Compassionately speaking to the grieving is often more about what NOT to say. This blog offers sensitive words to say as well as words to avoid saying to the grieving. It also gives you suggestions on how to course correct if you’ve said some regretful words.
These tips aren’t meant to make you feel guilty for not having tender, compassionate words at the time. Most of us don’t know what to say because we have no words to make the grieving feel comfortable or give them relief. Further, on a deeper, subconscious level, most of us are uncomfortable with our own painful feelings.
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Compassionate Things To Say To The Griever
The following phrases are generic enough and don’t make any assumptions about the griever. These phrases won’t be easily misconstrued. Use the words that feel the best to you and fit your personality. The key is to be sincere.
Also, remember that sometimes the fewer words you use, the better. You might have expected this list to be longer, but hopefully it conveys the point that your words are not as important as presence. Just be with the person, even if it means hanging on the phone with them and letting them cry.
In your heart, send out the loving vibe of compassion, caring and empathy. To comfort the grieving, imagine hugging them even if you can’t be there with them physically.
The unspoken communication between humans can be love, empathy and compassion. Or it can be anger, fear, hatred and separation. Either way, the energy of emotion can be FELT without words. Please remember the power of your true emotions.
- I’m so sorry–my condolences, for the loss of your _______.
- I can only imagine how you might feel.
- I’m here to support you.
- Tell me about your loved one.
- How are you doing TODAY…and I’d really like to know? (emphasis on TODAY)
Things Not To Say To The Griever
Though the following statements are intended to make others feel better, they often have the opposite effect. For some it will be OK, but if we don’t intimately know the Griever, we should refrain from making assumptions.
I also want to stress that this blog isn’t meant to make you feel ashamed if you’ve said some of these things below to the grieving. You tried your best and had good intentions. If, at the time, you sensed they didn’t like what you said (you felt a shift in their energy), then perhaps you could call them now and make a minor amends.
You might say, “When you lost ______, I made a comment to you that I wonder now if it hurt or offended you in some way. I said _______________. I’m sorry if this bothered you.”
This approach is significant because when people lose someone they love, they are hurting, and their pain is heightened. They can be more sensitive than normal. There is a tendency to internalize and take to heart what others say to them.
They can hold onto grudges and resentments and decide you don’t care about them. You will most likely never know this separation has occurred because they won’t tell you. They will just disappear from your life.
I Know How You Feel
This is not appropriate because we don’t know how they feel; we can only imagine. Everyone is on their own grief journey, and each relationship with their loved one is individual and unique. So how can we possibly know how they feel?
Sure, we may have an idea of how they may be feeling because we are all part of the human race, and we are all connected through some invisible web of consciousness. But it can feel insulting if someone says this to a griever.
Instead say, “I can only imagine what you may be feeling.”
Your Loved One Is In A Better Place
Saying their loved one is in a better place assumes we know their spiritual beliefs about the afterlife. Just because our own spiritual beliefs may be very comforting to us when someone we love dies, they can be offensive to others. They may not believe in God, or the concepts of heaven and hell. Even though we have totally good intentions with this phrase, we need to refrain from using it, unless we know this person’s faith background.
If we don’t know them intimately well, we shouldn’t say anything like this.
I Don’t Know How You’re Still Standing
This can make the grieving feel guilty because they think they are doing better than they “should” be. Further, any type of phrasing that applauds them for being strong can encourage them to be a martry for everyone else grieving, which isn’t helpful.
Another common phrase, not necessarily in relation to grieving, “I don’t know how you do it all” implies a similar message. It would be all too easy for a woman to run with this and reinforce damaging, people-pleasing habits. Many people, women in particular, have been programmed to take care of everyone else, at their own sacrifice.
On the other hand, this is the time for the grieving to give themselves permission to take care of themselves, to be self-carish, which isn’t selfish at all. Refrain from saying anything like this because a Griever can see it as judgmental and shaming.
I’d Kill Myself
This dramatic, despairing statement is more about us than them. It will not likely make them feel any better. For example, some people say we will never “get over the death” of a child but will remain permanently heartbroken.
According to The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman, “There is a common and false picture created by grievers, by professionals, and by literature: ‘Because I haven’t forgotten my loved one and still sometimes have feelings about them, I am not over the pain of the loss.’ This tragic setup is guaranteed to restrict and deflate the life of the griever.”
