The Worst Things to Say to Someone Who's Mourning
Even with the best intentions, we can say things that make the pain worse.
Posted June 17, 2016
by Marilyn Mendoza, Ph.D.
More than 6,000 people die every day in the United States. So it is only a matter of time before each of us will be called on to demonstrate caring and support for someone who has lost a loved one. Our fear of death often overcomes our reasoning abilities, ties our tongues, and leaves us feeling mentally challenged when we are with someone who is grieving.
Most of us are at a loss for words when we try to console someone. Articles on the subject have tended to advise that you not worry about what you say, because the mourner will understand that it comes from a place of love and caring. In my work with mourners, I frequently hear about “well-meaning” comments that have actually offended or angered the bereaved. Despite being aware that others are trying to comfort them, such comments actually make them feel worse. The following are examples of the most offending:
- You need to put this behind you.
- It was not meant to be.
- I thought you would be more upset.
- He brought this on himself.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- It is not good to visit the grave so often.
- Others have it worse than you.
- Are you over her yet? She’s been gone a long time.
- You must be strong.
- You know that he cannot get into heaven until you accept his death.
- Why are you still crying?
- She wouldn’t want you to be so sad.
- If you separate his ashes, he will never get to heaven.
- You are still young; you can always remarry.
- You never really got to know the baby.
- At least the other twin lived.
- God wanted him more than you.
- Heaven needed another angel.
- God will never give you more than you can handle.
- I know just how you feel.
- Don’t let the children see your sadness.
- You do have other children.
The common denominator of the above comments is that they are judgmental and controlling. Making such comments through our own discomfort, we try to minimize and fix the grief, but only manage to make it worse. Some reading this post have probably made some of the above comments, not realizing they might be hurtful.
There seems to be a never-ending supply of comments that could be offensive. Fortunately, mourners have also confirmed that there are many helpful and compassionate things you can say to help them with their grief, such as:
- I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in whatever way you need me.
- I am sorry for your loss.
- I wish I had the right words to say. Just know I care.
- I am sorry you have to go through this.
- Let’s go have some coffee.
- I will keep you and your loved one in my thoughts and prayers.
- I am just a phone call away.
- I’m bringing dinner over.
These responses are helpful because they are not judgmental or controlling. No one can take the grief away; these comments are supportive and do not try to fix the unfixable. They do not tell the mourner what to think, do, or feel. At some point, we will all be in this situation. Think about what you would want someone to say to you. Initially after a death, there is an onslaught of people around the bereaved. Often after a month or two, when others have fully returned to their schedules, a mourner may feel abandoned. So stay in touch. Give a hug or a kiss. Simply ask them how they are doing, and listen to what they have to say. Use the deceased’s name when talking. Tell funny stories about them or share special memories. Remember that there is no magic wand that can take away the pain and grief. The best any of us can do is to be there and be supportive.
While death is said to be the great equalizer so, also, is grief. Eventually, we will all have to experience the pain and anguish of loss, whether it is family, friends, or pets. We will not get out of this life unscathed. But remember that you can never go wrong being kind, considerate, and caring.
Marilyn Mendoza, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, an adjunct assistant professor at Tulane Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and the author of We Do Not Die Alone.