Loss and grief are experiences that every living creature on Earth will face—yet dealing with them makes people profoundly uneasy.
Discussing death and trying to support a grieving person often leaves people feeling awkward and perplexed which may lead to making the person they are trying to comfort feel worse, even if they have the best intentions. According to Andrea Warnick, psychotherapist and one of the developers of Canadian Virtual Hospice’s MyGrief.ca, people are usually afraid that they’ll say the wrong thing, “so they default to not saying anything at all. Or something they do say things that may not be super helpful.”
To avoid these less than helpful (but normal and common) reactions when you’re inevitably faced with the task of supporting someone as they go through their grief, Warnick and Zainib Abdullah, psychotherapist and co-founder of WellNest Psychotherapy Services, have some best general practices for what not to say.
What not to say to someone who’s dealing with death
Don’t fall into the fix-it trap
Oftentimes, people think they need to take on the responsibility of “fixing” the situation. Warnick says that she likes “to remind people that as a supporter, your job is not to fix it. Your job is to be with them through it.”
A common way that the fix-it trap manifests is by trying to offer silver linings to the grieving person or starting phrases with “at least.”
“‘At least he’s not in pain, at least it didn’t happen at a different time of year.’ I say, just throw that out the window. Stop talking, nothing was ‘at least’” says Warnick. Abdullah says that the “at least” phrase comes out because people want to bring attention to what they perceive as the least painful part of the situation, but in reality, it comes across as trying to change the way someone thinks of their loss. While the grieving person may use this type of language, as a supporter, it shouldn’t be used.
Don’t give solutions or advise people
Phrases that start with “you should” are not helpful, and can even come across as judge-y. Common well-intentioned ones include “you should try to keep yourself busy,” or “you should get some fresh air.”
Another common phrase that shouldn’t make an appearance is “be strong,” because it implies that some expressions of grief are negative. “Humans experiencing pain is not a sign of weakness, it’s just the experience of life,” explains Abdullah. So, telling someone that they should be strong seems as though you’re invalidating how they are feeling while also telling them that they’re currently being “weak.”
Don’t tell people that they’re “strong”
While this is a well-intentioned compliment, the reality is that often, you’re praising the grieving person for repressing their emotions. Warnick says, “A lot of my clients have said to me that it really feels like usually, people are saying [they’re strong] when their emotions are in check. The flip side of that is when they’re feeling very vulnerable or raw, then they feel like they’re being weak.” Instead, reframing the idea that permitting yourself to feel the hardest feelings in relation to grief is a demonstration of true strength and bravery.
Don’t try to make sense of it
Don’t say, “everything happens for a reason.” For someone who is dealing with death, this isn’t particularly helpful. Another phrase that should be avoided as a supporter is “you aren’t given more than you can bear,” unless the grieving party has brought it up themselves. As Warnick explains, “the goal is to be present and help [them] feel less alone in the situation because we’re there with them.”
Don’t try to one-up their pain
This is another common yet misguided reaction to someone’s grief. “It’s usually coming from a place of concern and wanting to make the person feel as though their situation is less hard,” says Warnick. However, this actually takes away from the support that you want to give and makes it seem as though you’re minimizing their experience of loss and grief.
Don’t use “loved one” when referring to the person who’s died.
Warnick explains that the use of this term is based on assumptions. You don’t always know what the relationship was like between the griever and the deceased and referring to them as a “loved one” may bring up complicated feelings for the grieving party.