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What Not to Say to Someone Acutely Grieving

Caring words may not always be received as intended.

Key points

  • It's natural to want to express one's condolences when a loved one has suffered a major loss.
  • People in acute grief are especially vulnerable and may be very private or open to interacting with others about the details.
  • Though the expression of sorrow may be sincere, one's personal beliefs may not be shared by the acutely bereaved.
  • Being present and simply expressing sorrow for the person's loss is usually well-received.

It is kind and generous of spirit to want to let someone who is acutely grieving know that you are thinking about them and offer your condolences for their loss. Perhaps that may be all one can say without making assumptions or using language that might be offensive; I'll get to that.

Humans are wired to have empathy, even when their own personal experiences might be different. When it comes to acknowledging your sorrow at hearing the news of a death, it is important to remember that sometimes "less is more."

Clearly, this will vary with the nature of your relationship with the deceased and the survivor. Loss is a universal experience, and thinking about what you would feel comfortable hearing may not be the best guide for what to say to others. Comforting an acutely grieving person may feel awkward, and it may be enough to simply be present and not feel like words are always necessary.

I am writing both from professional experience and from a personal perspective of loss throughout my life. Most recently, a few years ago, my husband of almost four decades passed away. And as a psychotherapist, I have counseled people in acute grief, some of whom have had comments made that troubled them. Personally, I have always accepted the condolences, truly believing they are given from a place of love. However, some well-intentioned comments may be uninformed and even hurtful to the bereaved, whose emotions are tender.

Here are some condolences culled from my own and others' experiences that may illustrate the care needed, even in kindness. I will list the comments and some reasons why it might be helpful to reflect on how such a comment might be experienced by the aggrieved. I will add how the survivor might feel and think about the comment without saying anything out loud.

1. "I am sorry to hear about (insert name). (He, she, they) are in a "better place."

I know this comment is intended to ease the pain, especially if the death was drawn out and painful. But I think: Where is that place? Is there a better place than still being alive with me? Do you have an address? Are visitors allowed?

2. "I am sorry to hear about (insert name). God doesn't give us anything we can't handle."

Two thoughts from my patients who have heard this: "Easy for you to speak for God," and "What if you don't believe God exists, and you are not sure you can handle it?" At the beginning of grieving, it can feel like it is just too much, as your world has been turned upside-down, and you cannot find your way through to the next moment.

3. I am sorry to hear you lost your (husband, wife, etc.).

Again, the words we use are important: We suffer a loss, but we did not lose them. My experience at one point (perhaps exaggerated as a former English teacher) was my internal response: "I did not lose my husband; he died. You lose a 4-year-old child who wanders off at the mall. Did I lose my husband to the guy in black with no face carrying that big sickle?" [I'm fairly sure I never actually said that out loud, and I hope I didn't.]

4. "I am sorry to hear about (insert name). Are you OK?"

Not sure how anyone knows how to answer that without simply being polite with a "yes," even when the survivor might feel like their entire world has just crashed around them, and they are feeling powerful emotions of sadness, fear, etc. Perhaps it would be better simply to say, "I'm here if I can be helpful."

I could go on, but the point really is just to express sorry at hearing what happened and, if you know the person well, if there is anything you can do to help in a practical way. What I have heard from some survivors is that they do not necessarily want people to rush in to hug them. Instead, wait until the bereaved person responds with a thank you or until they reach out for a hand or a hug first.

Acute grief makes us all emotionally vulnerable. Some losses are more complicated when there is ambivalence or even relief with the death. Experience tells me to keep it simple. Express your sorrow for hearing about (insert name), assume nothing, and expect nothing. An honest, warm, and simple expression of caring is usually safe and welcomed. Being a gentle member of the survivor's caring community is a powerful support in times of even the greatest loss. Sometimes, less is more.

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