We’ve all been on both sides of the wrong thing said. The best intentioned but insensitive tip which hit a soft spot, the positive but blasé remark on someone's plight, or the joke which sounded funnier in your head. Awkward on both ends at the best of times, and damaging and hurtful at worst.
Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving can feel like a minefield. Where genuine compassion is lost in cliches, and an intention to soothe is blown up by insensitivity. What provides comfort to one friend can be offensive to another. What feels appropriate in one situation can feel insincere for the next. And with no two personalities or grief experiences the same, it can sometimes feel like there's no safe ground left for supportive things to say.
To strip it back, remember your presence alone can speak louder than most words. A shoulder to cry on and a listening ear can provide more comfort than any cliche sympathy. When supporting someone in grief, it’s important to remember that advice, positive reframing or attempts to empathise by relating to your own experiences are where the bombs lie in the emotional minefield of what you can say. So, to help preserve your good intentions we’ve outlined some general rules of thumb and things to avoid saying to someone grieving the loss of a loved one:
1. Avoid Toxic Positivity
“At least they’re in a better place now.”
“At least they’re not suffering any more.”
“At least they lived a long life”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“At least you still have…”
It might work for you, it might be said with good intentions or it might just come out as a reflex cliche with a cringe even as you say it. Regardless, trying to see the bright side when supporting someone through grief is not the objective. You're not a grief counsellor here to reframe their situation, and in shying away from the difficulty of a friend's grief, you could instead be bringing them further down.
The above phrases can invalidate someone's feelings and close off that much needed space to be open and vulnerable. Confronting the reality and the rawness of grief with alternative phrases which acknowledge what someone is going through, can instead make your grieving friend feel a lot less alone.
2. Avoid Bringing it Back to You, or Anyone Else
‘I know how you feel”
“When my X died…”
“It could be worse…”
“They wouldn’t want you to be sad”
No two losses or experiences of grief are the same. This isn’t about you and, unless they ask you to share, hijacking this space to vent and offload is an absolute no go. Wading in with the emotions and experiences of yourself, other people or the deceased themselves can come across as insensitive and generate unhelpful comparisons. It can also override the emotional capacity of the person in grief; undermining the ultimate goal of supporting the person in front of you.
3. Avoid Timeframes on Grief
“You should be over it by now”
“It’s going to get better…”
Judgements, rules or expectations surrounding grief are never helpful. It's intricate, it's unique and it's a non-linear process where the waves hit differently for different people. Comparing grief timeframes can create added pressure or shame surrounding someone's emotions, and can be impersonal to the unique relationship they had with their lost loved one.
4. Avoid Non-Specifics
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“How are you doing?”
There’s stages and waves of grief for a reason. It’s an overwhelming experience and our bodies are not built to cope with all aspects at once. Leading with generals can feel like a tidal wave of things to consider, which that person might not be ready for.
With so much already going on, thinking more than one step in front of the other can be too much and so it can be useful to instead offer specific support. This takes the onus off a grieving person to ask for help, by instead offering specifics on what you could help them with.
5. Avoid Assumptions, Directives or Judgements
“You look so well”
“You must be devastated.”
Behind a happy, coping or keeping busy face might be a crumbling mess inside. Making the above assumptions can create pressure to maintain the coping front or feel overly-exposing. Rather than taking someone's experience at face value, it's important to create space for the grieving person to step into and share on their terms, if and when they want to.
Offering this support and space to vent is also more constructive than any advice. It's useful to remember that if you were that same person with the same upbringing, family dynamic and relationship to the deceased, you’d be acting and feeling the very same way. Whilst their coping strategies might seem irrational to you, these likely represent an adapted and appropriate response to their unique emotional state. Instead of assuming how someone else is feeling, or that you know better on how to handle their grief, instead just offer to listen and support.
Some Alternatives to Support a Grieving Friend:
Tell them how sorry you are
Ask if they’d like to talk about their emotions or the person
Recognise how hard a time this is for them, right now
Check in, and tell them your thinking of them
Let them know your here for all the emotions; the good, the bad & the ugly
Offer to do the shopping, their washing or join them for a walk or a movie