I’ve been asked many times what do you say to someone who has been bereaved, my advice is try not to give them platitudes. It’s easy to say things that we think will help but can actually be quite hurtful. The following are examples of what not to say to someone who is grieving:
- ‘I know how you feel’ -No-one knows how anyone feels because you are not them and you are not in their body or mind. This is a simple statement to make and seems obvious but having empathy or sympathy does not mean you know how they feel. I would suggest asking: ‘How are you feeling?’ instead. Allow them to express themselves if they choose to and respect the fact that they may not want to.
- ‘They are in a better place now’ – This is a contentious statement to make. Everyone has their own personal beliefs on what happens after death but even more than that, the griever wants more than anything to have that person back so this statement can be interpreted to mean that the deceased is better off out of the griever’s life. As an alternative, I would suggest you allow the griever to talk about the deceased and their life together.
- ‘You can always have more children’ – the last thing a parent who has lost a child will want to think about is having more children. The mere suggestion that they could have more (and potentially they may not be able to conceive again) is insulting and just about the worst thing you could say to them. To a grieving parent this statement can suggest the child that has died can be replaced. No words can express the depth of grief a parent experiences after the death of a child, the loss of their dreams for that child and their lives together so this statement can be incredibly painful and hurtful. Instead the child should be honoured and memorialised and the kindest thing you can do is to talk about the child.
- ‘It gets easier after X months/years’ – please see my earlier blog about the myths of the stages of grief. The emotions experienced after a death should certainly subside with time but grief is not a linear process and time is relative; it’s a real human experience full of complex emotions, thoughts and changes in identity and roles. Life does change and evolve after a bereavement but stating there is a timeline or that it gets ‘easier’ can undermine the significance of the loss to the bereaved. Instead offer support for as long as they need it in whatever way is needed.
- ‘’At least….xxxx’ –This really should be taken out of our vocabulary when speaking to a bereaved person.
These are a few of the most common platitudes said to the bereaved and the reasons why they should’nt be used. There are no ‘right’ words to say and sometimes we all say things we wish we had’nt because we can’t always predict the impact of our words on someone who is feeling intense emotions. Conversely avoiding or ignoring a griever because you don’t know what to say can be equally as hurtful. Genuineness and authenticity should not be underestimated and a simple ‘how are you?’ or ‘is there anything I can do?’ can go a long way to helping a griever.
- ‘*Update -–I wrote the above blog 8 months ago and today I heard about the death of a baby of someone I’m friendly with. Sadly this person’s baby was born eight months ago when I wrote this and he brought joy & dreams into this family that are now totally devastated. This is what I said ‘I have no words to say to you that are adequate…I’m so, so sorry for your loss and my heart goes out to you. I am here for you if you ever want to chat at any time or if I can do anything.’ I will contact this person at regular intervals after the funeral to just ask ‘how are you’ or ‘is there anything I can do?’. I hope that’s helpful.