What to Say and Not to Say
When speaking to someone who's experienced a crisis in which grief is the normal response, people are likely to say one of 100 common statements. Only 17 of those are helpful.1
Have you ever had something terrible happen to you? Have you had a loved one die? Have you had a health crisis or other tragedy strike -- a fire, a car accident, a lost job? If so, you likely remember the most helpful and most stupid things people said to you.
When people we know have suffered deep loss, we have the best intentions. However, we often just don't know quite what to say. Sometimes after the words exit our mouth, we desperately wish we could take them back.
With so many adversely affected by the recent natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, it's likely many of us will encounter someone who has been touched by tragedy. In addition, grief tends to surface during the holidays. The first Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially, are difficult. Here are some suggestions of what to say and not say when clients and friends share their grief with you.
10 Things You Should Never Say:1
- I know how you feel. (Everyone experiences grief differently. You can't know how someone else feels).
- You should be over this by now.
- You're young. You can get another... (husband, job, house, child etc.).
- You should be thankful you had... as long as you did (husband, child, job).
- You brought this on yourself.
- You need to be strong.
- It just takes time. (Healing is not as much about the length of time, but more about what you do with the time).
- It's just God's will. (Many will lean on their spiritual beliefs to heal, but hearing this statement from others is more likely to stir anger than bring reassurance).
- You need to... (inserting your opinion of what that person should do: keep busy, start a new hobby, be alone etc.). (We do this in an attempt to share wisdom. However, just as everyone experiences grief differently, everyone heals differently. What was healing for you may not be healing for someone else).
- It's up to you to be the man/woman of the house now. (Said to a child after the same sex parent has died/divorced/left/become disabled).
10 Statements That Will Help Bring Healing:1
- I don't know what to say. (No one likes to admit this. However, if you are truly at a loss for words, it's okay to share. Your honesty will be refreshing).
- I can't imagine how you feel.
- You're not alone.
- I've seen you overcome other challenges. You are capable and confident.
- Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss.
- I'm here for you.
- What, specifically, can I do to help you? (People who are grieving may have difficulty answering this unless you give them two options to choose from).
- My heart goes out to you.
- I imagine your world is upside-down right now.
- It's not your fault. (This is especially important to say to a child).
Comparing the two lists, a clear distinction emerges. When people share their grief with you, that typically isn't the time to be philosophical or give wisdom. It's the time to be authentic and compassionate, keeping the lines of communication open. This is especially true when people are experiencing a crisis moment, such as soon after the loss or when grief's wounds have been laid bare, for example, the first Christmas without a loved one.
Will you share your experiences? What things have people said to you that have been especially helpful or hurtful? Have you ever said something that has wounded another or helped bring healing?
1Taken from a workshop given by Aurora Winters, grief counselor. You can learn more about Aurora and get her full series of complimentary training videos and handouts here.