Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking

When There is Nothing to Say

Comforting the grieving

Posted Jan 08, 2017

Purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon
Source: Purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon

Recently, my niece died. Being enmeshed in the emotions surrounding death is like being caught in a rainstorm in many ways.


When death occurs, people commonly say, “God has a reason for everything.” Of course, God has a reason for everything, if you believe in God. However, you wouldn’t tell someone stranded in a hard rain that God has a reason for rain. You would hand them an umbrella or a towel, not a cliché. So, how is saying this useful for someone who is grieving, and why do we do it?

We do it because unlike rain, grief’s umbrellas and towels are abstruse, contextual and personal. Finding that towel or umbrella for a friend caught in a deluge of sorrow is difficult at best, if possible at all. Different people need different things, but nobody needs that cliché. It is probably more useful to ask, “What can I do?”  “How can I help?”

purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon
Source: purchased by UCLA from Shutterstock for Dr. Gordon

People also say, “she or he is in a better place.” If you are trying to console someone who is mourning a loss, often, an intrinsic reality is more palatable than a consensual reality like religious doctrine. No matter how much you believe in one of the theories of what lies beyond the grave, or how tightly those beliefs tether to your religion, they are still just beliefs—no matter how many people believe it. Presenting your beliefs as absolute truths is presumptuous and risks offending the grieving person.

After all, how do you know the deceased is in a better place? Did you get a text from them, or did they tweet it? So, you don’t know this; you just believe this. When people are grieving, your beliefs are only vital to you. 

Purchased from Shutterstock by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: Purchased from Shutterstock by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

Or another one–“ She or he was so good; God needed to call him or her home.” If God were this needy, S/He  wouldn’t be God, S/He would be a cat person, who needs to get a puppy. Statements like this are curious, not comforting.   

Also, telling someone to “be strong.” Exactly what is strong when you are grieving the loss of a loved one? Grieving is a type of suffering, and suffering occurs in the human mind, so it is culturally driven, and contextualized by the family.[1]  Hence, when someone is grieving, they need to be however they need to be. They need to grieve as long and as loudly or short or as softly as they require. If someone’s process makes you uncomfortable, then you need to decide how close or far to be from it, not try and change it to something that is more familiar or comfortable. 

In our defense

shutterstock Image purchased by UCLA CNS for Dr. Gordon
Source: Shutterstock Image purchased by UCLA CNS for Dr. Gordon

We say these useless things because we don’t know what to say. Like you, I care, and we want to lessen the grieving person’s anguish because we care. However, again, like rain, we can’t make death stop, and with death comes sorrow–accepting it is as an embraceable part of life is the solution.  

The problem is not sorrow or grieving.  The problem is society’s false belief that negative emotions and painful experiences are less valuable and to be escaped or avoided as opposed to accepted and endured. You cannot have joy and happiness without pain and sorrow with which to compare. So we must value both, and learn to sit with both.

Don’t tell grieving friends how they should feel, or try to provide answers that humans do not have. We do not know what happens to people when they die. We have no empirical data proving or disproving any of the traditional theories. So we do not know – end of story. 

As counterintuitive as it is, we have to learn to embrace the emotions shrouding death because inevitably, all humans move from a place in time to a place in eternity, leaving heartbreak and sorrow in its wake because death is the only promise life keeps.

 Remain fabulous and phenomenal.

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Candib, L.M., Working with suffering. Patient Educ Couns, 2002. 48(1): p. 43-50.