a widow with a baby, I did not need to watch another widow with a baby. Even people who know I was a widow with a baby think I wanted to watch a series about a widow with a baby. After Matthew Crawford died on the series, I never watched another full episode. I occasionally recorded episodes so I could watch the character of Daisy Mason. I fast forwarded through everything else. I want to leave the widow with a baby part of my life buried in my past.
What Grievers Can Do For Themselves
A year after my husband died, someone told me about a group of young widows in the area where I lived. No professional grief counselors were involved. The ages ranged from 21 to 54. We held meetings at each other’s houses. Sometimes the host would bring in a speaker. Mostly, we just sat and talked to each other. It was the most healing experience I ever had. We did not have to explain anything to each other because we already knew. We did not have to justify anything to a grief counselor. We could talk about everything and anything with a shared understanding.
Misperceptions About Grievers
I have been a griever since my husband died in 1979. I still make mistakes about other grievers. I have twice mistaken grief for coldness towards me. I did not know the two grievers had lost loved ones. I made assumptions about their behavior without considering what situations in their lives could be causing the behavior.
I found out the first griever had lost several people in a short period of time from a good friend of the griever’s. I learned about the second griever’s loss from the griever after I made a positive gesture towards them. In responding to my positive gesture, the griever revealed a recent loss.
Luckily, I have a policy of always acting in positive ways towards others. I do talk and write about bad things other people have done to me to help others avoid similar situations. But I do not make negative comments about other people based only on chance meetings in public.
Keep this in mind when someone seems cold to you. Make a positive gesture before deciding someone has intentionally treated you badly.
Note About The Example Below
I write in detail about my family relationships to help other people avoid making the mistake I made. My mistake was believing I could someday do just the right thing that would please my mother and siblings, convincing them to make me feel loved and included.
It was never going to happen.
My mother and siblings stereotyped me negatively. Their negative stereotypes about me gave them the ability to create positive stereotypes about themselves. In order for my mother and siblings to see me as I really am, they would also have to see themselves as they really are. They prefer their stereotypes. I wasted decades of my life trying to please my mother and siblings when pleasing them was never possible. I want to help other people avoid wasting their lives trying to please family members who will never let go of their stereotypes. I use examples from my family relationships to get people thinking about their own family relationships.
My mother was callous, cold, and distant all of my life. In the last two years of her father’s life, I witnessed my mother’s repeated callousness towards my father. Yet I wasted another 12 years trying to please my mother before I finally understood that my mother had never loved me and never would love me, no matter what I did.
Example For Never Judging A Griever’s Words
One day when I was a bored teenager and alone in the house, I decided to look through my parents’ filing cabinet in the den. I found my father’s will and read it. My father had split his money, giving two thirds to my mother and one third to divide between us children. My father gave us money any time he could justify it — birthdays, Christmas, A’s on report cards, etc. After my father died, I asked when I would receive my inheritance. My mother coldly informed me that I would inherit nothing.
On the surface, my question sounded callous. But my mother had tried to had been cold and callous to me and my siblings treated me like a trespasser in their lives. I saw the inheritance my father intended for me as a resource for protecting myself from my mother and siblings. My mother was the callous one. I witnessed her mother bullying my father into doing what she wanted him to do. My mother gave my father a big retirement party when he retired at age 65. The retirement didn’t last long. My mother felt entitled to an annual trip to Europe and told my father he had to keep paying all of the household bills so her earnings could pay for the trips to Europe.
After my father’s death, it was obvious to me that my mother had bullied my father into changing his will. That kind of family dynamic is invisible to observers. People like my other are good at creating an image that is the opposite of the truth. When I wrote her mother in early 1995 to say I was ending all contact, I told her to take her out of the will. No amount of money was worth staying in contact with the woman who had tried to murder her twice.
Remember my story the next time you hear a seemingly callous remark from a griever. You cannot know everything that happens in any family. Stay respectful to everyone and speak respectfully about everyone. Refuse to listen to complaints by saying something positive about the target of the complaints. You are there to support the family during their time of grief. You are not there to solve their family problems or take sides. If necessary, say that to a complaining family member.
For evidence that my mother bullied my father over money, read my June 3, 1993 journal entry on the Murder Secret Families page.
© Paula M. Kramer, 2010
All rights reserved.
Last updated February 15, 2020