What to Say & What Not to Say to People Who Are Grieving
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Updated November 24, 2015
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 Paula Kramer barely knew asked how her husband died she said, “He was shot.” When the man later found out that Paula’s husband had committed suicide, he accused Paula of lying, insisting Paula had originally told him that someone had shot her husband. Saying her husband had been shot was easier than saying he had shot himself to a man Paula did not know well enough to trust with details about the worst day of her life.
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 Paula’s sisters got married, she suddenly started silently sobbing during the service. All of Paula’s relatives saw her sobbing. Paula’s father died the next day. At the funeral days later Paula 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. Paula had been a widow for less than two weeks when one of her friends told her a man he knew was interested in asking her out. Paula’s friend told the man he should ask Paula out because, “What the heck! She’s single!” That friend is no longer in Paula’s life. The man who was interested in Paula 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.
Paula Kramer knew a new widow, a divorced woman, and a married woman. The three women had known each other for decades. Paula met the widow four years before her husband’s death from a long illness. She knew the other women through the new widow.
As a long time widow herself, Paula did her best to prepare the new widow for the aftermath of her husband’s death. Paula one day mentioned to the divorced woman that she planned to call and check up on how the new widow was coping. The divorced woman informed Paula that the married woman was the best person to help the new widow. When Paula 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 Paula 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.
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.
Note About The Example Below
Paula Kramer writes in detail about her family relationships to help other people avoid making the mistake she made. Paula’s mistake was believing she could someday do just the right thing that would please her mother and siblings, convincing them to make Paula feel loved and included.
It was never going to happen.
Paula’s mother and siblings stereotyped Paula negatively. Their negative stereotypes about Paula gave them the ability to create positive stereotypes about themselves. In order for Paula’s mother and siblings to see Paula as she really is, they would also have to see themselves as they really are. They prefer their stereotypes. Paula wasted decades of her life trying to please her mother and siblings when pleasing them was never possible. Paula wants to help other people avoid wasting their lives trying to please family members who will never let go of their stereotypes. She uses examples from her family relationships to get people thinking about their own family relationships.
Paula’s mother was callous, cold, and distant all of Paula’s life. In the last two years of her father’s life, Paula witnessed her mother’s repeated callousness towards her father. Yet Paula wasted another 12 years trying to please her mother before she finally understood that her mother had never loved her and never would love her, no matter what Paula did.
Example For Never Judging A Griever’s Words
One day when Paula was a teenager and alone in the house, she decided to look through her parents’ files. She found their will and read it. Paula’s had father split his money, giving two thirds to his wife and one third to divide between his children. Paula’s father gave his children money any time he could justify it. After Paula’s father died, Paula asked when she would receive her inheritance. Her mother coldly informed Paula she would inherit nothing.
On the surface, Paula’s question sounded callous. But Paula’s mother had tried to kill her and Paula’s siblings treated her like a trespasser in their lives. Paula saw the inheritance her father intended for her as a resource for protecting herself from her mother and siblings. Paula’s mother was the callous one. Paula witnessed her mother bullying her father into doing what she wanted him to do. Paula’s mother gave Paula’s father a big retirement party when he retired at age 65. The retirement didn’t last long. Paula’s mother felt entitled to an annual trip to Europe and told Paula’s father he had to keep paying all of the household bills so her earnings could pay for the trips to Europe.
After her father’s death, it was obvious to Paula that her mother had bullied her father into changing his will. That kind of family dynamic is invisible to observers. People like Paula’s mother are good at creating an image that is the opposite of the truth. When Paula wrote her mother in early 1995 to say she was ending all contact, Paula told her mother 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 Paula’s 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.
© Paula M. Kramer, 2010
All rights reserved.
Last updated April 19, 2017