How Not to Say the Wrong Thing When Someone is Grieving – and what to say instead

by | Favorites, Featured, Talking About Cancer, When Someone You Love Has Cancer

Why is it so easy to say the wrong thing when someone is grieving? Death is universal. It happens everywhere, and eventually, to everyone. Why are we not taught, from childhood, how to respond when someone experiences a loss? It’s such a challenge, and for the most part, we really don’t know how to deal with our own losses, or anyone else’s,

Whether the loss is the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a job, a devastating diagnosis, or even an new understanding that renders a lifelong worldview no longer tenable, interacting with someone grieving fills so many of us with an awkward case of foot-in-mouth disease.

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Why it’s easy to unintentionally say something hurtful

We can’t stand to see anyone sad. We especially can’t stand to see anyone express sadness; we’d even prefer anger. We feel like we have to make it go away. So what do we do? We do what we were taught to do. We tell them to cheer up. In essence, we give them reasons why they they are having the wrong emotion.

  • Their loved one is in a “better place”
  • This is God’s will
  • You have other children
  • He lived a good life
  • You hated that job anyway
  • You’re better off without him
  • At least now you know

And then we are shocked, offended, when they don’t respond to our perfectly logical offering with gratitude. Sometimes, they even get mad.

I’ve been on both sides of that situation.

I’ve offered up the obvious, yet useless, reasons why someone should get un-sad – why they should be thankful for this tragedy they’ve experienced. I’ve had those things said to me as well. That experience opened my eyes a bit.

My cancer treatment left me with some chronic pain issues. For the most part, I try to quietly muddle through, but sometimes it really gets to me. When people offer up comments like “it beats the alternative,” it doesn’t feel encouraging or uplifting. Yes, I am glad I didn’t die from cancer, but that statement feels like I’m being shamed for being uncomfortable with pain. In the long run, it’s not a great way to make me feel better.

So how do you know which statements will be hurtful?

There’s really no way to give you an exhaustive list of statements to avoid. But there are questions you can ask yourself that might help you sidestep some of the most egregious faux pas.

1. Am I trying to get them to change their emotion?

If your statement is in any way trying to cheer someone up or suggest they should have a different attitude about the situation, you probably won’t have the desired effect.

When you try to convince someone to cheer up (change their emotion), all kinds of responses can happen, but there are three that I see come up frequently:

  • They get visibly angry at you
  • They pretend what you said was kind and made them feel better, while they internalize anger and sadness
  • They feel ashamed for having had the wrong emotion, try to paste on a fake happy face, but internalize the shame along with their sadness

Those are probably not the end results you were looking for. And it might even be a shock that encouraging someone to cheer up when they are sad could have that kind of result. 

We want people to be happy, especially the people we care about. But sadness is a real and valid emotion. It’s not wrong to be sad. It’s completely natural, normal, and even healthy to experience sadness. It’s important to allow others to feel whatever emotion they feel without judgment, shame, or pressure to change.

Sadness is different from depression, and if you worry that someone is developing a mental health crisis, you might need to intervene and get help.

2. Am I minimizing the situation?

This is very similar to the situation above, and often the two are combined. We minimize the situation, and follow with a reason why they shouldn’t be having this emotion. 

I’m sorry to admit that I’ve minimized people’s pain that way, as well. I’ve called people dramatic. I’ve rolled my eyes. It’s common. We forget that grief can be completely overwhelming. We don’t realize that while a situation looks straightforward to the those on the outside who don’t have the details, dealing with the situation causing the grief can be complex,
confusing, exhausting, and devastating.

Don’t minimize their pain by comparing it to your pain or someone else’s. I think, to some extent, our brains are wired to categorize and compare, but comparing pain does more harm than good. For each of us, the pain, the grief we experience, is complex. There is no comparing loss because it can’t be measured. Only felt.

