How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick

Case histories to learn from and live by

What Not to Say to Grieving Friends

The Dos -- and mostly Don'ts -- for relating to mourners.

"Sick at heart"
When Jane Bevans’ 24-year-old husband Brad died, her mother told her to redecorate her apartment in white, presumably to attract a new husband. She also advised Jane to become a flight attendant on an international airline so she could meet a good marriage prospect like Aristotle Onassis. (Jane reminded her mother that Onassis wasn’t flying commercial airlines; he had his own jet.)  An aunt of Jane’s had a different but equally astonishing reaction to Brad’s death: "Here's $100. Go buy yourself something nice."

Whenever I write about how to be a friend to a friend who’s sick, my definition of illness also includes people who are “sick at heart,” and foremost in that category are those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. 

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Many people who’ve experienced mourning have told me stories similar to Jane’s -- incredible anecdotes about friends’ and relatives’ insensitive responses, flat-footed expressions of sympathy and bungled attempts to console.

Here’s are some examples of what NOT to say to the following categories of mourners:

  • To a friend whose parent has died: “Think of it this way; your dad won’t be a burden.”  Or, “You were always complaining about your mom anyway.”
  • To a grieving spouse: “It was worse for my cousin; she was married longer than you were.”  Or, “There are other fish in the sea; don’t worry, you’ll meet someone.”  Or, “When you’re ready, I have someone to introduce you to.” 
  • To a parent who’s lost a child: “God must have wanted him.”  Or, “Thank heavens you have two other kids.”  Or, “It’s been a year now; don’t you think it’s time you reached closure?” 

My own mother died when I was fifteen and I still remember the ordeal of listening to some people’s crass or unfeeling reactions. My best advice about how to relate to mourners comes from that long-ago experience:

“Practice active empathy. Do not say to a grieving friend what you would not want to hear if you were in the same tragic place.”

As always, I wish you good health and great friendships.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and past president of The Authors Guild, is an award-winning journalist, speaker, activist, and author of ten books.

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