What to Avoid Saying to Someone who is Grieving

November 15, 2023

Grief is an incredibly difficult emotion to navigate, whether you are going through it yourself or trying to support a loved one. Some of the most common ways of expressing support to someone dealing with loss can make them feel worse. For example, sharing your own experiences can make it seem like you are dismissing their pain.

Every person grieves differently and will find different things comforting and helpful. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some general considerations that can help to guide you in the right direction. Remember, you don’t have to say a lot, body language and tone of voice are just as important as the words themselves.

Bright-Side Statements

Comments that start with ‘at least’ or something similar are called bright-side statements. You should never say something like ‘At least your mother is still here’, or ‘Be grateful for what you have’. Phrases like that are commonly used to help cheer people up by turning a negative into a positive, but for someone who is grieving, it can have a negative effect. It is almost a way of the comforter trying to relieve their own discomfort at the griever’s pain by making the situation seem better than it is.

Talking About Your Own Losses

Try not to project your own experiences onto the other person. This can be hard as when we don’t know what to say, often we try to relate someone else’s experience by talking about ourselves. Which in normal circumstances is fine, but when it comes to grief this can seem like you are dismissing their feelings. Everyone handles their emotions in different ways, and loss is such a personal thing so an effort to relate often comes across in completely the wrong way.

Unsolicited Advice

Unless the person grieving asks for advice, it is best not to give any! Remember everyone heals differently, and while you want to see them improving and returning to their normal life, this takes time. Try to reaffirm them by reminding them that what they are feeling is completely normal and that they are entitled to grieve in their own way. Phrases such as ‘Move at your own pace’ are perfect for this.

Making Assumptions

When trying to relate to someone who is grieving it can be easy to say ‘You’re looking so much happier’ or ‘You’re doing so well’, but the truth is you have no idea what is going on inside their head. They may have just found some inner strength on that particular day to wear a mask to the outside world, whilst feeling like they are crumbling inside. People also tend to assume that people going through grief will only want to talk about that. However, this often isn’t the case, and talking about something off-topic will give them the headspace they need to continue.

Judgemental Statements

This should go without saying, but judging someone will in no way help someone with their grief. Statements like ‘You look like you need more sleep’ or ‘I thought you would be more upset’ are never okay to say to someone who is grieving, as they are incredibly hurtful. Try to reword the coping mechanisms that the person grieving has told you they are investing in. So for example, explain how proud of them you are that they have started grief counselling, and let them know you are there for them should they wish to talk to someone.

Vague Offers of Support

After someone has died, the person grieving will often have random offers of support from friends and family like ‘Let me know if I can do anything’, but these never actually amount to anything. They are just the most popular thing to say, but with no meaning behind the words you are better off not saying anything at all. To the griever, they feel disingenuous. Rather than a vague offer, offer hands-on help such as cooking them dinner, or picking up some of their favourite things next time you are in the supermarket. Even just offering to have a cup of tea and a chat is thoughtful.

You can learn more about supporting a grieving friend or relative here.

This list we have come up with is by no means exhaustive, and remember that everyone grieves in different ways and therefore requires different levels of support from their loved ones. All you can do is be there, and let the person grieving guide you into how you can be there for them.