Your gain: Learn what to avoid saying to someone who’s going through the grieving process, and discover how to be there for them in a meaningful, genuine way. I’ll provide both what not to do or say, and also recommend what you should do or say instead.
If you haven’t been through a loss, or heck… even if you have, the last thing you want to do is upset someone who’s already going through it, right? The grieving process is a long, arduous, confusing, difficult road. You probably don’t need me to sit here and tell you that, but the wisdom I AM going to drop today is about what not to say to make it worse.
I want to first start off with a caveat.
What I’m referring to in this post is when people are in the real, nitty gritty thick of their grief. When things are raw and extremely painful. Grief doesn’t miraculously dissipate one day. It can linger and make itself known for years after a loss occurs, and it ebbs and flows. The key difference here is that a person has had time to process it more, and will (ideally) be less phased by an insensitive comment or a reminder at the wrong time.
Beware of Triggers
Two years into my losses and there are still things that trigger me, no question. A song, a smell, a memory, a comment someone makes… that will probably never not be the case. That’s my reality and the reality of millions around the world. But those “what not to do” or “what not to say” things are more easily digestible and processed quicker with time. Basically, they get to you less and less, I’ve found.
Speaking of triggers, I have an awesome entry I’d love for you to check out that covers this topic in detail. It’s all about what triggers are, how they can affect us, gives some examples, and how to cope with them. This is beneficial info for both parties–both the griever and those trying to help them along their journey.
So, without further babble, let’s get into it. Here’s what I would recommend NOT doing or saying if someone you love, or even an acquaintance, is coping with a loss.
What To Avoid: Making It About Yourself
Guys, I almost don’t even know where to start with this one…
This happened to me so many times I lost count, and it’s really sad when it does. But I’m also for sure guilty of this, as we probably all have been at one point or another.
There’s this great article from the LA Times that talks about something called the Ring Theory. I would highly encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s a graphic that I think explains this well.
The Ring Theory
In the center ring is the person at the center of the trauma—I’ll use myself as an example here to help visualize this. For my loss, let’s say right after both of my parents died, I would be in the center of that first circle.
Then, the next largest circle around the first one would be the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In my case, that would be my husband, John. This process repeats as many times as necessary, with each larger ring being the next closest people. Parents and children (if applicable) before distant relatives. My best friends would be in the smaller rings, and less intimate friends in larger ones.
I love this term they used in the article, which called this the “Kvetching Order”. When you’re done with the order, here are the rules. I’ll quote this as they explain it well:
The point? Comfort comes in, dumping (or kvetching) goes out.
What’s the point here? Be helpful, not hurtful. When you’re talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, listening is more helpful than speaking. If you must speak, ask yourself if what you’re about to say is going to provide comfort and support. If not, don’t say it.
Avoid imparting advice, and avoid statements like “You should hear what happened to me” (more on this coming up) or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And, do NOT say things like “This is really dragging me down.” or “This is making me really sad.” The last thing anyone in the smaller circles needs is more pressure from outer sources in an already difficult situation.
What To Do Instead
If you really need to let it out via crying, complaining, screaming, venting, whatever it is… do it with someone in a bigger ring. It’s a perfectly human thing to want to do any of these things. To express how shocked or sad you are, or to relate it back to yourself and your experiences in some way. The ask is simply to have the self awareness to know your place in the situation and not come off insensitive or make it worse for the one grieving.
What To Avoid: “I understand how you feel”
This might sound familiar from the previous section, but I want to dive into this more. Avoid phrases or sayings like “I totally understand how you feel” or “I completely get it, I know the feeling.” or some general iteration of that. I may be overly sensitive to this, but I have to tell you, it annoys the heck out of me.
Let’s preface this by saying I understand most people are probably coming from a very heartfelt place when they say this. I have dear friends and family that do nothing but love and support me who will pull these lines occasionally. I KNOW they mean well. They’re simply trying to make sure I don’t feel alone or unseen.
Why It’s Problematic
It’s one pretty simple thing: they don’t actually understand how I feel. They don’t actually get it.
Why? They have no context. For example, someone saying this might still have two happy, healthy parents (while I don’t) and can’t remotely relate to my loss, but I can’t level with someone who has lost a child. If someone doesn’t have experience losing that person or thing, how could they know and understand? “I understand” is a really easy, filler kind of thing to say. There are other ways to express your support.
Here’s another very important reason why I feel this way…
Even if they could relate to losing the same thing I did, our experiences with it are entirely and uniquely our own and different. For example, perhaps we both lost our dads, but at the end of the day those are different humans. And, we had different relationships with them… different bonds.
Looking back on it now, I do understand many loved ones are just trying their best to support me. Lord knows I’ve thrown a line out there like this, too. But in the thick of grief when everything feels a little more touchy, a little more sensitive and emotional, it’s not the most accurate thing you could say. Why? Because chances are you don’t really understand the scope of what they’re dealing with at that moment, so it’s best to let them have it.
