Sticky Bonds

Lost Loves, Romances, and Families in the 21st Century.

Visting a Mourner? What Not to Say

Some Words of Condolence Are More Helpful Than Others

 My mother died just a few weeks ago. If you've lost a parent, too, you know how hard this is to go through.

She had many friends and they call or visit me, to comfort me. It's wonderful to see these people; they are very kind. But I find that some condolence words are more helpful, for me, than others.

Some condolence sayings that I found to be grating may be beneficial to other mourners. But as I talk to others who have grieved and been consoled, there are some phrases that stood out as "not helpful." Only some of these were said to me.

I make an assumption that the person who takes the time to visit or say something really wants to be helpful. For that reason, I wrote this post: maybe it can benefit the loving visitor and the mourner.

Examples of what not to say:

• "How are you?"

They're not doing well, so what can they say to this?

• "Are you feeling better?"

Probably not. But they may feel a need to say they are, to make you feel better. 

• "At least you have closure now."

There is no closure, ever. The mourner may feel as if you are saying that they are grieving too long. Each person goes through recovery at his or her own pace, but a death in the family will be felt as a deep loss forever.

• "At least she's not suffering anymore."

Don't assume someone suffered and was "ready to go," even if the person was ill on and off. My mom wasn't suffering. She loved life to the end.

• "She/He is in a better place."

Not everyone believes in an afterlife. Know the beliefs of the mourner before you try this as a comforting statement. And even for those who do believe in an afterlife, it may not help to think the loved one is in a better place. They grieve because they lost a parent and will never see him or her again. That's sad! 

• "What will you do now?"

Mourners have no idea. They are just trying to cope with their sorrow and everything they may have to do to settle the business of the loved one (like emptying a home). 

• "How old was he/she?"

This seems to imply that it's okay that the loved one died, because they were of a certain age; it can sound insensitive. Certainly when an old person dies, it is not tragic (as it would be if a child died). But for the son or daughter who loved the parent, there could never be enough time.

• "At least she/he lived a long life."

As above, this is beside the point. It does not console the void that the person is mourning.

• "I know how you feel."

You really don't. Each person feels a unique loss.But, if you lost a parent, too, then talk about how you felt then and how you coped, or didn't. That's helpful.

Lightly touching the mourner's arm or shoulder is comforting; but ask before hugging.

• "Let's talk about happier things."

No, let's not. This is not a time for a chat to "catch up," or to distract the mourner. In fact, your visit can be completely silent. If the mourner does not feel like talking, that's okay. You are there to comfort them, not to engage them in a conversation.

Please don't avoid speaking about the person who passed. Talking about your good memories of that person and how nice they were is a comfort to the mourner. And it's okay if the mourner cries; they are in mourning.

• "Can I do anything for you?"

Most people will just say no. They don't want to bother you, and they may not know what they need anyway.

• "Call me if you need something."

As above, most people will not want to bother you. If you sincerely want to help, look around and see if you see anything you can do right now, and ask if you can do that. Dishes in the sink you can wash? Take out the garbage? Make coffee or tea for the mourner (the mourner should not be catering to you)?

Or, ask if you can help by walking dog; feeding the cat; taking children to appointments watering plants and lawn; going to the store or post office. If they have their parent's apartment to empty, maybe you could offer to go with them; just being with them when they have to go into their parent's home is comforting.

Also helpful: bring real food, not cookies. The mourner may not be eating well because they are too emotionally drained to cook.

But cut flowers... not so good; they die fast and that's depressing to someone who is grieving.

You won't want to stay too long. Grieving is tiring, and the person needs some time to be alone.   

 

To those of you who are mourners like me, I am sorry for your loss and offer my condolences.

 

 

Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the California State University, Sacramento. She is the author of Lost & Found Lovers.

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