As I write this it is July 18, 2022. Today would have been my brother Jeff's 57th birthday. He's no longer here to celebrate with us.
On September 6, 2015 we found out my brother had committed suicide. It was intense. It was devastating and it disrupted my life. It didn't matter that I had dealt with death dozens of times before. I had never dealt with the unexpected, unexplainable death of my brother.
And believe me when I tell you people said some crazy stuff to me. But even before this there were things I heard all the time from people who know a griever. "I don't what to say." "I don't know what to do." "They just cry all the time." "What if I say the wrong thing?"
My hope is to share with you what "not to say" to someone who is going through a difficult time but also offer suggestions of what to say instead. The difficult situation doesn't have to be a death, maybe it's a diagnosis or a divorce.
And please don't beat yourself up. Some of the things that I'm going to tell you not to say, you've already said. So have I. We've all said them. We didn't know any better.
1. Don't Minimize or Deny Their Pain
"At least you had ____ years together," or "At least they're not suffering anymore."
Either of these comments may be true, but they minimize the loss and kind of suggest that the griever shouldn't be grieving.
"It was God's will" or "He/She is in a better place now."
This is not the time for a theological discussion. In general, this comment does not help grievers feel better.
"You can have other children, get remarried, you have other siblings."
These comments imply that people are replaceable, they are not.
"Time heals all wounds."
Actually, time alone does not heal. Time plus active grief work does lead to a kind of "healing," but the loss will still be a lifelong aspect to their lives now.
Do Say Instead:
"You must miss him so much."
"It is devastating to lose a loved one."
"I can't imagine how painful it is to lose someone you love so much."
You don't want to try to minimize their loss. You can't take away their pain. Instead, use words that validate and empathize with their pain.
2. Don't Offer Vague Attempts to Help
"Let me know what I can do to help."
Many kind, well-meaning people said this to me and they sincerely wanted to help. The problem was that I had no idea what I needed so I couldn't tell someone else what I needed.
"Call me if you'd like to talk."
Grievers rarely have the energy to reach out. Don't put the burden on them to call you.
Do or Say Something Concrete Instead:
"I'll call you tomorrow and we can talk if you feel up to it."
"Here's a casserole to take the pressure off of dinner tomorrow night."
Just show up with a basket of cookies, a homemade dinner or a bouquet of flowers. Or show up and wash their car, mow their lawn or take care of their kids for an evening. Also call and just check in, letting them know that you're thinking about them.
If they don't return your calls, don't take it personally. Some people will want a friend to listen and others would prefer to retreat. Still others may prefer the anonymity of an online support group. Either way, reach out and then respect their wishes.
3. Don't Expect Them to "Get Over It" or "Be Their Old Selves"
"Isn't it time that you move on, get over this, quit wallowing?"
Grief has no time line. It's not a two-week, two-month, or even two-year process. Closure is a myth. In fact, grief is a lifelong process and is not something that you get over. Grievers must learn to live with loss and integrate it into their new experience of the world.
"When will you be your old self again?"
The answer is "never." After a major loss, an individual is irrevocably changed. Understand that they are going through a process of intense growth and change. Be patient as they discover who they are.
Do Say Instead:
"I know you will always have their love in your heart."
Just because the physical form of the person has died, does not mean that the relationship has died. A new relationship is emerging, based on love and memory and spirit. Honor the fact that they will have a continuing bond with their loved one.
"I know that you're becoming a new person and I'm here for you as you grow." How they interact with the world is different now. They are growing and you want to support that process.
4. Don't Ignore Their Situation
Don't avoid someone or not acknowledge their loss because you don't know what to say or because you don't want to upset them. By ignoring their experience, you make them feel as if their loss doesn't matter.
Do Say Instead:
"I can't imagine what you're going through but I'm so sorry for your loss."
"I am heartbroken for you."
Acknowledge their loss. If you knew the person who died, share a story about them. Grievers love to share memories and hear stories about their dear ones. If they happen to cry in your presence, that is perfectly okay! Tears are a natural way to move emotion through the body.
Know that if your heart is open, you will find words and deeds of compassion. And when words are simply inadequate, the healing power of a heartfelt HUG cannot be underestimated.
I didn't hold it together so well the first time I sat with someone who lost a loved one. I was working at a church where the custodian always listened to a police scanner. She rushed into the office and said an elderly member of our church had just committed suicide in his basement.
He lived less than a block away from the church with his wife but their children lived 20 minutes away. I couldn't get the image of the wife sitting by herself out of my head while the police and EMTs were all around her. So I decided to go sit with her.
I wasn't even a pastor then. I worked with the children and youth. I had no idea what to do or say. I just knew she shouldn't be alone. So I went and sat next to her on the couch and held her hand.
We in the business call that the ministry of presence. Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit next to someone and say nothing.
For years I have told grievers that you can't take anything personally that someone says to you when you are grieving. Learn the lesson from Frozen and Let It Go!!
Feel free to reach out and share stories of things people have said to you when you were going through a difficult situation.