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What Not to Say to a Grieving Friend

Last October, my good friend Brendan lost her husband of 48 years. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer so the family had time to make the most of his final six months. I remember having a conversation with her husband, Tic, several months before he passed away. He told me he wasn’t afraid to die, but he was sad that he would never get to see his two grandchildren grow up or meet the unborn children of his two younger children.

A few days after Tic passed away, I brought Brendan a children’s book, My Yellow Balloon, to share with her two young grandchildren. Brendan immediately opened the book and read it out loud to my husband and me who were sitting on either side of her. It was the most poignant moment to watch her turn the pages of this beautifully illustrated book and listen to her resonant voice reading the story of a little boy who loses his treasured balloon.

Author Tiffany Papageorge wrote My Yellow Balloon to provide parents, teachers, and counselors with a simple, yet powerful story that can start a conversation about loss. In her presentations to educators, grief counselors, and parents, she has witnessed first-hand the incredible release of emotions people have when they read her book. She explains that loss happens in incremental steps and as we go through the recovery process, we build the “muscles” to deal with bigger losses.

Knowing what to say to a person who is grieving can be difficult. We often feel at a loss for words or want to try and make the person feel better. In the July/August issue of GRAND Magazine, Karen Rancourt, author of Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II, offers some helpful suggestions for what to say to a grieving widow/er.

What Not to Say to a Grieving Person

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 800,000 spouses are widowed each year. Although family members and friends may be well intentioned, widow/ers report that about 85% of what is said during their initial grief is not helpful. Often what you say to someone who’s grieving is not what they hear. Here are some common examples of the cliches that people say and how they’re heard by the person who’s grieving:

  • “You need to move on” may be heard as “You’ve been upset for too long.” When a grieving person hears that, she may think, “That’s easy for you to say. This isn’t your loss.” Putting a timeline on grief is nearly impossible and unnecessary.
  • “They’re in a better place” may be heard as “They’re better off without you.” The grieving person knows in her heart there’s no better place for her loved one than with her.
  • “How are you doing since … you know” may be heard as “I’m afraid to say his name because I don’t want you to lose it.” Losing a loved one is a HUGE part of someone’s life, and avoiding the subject will only make it worse. It’s OK to talk about it, and it’s OK to break down over it. It’s all part of the process.
  • “I know how you feel” may be heard as “I assume all grief is the same.” Although this is meant to be comforting, every experience of loss is different, so no one truly knows how you feel.
  • “You are never given more than you can handle” may be heard as “You should have no problem handling this.” In the aftermath of a loss, chances are we’re doing the best we can just to get out of bed most days, so hearing that we should be able to handle this with no problem will only make us feel like we’re handling it wrong.
  • “They are no longer in pain” may be heard as “You are being selfish for wishing they were still here.” No matter the situation surrounding a loss, knowing your loved one is no longer in pain is a very small comfort in a time of grief.
  • “Let me know if you need anything” may be heard as “You’re not going to hear from me in a while.” If you want to help someone who is grieving, try doing something for them unprompted — like bringing over food, picking up their home, or taking their dog for a walk. It will mean a great deal.
  • “They wouldn’t want you to be sad” may be heard as “You’re not handling this correctly.” Chances are, if you’ve lost a loved one, you’re already feeling guilt in some form. Letting someone know that their loved one wouldn’t want them to feel exactly what they are feeling could only make it worse.
  • “This too shall pass” may be heard as “You have a time limit on grieving for your loved one.” Being told that you won’t always hurt so much for your loved one isn’t necessarily a comfort. You don’t want to hear you will move past them, even if you will.
  • “At least you had the time you did with them” may be heard as “You’re being ungrateful.” You are, of course, thankful for the time you had with them, but you should be allowed to grieve for the time you’re going to miss — especially when so many others have time left with their loved ones.

Helpful Words to Offer a Grieving Friend

It’s not easy to know the right thing to say when talking to a grieving friend. Sometimes the less said the better because the person just wants to know you are there for her. Often the grieving person would like to talk about the person she lost and giving her that opportunity can be a relief. Here are some suggestions for helpful things to say:

  • Would you like to talk about your loved one?
  • How about a hug?
  • I’m sorry for your loss.
  • I can’t imagine what you’re feeling.
  • I’m here to listen if you feel like talking.
  • Would you like some help with calling friends?
  • I’m going shopping today; can I pick up anything for you?

The most important thing to remember when helping a grieving friend is to just be there. Don’t be afraid of silence. Hold your friend’s hand or put your arm around her shoulder. Offer a tissue or suggest going for a walk. Let them lead the conversation. Often the best gift you can give a person is to listen without interrupting.

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