If you struggle to know what to say to someone who is grieving, you’re not alone. Death has a way of making even the most eloquent of us feel tongue-tied and unsure, and sometimes that results in our words sounding insensitive—exactly what you don’t want to happen when offering condolences.
“The majority of people do speak out of the goodness of their heart, but sometimes they say the wrong thing,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist based in Chicago.
But whatever you do, make sure you say something. Lombardo points out that on the other end of the spectrum are people who don’t know what to say, so they simply stay quiet. “That’s not the right approach either, because the person who’s grieving may think, ‘This is the hardest time of my life, and they’re not here for me.’”
If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to say that. “Tell them ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry for your loss. How can I be of support to you?’” says Lombardo.
Here, six phrases you shouldn’t say to someone who has just suffered a loss—and what to say instead.
1. “They’re in a better place now”
If someone you loved died, maybe being able to imagine them in a happier place would help you feel a little better. But you shouldn’t express this sentiment to someone else who is grieving because it’s entirely possible that they’re not ready to look at it in this way yet (or ever). “A person who is grieving may hear that as, ‘It’s a good thing they’re dead,’” says Lombardo.
Instead, Lombardo recommends letting the person who’s grieving be the one to say “I’m glad because I know Aunt Rose is in a better place,” if that’s where they are emotionally—but don’t say it to them first.
2. “At least you knew he was dying”
One of Lombardo’s patients had a brother with a terminal illness who suffered a long, drawn-out death. After he died, someone (shockingly) remarked to her, “What are you so sad about? You knew he was dying.”
Obviously, that wasn’t the right thing to say in the situation. But even toned-down versions of this statement can come across as insensitive. While the knowledge that someone you love is dying can give you an opportunity to say goodbye, it doesn’t numb the pain of losing them or make coping with the loss any easier.
3. “Let me know what I can do to help”
It’s great to offer general help to someone who’s grieving, but they most likely won’t take you up on it. Instead, tell them exactly what you can do. “Lots of people make vague promises, but I think it really helps if you be very specific about what you have in mind,” says Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, a professor of gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.
For example, if a woman’s husband has died and she has young children, offer to bring her family dinner on a busy weeknight or shuttle her kids to and from after-school activities. “Say, ‘If you ever need somebody to take Lucy to cheer practice, I’m that person; you can always call me.’”
One of Doka’s patients told him that as she was leaving her husband’s funeral, an older widow who lived up the street took her hand and pressed something into it. “She said, ‘Honey, there are nights when you don’t want to be alone. Here’s a key to my house, come on up and we’ll have coffee and talk,’” Doka recalls. The woman only had a casual relationship with the widow previously, but the heartfelt, tangible gesture stood out to her.
4. “Time will heal”
This is a common phrase people say after a death. “It may be true and good advice,” says Lombardo. “But at the time when these emotions are raw, someone who’s grieving may hear, ‘I don’t understand or respect how painful this is for you.’”
5. “You must feel awful”
Instead of telling someone who’s grieving how they should feel, ask them how they’re feeling. “When they answer, be non-judgmental,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City and author of Your Next Big Thing. Grief is complex, he explains, and not everyone has an “expected” reaction to a death; they may feel a variety of messy emotions including anger, guilt, or relief.
6. Any sentence that starts with “Look on the bright side…” or “At least…”
It’s human instinct to want to make someone who is hurting feel better. But when it comes to grief, it’s better to accept that nothing you say to a grieving person is going to do that. “Nothing you can say can take away the pain,” says Doka. “You should simply validate that pain.”
What you can do: Convey your sorrow. Tell them how sorry you are for their loss, and let them know that you’ll be there to support them in their time of grief.
“One of the things that I like to do is ask the person about their loved one who died,” says Lombardo. “I’ll say, ‘Tell me a little bit about them.’ Or if you knew them yourself, you can share some funny stories, like ‘One of the things I always loved about your dad…’ This can help bring not positivity, but love to the other person.”
This article originally appeared on Samada.com, a new website offering end-of-life planning, resources, and support.
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