When death impacts your family, you’ll experience grief. As time goes on, we will encounter more and more people who are grieving. It’s only natural that this occurs since all life has a natural expiry, and we all will die. But death and grief can make us uncomfortable – often because it reminds us of our own mortality, but also because we’re just not sure what to say and how to help someone who is grieving.
What Not to Say to Someone Experiencing Grief
There are some helpful and some not so helpful things to say to someone who is grieving. When Kimberley Gillian’s Nanny (Grandmother) died, she said that there were many heartwarming and kind messages that came in from family and friends. What she wasn’t expecting though was the ‘one-upmanship’ she experienced as people commiserated by sharing their own stories of loved ones dying from cancer. It was very hard to cope with someone else’s story, let alone one that was somehow worse.
Amanda Lambros, counsellor and executive director of The Grief Recovery Method, says it happens all the time because we’ve never been taught how to respond to grief. “People turn it around to themselves because they think, ‘If I provide an explanation of what I’ve been through, it’ll help them get through it’,” she says. “In reality, that doesn’t work at all.” Part of it, Lambros says, is about demonstrating that you understand how somebody is feeling. But in reality, every loss is unique and has its own complexities, such as whether you feel you have communicated everything you wanted to say to the person who died. “Really you have absolutely no clue,” she insists. “You may have experienced a similar loss, but you would have no clue how I would be feeling about my loss.” These people are mostly well intentioned, but don’t realise that most people going through grief don’t need to be spoken at, they want to be listened to
No parent ever wants to bury their own child, yet in our broken world this is a tragic and regular occurrence. Eric and Kat lost their daughter Rebecca to cancer when she was just 6 years old. They understand what grief feels like, although they may say that they are not sure they understand grief because it can be a wild and unpredictable beast that is difficult to tame. Although they experienced the death of the same child, their experiences with grief are not replicas of one another. In a blog post Eric wrote a month after Rebecca’s death, he says:
One month ago today, just thirty days past, Kat and I held our daughter as she took her last breaths.
I still have trouble accepting this. We both still have trouble.
Kat says that she often feels like none of this is really happening, that she’s stuck in a nightmare about Rebecca, who is alive and fine and never had cancer. Sometimes she thinks that Rebecca’s just spending the day with a friend, and we’ll see her for dinner. She knows this is untrue, but that knowledge doesn’t change the feeling.
I have the opposite problem. Sometimes I feel like she never really existed, that we’ve only ever had two children and I just had an involved dream about a little girl who lived between our daughter and son. As if she were a sprite who let us see what our lives would have been like with three children instead of two, and then vanished with the sunrise. Sometimes I expect to look at the family photos on the living room wall and not see her in them.
Eric’s advice for what not to say includes not saying whatever comes into your mind because you’re uncomfortable with the grief and tragedy. Throwing trite sayings at a grieving person hoping one will hit the mark is not helpful. It is not helpful to hear “Everything happens for a reason.” He also advises not to assume that the grieving person believes what you believe. Their whole experience with tragedy may in fact have altered what they do believe.
What to Say To Someone Experiencing Grief
Let them know you are sorry for their loss. It seems like a small thing to say but it holds a lot of meaning. It says you understand this is a sad time and you are thinking of them. Your physical saying of it to them also speaks volumes. You are just showing your general support for them, without being invasive.
Do you want to talk about him/her? Sometimes people love to talk about their lost loved one. They want to share memories, good and bad, and show you pictures of their life. But not everyone is wired the same way – you need to ask and not assume that this is what someone may want to do in their grief. Others cannot bear to speak their loved one’s name because of the hurt they are feeling. Their way of dealing with the grief is different (but not necessarily wrong).
“I feel your pain.” This is quite different to saying ‘I know how you feel’, which is trite and untrue! Everyone experiences grief differently and their circumstances and journey are their own.
In the book Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love: Daily Meditations to Help You Through the Grieving Process, authors Raymond R. Mitsch and Lynn Brookside maintain that the words “I feel your pain” are the four most helpful words that can be uttered to a grieving person. “No single sentence does more to break down the walls of isolation formed by deep sorrow and regret,” write Mitsch and Brookside. “When those words are merged with a touch or an embrace, they mend the heart and lift up downcast eyes. They tell [the griever] that [he is] not alone in [his] grief.”
“I’m here for you.” This may mean offering to help out in whatever way they think might be best for them. You might like to offer some suggestions if they seem a bit stuck (like taking around a meal or just hanging out with them in their home).
Ben Keckler, a minister who runs a grief support group, says, “When you’re grieving, you don’t want to be around people who will see through you. You want to be around people who will see you through.”
Say not very much at all. This doesn’t mean be unresponsive toward their grief. Don’t feel like you need to fill the spaces when they speak to you – just be there and listen.
Grief And Your Will
In our experience, it’s common for parents to believe that grief over their death will cause their adult children to ‘do the right thing‘; yet this is seldom the case. In reality, grief galvanizes existing conflict and resentments, often erupting into a war over the will. It’s important never to assume that grief will smooth the way.
Our estate lawyers love to listen. If you have any estate planning questions then please contact us today. We offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation.