When someone close to you dies, your world is torn apart. As a result, you’re as fragile as tissue paper, feeling as if the slightest breeze might shred you completely. Well-meaning friends may try to console you, but many of them wonder what to say.
“What if I blurt out something stupid?” they wonder. “What if I say something that makes her cry?” I’ll admit that before I experienced grief firsthand, I, too, was at a loss for words. Now that I’ve been on both sides, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for what not to say to a newly grieving person.
1. “Cheer up. Your (loved one who died) wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
After my mom died, people told me that Mom would hate to see me carrying around such pain and that, to honor her memory, I should stop being sad. It’s true that I can’t think of a single time when my mom said to me, “I see that you’re super sad, and I think that’s awesome!”
Sure, Mom liked to see me happy, but for a period of time after she died, I simply couldn’t be happy. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply. Grievers need to be sad in order to get to the other side of grief.
2. “Focus on all the blessings in your life.”
While this message is optimistic and all, it’s not really what a grieving person wants to hear when his world has just been shattered. I mean, I get that it’s better to concentrate on the positive than the negative. Nevertheless, even if a griever appreciates the good things in his life, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s reeling from a monumental loss. Therefore, when someone is newly grieving, he likely won’t feel like yelling from the rooftop, “Hey, look at lucky me!”
3. “She’s/he’s in a better place.”
Yeah, maybe. Heaven is, after all, supposed to be pretty spectacular. But here’s the problem: if my mom is there, she can’t be here. And I want her here. Call me selfish, but I want her here beside me, holding my hand, offering advice, giggling, singing and doing that humming/whistle thing that only she could do.
And although I do believe that I’ll be reunited with Mom in Heaven, unfortunately that reunion requires that I die first. I have to say, that bums me out.
4. “It’s been awhile since he/she died. It’s time you get over it.”
You know how a week zips by in the blink of an eye for you whereas a week, from a toddler’s perspective, feels like an eternity? That’s kind of how grief time works. It’s skewed. A grieving person can look at a calendar and see that “X” amount of time has passed since their loved one died, but time is irrelevant when it comes to healing a broken heart.
You can’t put a timetable on grief, and if you struggle to comprehend that notion, well, then clearly you have not yet mourned the death of someone close. When you do, you’ll understand and then feel ridiculous for ever having suggested that anyone should hurry up and “get over” losing someone special.
5. “Cherish all of the wonderful memories. They will bring you peace.”
I think this statement is true, in time. But the last thing a newly grieving person wants to hear is to cherish the memories. When their heart is hurting and their mind is spinning and their faith is broken, thinking about old memories guts them because the only thing they want to do is create new memories, which they can no longer do.
6. “Pull yourself together because you need to be there for your kids.”
Grief, in its initial stages, is the emotional equivalent to having major surgery. The person is fragile and needs to heal. Following surgery, health care professionals will advise the patient to take it easy and focus on herself. No one would expect the patient to hop down off of the operating table after undergoing heart surgery so that she can fix her kids dinner. So please don’t make a grieving parent feel even worse by suggesting that she’s neglecting her children due to her grief. That’s just cruel.
Grief affects every aspect of someone’s physical and emotional health. It interferes with one’s ability to sleep, eat, concentrate, and function. Therefore, no one has the right to ask another person to swallow her pain in order to focus on others. Doing so only prolongs grief.
Kristi Smith, author of Dream: A Guide to Grieving Gracefully, says that transformation comes from first taking care of oneself. “Choose to help yourself, so that you can then turn around and help others,” says Smith. It’s kind of like the oxygen mask rule in airplanes: ensure your own breath before assisting those around you.
7. “So, how ’bout them Broncos?”
Though it may seem like you’re doing the griever a favor by keeping conversations at a superficial level, what grievers need is someone who is willing to let them be real. They need someone who isn’t afraid to talk about the tough stuff. The sad stuff. The human stuff. They need someone who will sit and listen and maybe even cry with them. This isn’t to say that you must never discuss sports or the weather. Just try to keep in mind that real healing comes from some of the heavier conversations.
8. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”
I would encourage you to do just that. Stop and think about how you would feel if you were faced with the griever’s circumstances. Consider their feelings. Contemplate their pain. Imagine their struggle. Doing so will spark empathy in you. And empathy is the best thing you can offer someone who is hurting because when you empathize, the right words come more freely.
Note: Look for the upcoming companion piece to this article titled “The Six Best Things You Can Say to Someone Who is Grieving.”
Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s award-winning book Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat. Visit her author website at Christyheitger-ewing.com/.