We've Gotta Have it
What Not to Say to a Grieving Friend
When someone you love is experiencing grief, all you want to do is help them manage their pain. But, some things are better left unsaid
After my infant son was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and after he died, I often felt flattened after conversations I had with strangers.
I started to feel like the platitude police, and sometimes I would snap at someone in the grocery aisle, or the pharmacy, or pretty much anywhere else when I heard certain phrases. Of course, everyone manages grief and loss differently, but sometimes the ways in which well-meaning people are trying to help can do further harm to a person who is feeling gutted already.
When people say things like, “At least he’s in a better place now,” they’re making assumptions that could ultimately feel offensive. Sure, many people do believe that we go to Heaven when we die, but it’s important not to assume that everybody believes this. Sometimes it’s better to just say, “I hope you have the support and care that you need right now.”
Of course, when someone you know or love is experiencing grief, all you want to do is help. So, here are some things not to say to a grieving friend… and ways you can try to assist, instead.
- You’re so brave.
Nope! Nobody signs up to lose a child (in my case), or to withstand any loss of any kind. I realize that this is meant to be an encouraging compliment, but it’s actually a form of distancing. If someone is so far up on the bravery pedestal, they might as well be the gold medalist for bravery at the sad Olympics. Not only does nobody want that medal, but you’ll be up there someday, too. You likely will NOT feel brave. Resolved and determined, maybe.
Alternative ways to help a grieving friend: “What you’re going through sounds so difficult; I’ll be thinking of you, pulling for you, and hoping you find moments of joy in the sadness.” Or, for a close friend: “Let me know how I can support you.” And then be available. If you say “You can call me at anytime,” then you need to really mean it and keep your phone on. If you say you can do grocery runs, be around to run those errands. Even better: Don’t wait to be generous. Organize food deliveries, and don’t expect to get the dishes back (and don’t ask for them). I didn’t like getting flowers because they die, and that’s depressing, but some people love them. Don’t ask if it’s okay. Just send the care package.
- Your life really puts mine into perspective. I am so blessed.
This always made me feel like the person saying it had a shiny, new Mercedes with a license plate that read #blessed, and I was driving around in a run-down Ford Escort from the ’80s with a license plate that read #cursed. To use the suffering of others as a way to measure your own good fortune is not only unethical, it’s cruel. You do not know what awaits you in the next minute, day, or decade. It’s great to experience gratitude for the things that bring you joy in your life, but don’t assume that people who are struggling live in a world void of joy. We don’t. And neither would you (see: You’re so brave).
Alternative ways to help a grieving friend: “I know I can’t take away your pain, but I wish I could. It’s unfair, and it makes me angry and upset.” Empathizing with your friend, and in a way, sharing the load of their grief through that empathy, is much kinder.
- I couldn’t do it.
Yes, you could. Because you wouldn’t have a choice.
Alternative ways to help a grieving friend: “It sounds like you are doing an amazing job. You’re doing great.”
- I can’t imagine how you feel.
Well, that’s a lack of imagination on the speaker’s part, and it’s also not true. You’ve just imagined how the suffering person might feel, so instead of absorbing that — or attempting to — you create distance between yourself and the person living that reality.
Alternative ways to help a grieving friend: “It sounds so hard. How can I support you? How are you feeling right now? If you feel like sharing, I’m here to listen.” You don’t have to have the answers or a solution; being a good listener is oftentimes all you need to offer a friend experiencing trauma or loss.
- I would die if I were you.
This sounds like a suggestion, and is neither comforting or kind, but is a big old projection of your own fears onto a person who is already facing their worst ones. Don’t say this. Say almost anything BUT this.
Other Ways You Can Help a Grieving Friend
No death is easy. There is no grief playbook. But there are ways you can be there for someone who is in deep pain:
Idea 1: Make peace with the fact that someday you will know grief and loss, and educate yourself on how best to cope. There are so many resources, from Buddhist-based approaches to thinking about death to support groups like Modern Loss. CoveyClub has its own support group on grief. Learn how to be a grief ally. It might be the most important and healing role you ever play in someone’s life, in their most vulnerable and heartbroken moment.
Idea 2: Be an “awful” friend. My friend Lisa used to sit on the phone with me for hours at a time, and when I told her what was going on with my son, she said this word over and over again: AWFUL. She didn’t try to fix it, she just acknowledged the reality of the situation and validated how I was feeling. It helps if people yell the word (in my opinion and experience).
Idea 3: Ask questions. Don’t pretend like the person hasn’t died. Don’t just truck on as if nothing has happened. Ask about the person who has died; ask to know everything about them, and then stay long enough to listen.
Idea 4: Accept all the emotions. Don’t be afraid of a friend’s tears, or rage, or frustration. Don’t take anything personally; the emotions are NOT about you. Be a witness and don’t freak out. Just bear witness. Remember: the depth of grief is a measure, quite often, of the depth of the love, or the complications of that love.
The only way to withstand grief is to allow it to move through you and change you. If you love someone, you can be a part of that process, and your life and your heart will both be the better for it, and you will deepen the relationship you have with that person, and most importantly, they will feel less lonely. They will feel seen. You will have offered kindness to someone when they needed it most, and that is part of what is required of us as human beings.
Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, a New York Times bestseller, Sanctuary: A Memoir, Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg and her newest, I Would Die If I Were You (forthcoming). She is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California-Riverside, where she also teaches in the School of Medicine. She lives with her daughter and their street cat in Southern California.