One way that we minimize, without realizing it, is commenting on appearance. Saying thing’s like “you don’t look sick,” or “you don’t look tired,” triggers a defensive response even if you were trying pay a compliment. If you do want to pay a compliment, get specific. Saying something like, “That sweater really brings out your eyes” leaves illness out of it altogether.

Don’t say, “At least….” Many attempts at helpful dialog start with a thought like “at least.” The phrase is literally minimizing.

If you catch yourself saying something along the lines of… “at least,” that’s a good opportunity to stop, apologize if you went farther than that, and then offer up an entirely unrelated topic to discuss. Doughnuts, pizza, cookies, coffee are often well loved topics, and if all else fails, discussing the weather is better than minimizing grief.

3. Am I making this about me?

One of the things that we are taught is to find common ground. When we are trying think of something to say to someone who is grieving a loss we can’t fully relate to, we try to come up with some similarity to compare it to and offer that up in the conversation. This rarely works.

Imagine this example: You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. You feel sad and scared about it, and someone says, “Oh yeah, my aunt died from that. It was awful.”

Well, that didn’t help any. There’s a time and place to talk about your dear departed aunt, but this isn’t it.

If you’re telling me all about how my grief makes you feel, or worse, how my grief is inconvenient to you… Well, why are you even telling me that? What are you trying to get out of that, because I don’t even know. 

4. Am I offering unsolicited advice?

Just don’t. period.

The Silent Treatment

Another problem that people encounter with their grief is that people don’t talk to them, or even avoid them altogether. Avoiding someone to keep from saying something hurtful does not prevent you from hurting them.

We feel your absence.

We feel the silence.

Grief can be so lonely.

People often turn and run when something terrible happens. It’s quite common.

I’m awkward girl when it comes to small talk, so I completely understand the difficulty with conversations when you just don’t know what to say. And I’m sure I just compounded that frustration by mentioning how you can hurt others without even realizing it.

So how do we find the middle ground? How do we find things to talk about without saying the hurtful things?

Here’s what to say

Being direct can be surprisingly effective. If you’re feeling awkward, it’s okay to say that you’re feeling awkward. If you have no experience talking about grief or death or whatever this situation is, it’s okay to say, “I have no experience with this,” and then move on to a question.

Ask open ended questions

  • Do you want to talk about her?
  • What was his name?
  • What was he like?
  • How did you meet?
  • How are you spending your time?
  • Do you want to talk about something else entirely?

An open ended question allows the other person to have some input in steering the conversation. Focus more on listening than talking. The open ended questions are just to get the conversation started or keep it moving. 

Nice things people have said to me

  •  “I don’t know what to say yet, but I just wanted to give you a big hug”
  • Telling funny and awesome stories about my dad after he died
  • Asked me what my favorite flavor of ice cream was and had it delivered
  • Offered to help with childcare while I went to doctor appointments
  • Came over and washed my dishes while describing in detail the comedy show she went to the previous night

Pay attention to how they are responding to you. If they seem to want to engage in the conversation then you can keep it going. But don’t wear people out with conversation they’re not up for. Watch body language, and make sure you’re not adding to their fatigue. Grief is exhausting.

A Sweet Silence

Sometimes we don’t feel up for a conversation, but we don’t want to be alone. Keep that possibility in mind as well. Maybe you can have a reading party where you each read your own books, just being in the same room. Maybe you could go for a walk at the park. Maybe you watch a movie together – that’s a great option because it provides entertainment, and gives an easy conversation topic when the movie is done.

Silence isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s just what we need.

How do you know? You could start by asking.

Did anyone say the wrong thing while you were grieving or going through a stressful time in life?  What kinds of comments would you prefer? What was something kind and helpful someone said to you?

Judy Schwartz Haley

1 Comment

  1. Lisa

    This is such a great post! I think everyone needs help with how to be a good friend to someone who is grieving. Silence is most certainly sweet. Never underestimate the power of being a good listener! And unsolicited advice is never appreciated!


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