Just this week, a friend told me she’s losing her best friend to colon cancer. Another friend’s brother died by suicide. I sat with a mother as she lost her baby at 37 weeks. And so many of us know someone who died from COVID. While some things are looking up, a lot of people are going through some really hard shit right now. A lot of people are grieving. As a trained bereavement doula in Fort Collins, I know you want to love your friends and family when they’re hurting. But our culture has not always helped us in knowing how.
So today, I want to take a minute to cover what NOT to say when someone is grieving.
As a bereavement doula in Fort Collins, I’ve gone through many specialized training courses to better understand loss, grief, and how to prepare for death. It is my honor to walk with families through some of the hardest trials of their life. But in the course of doing so, I’ve noticed sometimes people who mean the best, hurt them the worst.
Oftentimes we say things in the heat of the moment with good intentions, but they can be extremely hurtful to the people we love who are already hurting. I have been guilty of it myself. We want to fill the void, we’re afraid of silence so we just kind of word vomit… in this blog I’ll help you learn to avoid that mistake and give you tips on what you can say instead.
If you have a grieving friend, please read this list and take it to heart. This is not meant as a lecture or to chastise you if you’ve made these mistakes in the past, but more so, to help you be the best friend and support person you can be.
What not to say to a grieving person:
- NOTHING – That’s right. Please, if you do anything, don’t make this mistake. Often when life gets hard, people have a tendency to shy away. It’s hard to see your friend or loved one in pain so sometimes people say nothing at all. Grieving people are often ghosted (as the kids say) right when they need support the most. I know this blog is all about not saying the wrong thing, but saying nothing at all is the worst. Be there for your friend, show up, sit with their pain, witness their struggles, mention their baby or loved one’s name. Don’t shy away because it’s hard. And don’t shy away because you think they “might be busy in their grief.”
- Time heals all wounds – Somewhere in our culture, we got the idea that grief just stops after a short period of time. It’s just not true. There is no phase of grief and grief is not linear. When you lose a baby or a loved one, no matter the gestation or age, you’ll grieve for the rest of your life. Sure, grief might get slightly more manageable over time but it’s not something you get over. People move through their grief, life changes, and so forth – but don’t “get over it” and you certainly never forget that person. We need to stop making grieving people feel like there’s a “right” way to grieve and an end date to their feelings.
- At least… – If you’re about to say something along the lines of “At least the baby didn’t suffer…” or “At least he had a good life…” “At least you have other children…” “At least you know you can get pregnant…” JUST DON’T! Grief is hard enough without a friend reducing or qualifying the loss by trying to find the silver lining. It’s natural to look for the positives in the situation, but in reality, the loss just sucks. Just say that instead – “I’m so sorry, this sucks.” or “This isn’t fair…” but please don’t reduce their loss by pointing out the obvious. And frankly looking for the silver lining is just not appropriate when grief is fresh.
- They’re in a better place or There’s a reason for everything – While I’m sure your intentions are very well-meant, not everyone believes the same things about life and religion. Just because you believe X, Y, and Z about life, death, and the meaning of life – not everyone shares those beliefs. And for many, death and loss cause us to question those things even more. I urge you to just be careful with this kind of language.
- Please let me know what I can do – This is a good example of another well-intentioned statement that is often hard for grieving people to hear. Sure, you want to help and you want to do what your friend needs, but it’s in grief it’s hard to know what you need. Instead, offer concrete gestures like, “I’m bringing over dinner,” or “I’ll watch your kids for you on Tuesday…”
- You can always… – Especially in the case of child or pregnancy loss, people love to say things like, “You can always try again,” or “You can always adopt,” but the reality is – your friend probably isn’t ready for any of those options yet. For the person grieving, it comes off as their lost loved one is replaceable. As a bereavement doula, I see this all the time. Just allow them their grief and let them figure out their next steps whenever they are ready.
- I know how you feel or When this happened to me – While you may very well know how this feels, please don’t make this about you at the moment. When a person is grieving there is no other pain like what they are going through and while you may relate it’s not appropriate for you to talk about you. If they ask, by all means – please share and give tips. But if they don’t, assume they aren’t quite yet ready to hear about your experience. Don’t take it personally, just understand their pain is not about you.
- How are you? One of the hardest questions to be asked. How do we answer that question on a normal day? It’s a loaded one for someone who is grieving. Instead, ask open-ended questions like “How are you coping today?” “What has today or this week been like for you? “What challenges are you facing right now?” “How can I support you today?” “Are you eating?” “Have you been getting any sleep?”
Hear me when I say, I know everyone who says these things are probably coming from a good place. They’re trying to be a good friend and do the right thing. But sometimes we make it worse without meaning to.
As a bereavement doula in Fort collins, I prefer to use these kinds of statements when I serve grieving families:
- Tell me about your loved one (or pregnancy, or whatever is applicable here).
- You must really miss them.
- I’d like to honor your loved one by _____.
- I would love to give you some time to grieve. Can I watch your kids on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon?
- I am bringing dinner on Friday. Does your family like pizza or tacos?
- Remember when?
- I’m sorry things are really tough for you right now. Can I come sit with you?
- Do you want to talk about ______ or would you rather watch a show together?
- Can I please help you handle XYZ for the memorial?
- I found some pictures of your loved one, can I send them to you?
- I know it’s the anniversary of ______’s death. I’m thinking of you today. Can I bring you coffee?
- How are you coping today or at this moment?
- You have permission with me to feel all the feelings you feel right now
I get that not everyone has specialized training as I do, but we can all do better. As a grief companion or loving someone who is grieving it is not our job to fix their pain, but more our job to let our loved ones know we will walk beside them and they don’t have to be alone. As a bereavement doula, I beg you to read and share this blog widely because this has been a really hard year and we need to support one another.
If you have questions, I’m always here for you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.
And if you are grieving yourself, I am here for you, too. I’m a trained bereavement doula in Fort Collins and I would be honored to walk by your side through whatever loss you’re experiencing. I do not want any person to face these struggles alone. Click here to learn more about my bereavement doula services and to get in touch.