To be of most service, we should try to manage our own energy before interacting with the grieving. Try this simple but powerful technique to help release painful emotions. Instead of feeling pity and sorrow for them, what if we can respect that they are going through a transformative process that may very well be a gift to them in the long run because it will help them evolve into more compassionate, loving beings.
Refrain from saying anything like this.
You’re So Strong And Brave
How can we really know they are brave or strong? It may be a brave front that further reinforces the notion that they “should” be brave. It actually encourages them to be strong and hold it all together, similar to “I don’t know how you’re still standing.”
This intended compliment reinforces the notion/belief that their grief is burdensome and that they need to hold it in to prevent others from feeling uncomfortable.
Instead say, “I recognize that you appear strong and brave. Remember that you are human with needs and deserve to be supported.”
I Can’t Even Imagine
When we say, “I can’t even imagine,” we typically mean that it’s beyond what we can dream about in a nightmare. Though we are intending to send condolences and sympathy and ease the Griever’s pain, it actually can have the opposite effect.
Grievers may get offended because they believe that we actually COULD imagine their pain if we wanted to put ourselves in their shoes. The preferred distinction is to say, “I can ONLY imagine.”
Thank Goodness They’re No Longer In Pain
Though this sounds compassionate, it can have the effect of minimizing the grief others are experiencing.
For me, it felt like it didn’t allow me to grieve Maddie because yes, though she had a debilitating chronic illness from which I was happy she was no longer suffering, she was still gone, and it still hurt just us much. Remember, the grieving are a sensitive bunch.
Instead, if you really want to convey this sentiment, say something like, “It had to hard watching your loved one suffer and a relief on some level to know they are no longer in pain. And yet, you still deeply miss them.”
At Least They Lived A Long Life
This can minimize the experience of grief for the one who lost someone so precious to them. Regardless of whether they are old, this statement assumes that grief should be easier if someone who dies is old because grief is a natural part of life. This just isn’t true.
A more sensitive thing to say, “I’m honored to witness how you shared your life together and built so many wonderful memories. It’s a testimony of your love for each other.”
Grief Exercise To Honor Our Loved Ones
I recently listened to Tara Nash, a spiritual psychologist, and she recited the following exercise for Grievers which I thought was beautiful. If you know someone grieving, forward this to them.
Put your hands over heart and take a deep breath in through the nose and out through mouth. Inhale the person you love and exhale fear, worry, pain, and sadness. And hear the words of Nikki Banas from her book, “Along the Way.”
“No matter what mountain you’re climbing or what valley you’re navigating through, hold onto hope, my beautiful friends. Hold onto hope in the good times and the bad, on the days of sunny skies and the days of endless rain. Replace your fears with boundless, relentless courage.
Drown out your doubts with an overflow of hope for all the good things are coming. Let hope light your path when all you can see is darkness. Let hope create joy out of the times where there seems to be none. Hope is feeling heavy raindrops crashing onto your skin but still smiling about the incredible light that is coming after the storm.
It is feeling the immense pain of heartbreak but knowing that there is still boundless love in the world meant for you. It is knowing that today might hold everything you’ve been waiting for for so long.
Hope is not just a little word to toss around lightly. No. Hope is a powerful seed you plant in your heart, knowing without a doubt that in time it will bloom into a magnificent garden. Hope has the power to bring this bright sun of tomorrow into today. Always carry hope in your heart, my beautiful friends, because sometimes hope will be the very thing that carries you.“
I recommend the griever check out the Grief Recovery Handbook, created by John W. James and Russell Friedman in the 1980s (this links to the 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition). It offers a step-by-step process to work through grief.
1. General grief you’re experiencing (time heals all, wounds, etc.).
2. Ways you’re avoiding your grief and why it’s not helpful over time.
3. Relationship with your person–here you go deep and get honest with yourself about negative and positive things that happened. We seem to either idolize or demonize our loved ones after they’re gone.
4. Things you want to forgive and apologize for (left unsaid or unheard).
5. Walk away feeling lighter and more at peace. You can forgive yourself and the other person. Magical. Leave with robust material (letter, etc.).
Perhaps you or someone you know are grieving someone or something YOU love, whether that’s through death, divorce or some other type of loss. Register for “3 Secrets to Survive Difficult Life Transitions,” and let me support you in a deep way.
Holistic Divorce/Loss Coach