New York State Funeral Directors Association

When we don't know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss, we may be tempted to turn to an old, worn-out cliche.

Unfortunately, in our attempt to be helpful, we may wind up saying something hurtful and leave the person feeling more pain or frustration.

Sometimes we say nothing out of fear of saying the wrong thing, and then the person is left feeling more alone and wondering how we can act like nothing happened.

After a loss the griever needs to adjust to a "new normal" and can greatly benefit from caring words, a hug and our presence.

Here are some common phrases that participants in my workshops have shared with me that they hear all too often and do not find comforting at all.

"I know how you feel"

No, you do not know how they feel. You don't really know how anyone else feels. This statement only makes grievers feel angry and may even shut them down from sharing their true feelings with you.

Everyone has his or her own experiences and feelings. Even if you also had a similar loss, you still should not tell someone that you know how they feel.

Simply listen, acknowledge their feelings and be with them as a supportive presence.

"It's God's Will"

This may be your belief but you don't know what the griever believes and even if he or she believes that, at this time it may not be a comforting comment.

Although many people turn to their faith during times of loss, many do share a time of questioning and a time of losing faith or feeling angry at God.

The book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is a great book at this time.

Keep this thought to yourself and listen to where the person is right now.

"Your loved one is in a better place"

I think this statement has made many people angry and very upset more than not.

I know people who have lost children who want to scream, "the child's best place was with me!!!!"

Children also find it difficult to understand how their mom or dad would leave them alone to be in a better place without them.

They wonder if they failed in making this a good enough place.

"You should be happy that your loved one isn't suffering anymore"

The griever knows the person is no longer suffering, however the griever is the one now suffering.

This statement can lead a griever to feel guilty and selfish for wanting the person to have stayed longer with them.

Again, it’s best to say how sorry you are that they are in so much pain and then just listen.

"You have to be strong"

This is often said to children and to adults caring for children.

Young children are told to be strong for their parents and parents are told to be strong for their children. Pair shares umbrella in the rain

This often leads to difficulty with sharing grief and interferes with the normal healing that would take place if people had permission to grieve.

Many people feel anything but strong after a loved one has died and find it hard enough to make it through each hour and each day.

Now they need to worry about being strong. What is strong anyway? Does it mean not to shed tears, not to be sad or at least not to show feelings?

This can be very damaging and may actually impede the normal grieving and healing process.

It also may imply that no one will be there to support them in their pain and sorrow, so need to be strong.

"Keep your chin up"

When all a person may want to do is cry, scream, yell, sob, or collapse, they don't need someone smiling and telling them to stop all of their emotion and just carry on as before.

This person's life will never be the same. They are adjusting to their new normal and showing true grief feelings. It’s hurtful to feel like you are letting down those who want and need you to keep a stiff upper lip.

"You had many great years together. You should be grateful"

Many grievers would give anything to have more time with their loved one.

Grateful is the last thing they may be feeling and being told how they should feel is the last thing a griever needs.

There are also people who did not have great years and we should never assume that people had a great relationship.

Some people had an abusive relationship that on the outside looked wonderful, but they actually lived a secret life.

These folks are left now to feel more alone and isolated.

A great book about those who feel more relieved after a loss is Liberating Losses by Jennifer Elison and Chris McGonigle.

Remember, sometimes the best things to say are, "I'm sorry for your loss," and "I am here to listen."

Many grievers remember those who just were present, said little, but something, shared memories, and gave a hug or a meal or their time.

Give those around you permission to grieve in their own time and in their own way and they will grant you the same when your time comes to grieve.

Lisa AthanLisa Athan, MA
Lisa Athan, MA, is Executive Director of Grief Speaks. Athan makes presentations on grief and loss at hospitals, schools and other institutions throughout the U.S.