Death is an unpleasant and unwelcome inevitability of life, and its presence makes us feel uncomfortable like little else can. Even the most talkative people struggle to find the right words for someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. Hoping to provide some comfort to grievers, people often resort to the clichés and other trite expressions to avoid an awkward silence. You might recognize these:
"I Know How You Feel"
No, you don't. Like our personalities, each of us reacts and responds to grief differently. Saying you know how another person feels is condescending.
Here’s a better approach: If you experienced the death of someone close and feel the need to reference it, do so in the form of an open-ended question or comment. For example, you might say, "When my daughter died, I blamed myself for letting her use the car that night. If you're feeling that way, please know that I'm here to talk any time you need to.” And if you don't know how someone mourning a death is feeling, it really is okay to simply state, "I don't know what to say, but please know that I'm sorry." Avoid just saying, "I'm sorry for your loss." This phrase is trite and rings hollow to those grieving.
"He's in a Better Place Now"
Anyone who utters this phrase has clearly not grappled with the loss of someone close, a mother facing the future without her child, a widower first returning to the empty house he shared with his wife for decades, -- these survivors think the best place for their deceased loved ones is right by their side and among the living.
Here’s a better approach: Share your favorite memory of the deceased, if appropriate, which can help recall other warm memories about his or her life.
"Don't Cry" or "You Need to Be Strong"
Commenting on how someone is responding to a difficult situation is condescending and serves no purpose other than to create feelings of guilt and resentment and can contribute to an abnormal or complicated grief process.
Here’s a better approach: Switch off your cognitive function temporarily and simply allow yourself to respond emotionally. People will remember how you made them feel, not necessarily what you said: Holding a hand with both of yours, the long hug, the feel of your touch on a shoulder, or tears shared.
"She Looks So Natural"
Have you ever looked at a living person and said something like this? Of course not, because we don't feel the need to comment on it. Uttering this comment when viewing the casket merely emphasizes that the person is not alive.
Here’s a better approach: Obviously, if a mourner expressly asks you, "Doesn't he/she look wonderful?" then you should readily agree. Short of that, avoid any comments on the appearance of the deceased. Instead, share a happy memory that you feel captures/conveys something special about the person who died.
"Let Me Know If I Can Help"
Telling someone who is grieving and mentally exhausted by the multitude of decisions that have to be made does not need to make yet another decision. More than likely, the person has given little thought to responsibilities of returning to a “normal” life since the death occurred. Asking this question, therefore, merely puts them on the spot to make you feel less helpless.
Here’s a better approach: If you want to help the griever at some point, simply state that you’ll call next week once things have settled down. By then, the services will be over and it’s likely the out-of-town guests will likely have headed home, too. When you do call, offer a specific suggestion instead of leaving it up to the bereaved individual. You might offer to help out with chores, doing the laundry, picking up some groceries or offer to bring over a meal and simply spend some time listening and providing quiet companionship.
Cheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, lost her husband suddenly and has written about her recovery from her devastating loss and what she learned. In a recent interview with AARP, she reflected on her life with her husband, their bond, and her slow but constant recovery to be present today. She talks about the fear she had for her children and how resilient they are when recovery allows them to express their grief. She writes how grief made her think she was always going to feel awful and how she decided to change that sentence to “I will sometimes feel this awful.”
Sandberg tried a cognitive therapy, where you write down a belief that’s causing you anguish and then you disprove it. She wrote “I will never feel okay again.” Seeing those words forced her to realize that just that morning someone had told a joke and she laughed. In that moment, she’d proven the sentence false. She reminisced that while she’s only partway through her own journey, the fog of acute grief has lifted, but the sadness and longing for her husband Dave remain. She concluded, “I’m still finding my way, but I’ve learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface and breathe again.” Her lessons teach us that grief is a process and there are coping skills to learn and practice to bring hope for the future.
Cheryl Rumley, RN
Owner, Apex Health Care Services &
Aging in Place Toolkit Advisor