Grief is awkward for most people. We live in a culture that hides behind pain, flees from it, pushes it down or crowds it out. This is why I feel the need to write about what not to say to the grieving.
Nothing brings an avalanche of cliches cascading one’s way like grief does. Poeple become totally tongue-tied the instant they are faced with the bereaved.
When Amma (mother) passed away in January 2009, I heard a cliche everywhere I turned. And turn away from those folks I did. Three years later, my heart is more open to understanding why those cliches were trotted out.
Here’s a list of cliches that may push the wrong buttons in someone who’s lost a loved one. This is what not to say to the grieving.
“Time heals everything.” In my experience, it’s what you do with time that heals. Running away from grief, burying yourself in work or engaging in distractions like pills and pick-me-ups merely postpones the inevitable. It’s important to find a way for the grief to move through and out of you, so you can get to the other side. It’s better to hear, “Take your time; I see how difficult this is for you.”
“You had all these years with them.” When you’re stunned by grief, logic flies out the window. The suggestion that one is being selfish and ought to think of all those who lost their parents when they were babies, or teenagers, or worse still, were born into an orphanage, offers no solace. No one can measure how much time was time enough. The bereaved need empathy.
“You need to get out more.” Papering over grief doesn’t make it disappear. Sometimes it’s necessary to burrow into the cocoon of sorrow, to be home, safe and alone with your thoughts. Grief cannot be rushed. If all someone wants to do is crawl under the sheets and stay there, let them. Grief is as individual and unique as fingerprints. People process it very differently.
“At least they’re not suffering.” Unfortunately, the loved ones left behind still are. They’re in the middle of a wave of grief that’s ripping them inside out. Please acknowledge their suffering; it’s still real. Try and be a balm to that pain.
“They’re in a better place.” I guess. Maybe. Who knows? Some believe their loved ones are in heaven; however, mourning feels hellish. The pain of loss is all-consuming. So, open your arms to them. They still live in the real world and need your support.
“Life needs to go on.” Actually, for some it comes to a grinding halt. Grief has its own timetable. Some people take months, some years. It’s a process, and even when you think you’re doing well, there are days when you fall apart. Like when you’re folding laundry, or standing at the checkout hauling a bag of groceries. That’s just the nature of grief. Be supportive. Give permission. Allow them the space and time for grief to move through.
I hope this list of what not to say to the grieving serves you. To support the bereaved in a way that’s caring and meaningful, go to