What To Do Instead
Instead, consider simply saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you in whatever way you need me. I would love to bring you a meal this week, what can I bring you?” That offers empathy, care, and support. That’s the big three right there, and that’s all you need to do (for now).
What To Avoid: Tying In Your Own Experiences
Once again, this is related to the first section but takes it a step further. Avoid tying it into an experience you went through that’s “similar”.
I’m sure there’s a study around this I’m not aware of, but certainly from my own experience, whenever someone says “I totally understand what you’re going through” followed by a story of how they lost their pet hamster when they were 8 and you’ve just lost the grandmother that helped raised you, yet they “completely understand”. It just… doesn’t exactly feel equal.
It’s beyond just trying to one-up you, whether or not on purpose. While that might actually be the goal of someone saying that—which makes me really sad, if so—chances are someone is saying something like that to try and find a way to relate to you and sympathize. They’re just not doing the most eloquent job of it, and they’re making it about themselves.
What To Do Instead
I wish I had a better way of wording this, but… just don’t do it! Have the awareness to not go there. Use this as an opportunity to listen, absorb, and offer support. If they ask for your advice, by all means! This might be the time to share your story.
One thing I’ll say if you do that—preface your experience, either before or after you share. Make it known that this is what happened to you, but it’s not indicative of what they’re going through and each of our journeys as humans are our own.
I like adding that in 1) because it’s so true, and 2) it takes away some of the ego from your story so they can glean what they want from it and take it into consideration, but know that their story, their life here on this planet isn’t parallel to yours.
What To Avoid: Saying Something Insensitive
Yes, I understand this might be a loaded statement here, so let’s break it down.
I talk about this in detail in my entry “8 Things You Don’t Hear About Grief, Part 1”, and I’d love for you to read that section if you’re interested in diving into this further.
One of the examples I talked about there was a situation at work where my manager—who knew very well that my parents both passed—asked if they were going to be part of our upcoming wedding ceremony (whatever they meant at the time, be it walking me down the aisle, etc.)
It shocked me, honestly. I was like… “wait, are they serious?”. All I could do in the moment was politely correct them and remind them (again) that my parents were gone. I could see them wince and feel a little uncomfortable that they had blanked on that—or whatever happened in their mind to cause them to forget that day. But, it happened. There was nothing I could do about it in the moment except be as gracious as I could.
I accepted their awkward yet genuine apology and moved on. But some actions or comments coming your way might not be as tame, or are harder to move on from.
Comments about any kind of loss you’re going through can come from anywhere, anytime. I think, compared to further removed acquaintances, the core people around you should have a little sensitivity radar about certain things.
You can certainly expect an added level of compassion from loved ones, but they don’t need to live in your grief with you. That’s your journey and something you need to find healing from. For me, I expect people that are really close to me to tread a bit more carefully around the subject of cancer, or even a tracheotomy since that’s what my mom had. You’d be amazed at how people forget, though. I’ve even had family or friends make jokes that involve those things. It’s honestly very disappointing, because it’s not a joke to me. It’s a very scarring topic. But it does happen, and since they don’t have the same emotional scars I do, I have to be realistic with my expectations. This is what we get into in the next section.
Coping with Unmet Expectations
By the way, I have an entire entry dedicated to keeping your expectations of others realistic throughout the grieving process if this is something you or someone you know is struggling with. It goes into why it’s so important not to expect yourself from someone else, understanding why each person’s experiences play a role in how they connect with you, and so much more.
So, let’s get to the root of where these actions or comments may be coming from.
Straight Up Ignorance
As I just mentioned, Insensitive comments have come as close to home as you could imagine. It is grain after grain of salt in the wound that you certainly don’t need, but can’t always avoid.
I truly hope your reality is and will be kinder than mine in that regard, but all I can do is make you aware of it and to be the bigger person. Here are a couple quick tips to follow if this happens to you and it really catches you off guard.
- Don’t stoop to their level. Take the high road and use this as a chance to practice compassion and patience. This might not come right away, and it might not come easily, trust me. That said, your loss has the power to change you. And YES, it has the power to change you for the better. Use this as an opportunity to do better yourself. Each time it happens it can hurt, but it also builds your resilience and that’s a really freaking awesome thing.
- Remember that word vomit exists. I wish I had a prettier way of saying that, but it’s honestly so true. My husband, though very sweet, is sensitive to my loss. However, he’ll occasionally put his foot in his mouth. While close to the loss, my loss wasn’t his, if that makes sense. It’s not his parents that are gone, and he didn’t witness the things I did so I can’t expect him to have the same level of sensitivity.
It’ll be pretty obvious to you when someone accidentally word vomits vs. spitting out a statement with malicious intent. If it feels malicious, consider distancing yourself from that individual. Or, have a frank, rational discussion with them about their comments or behavior.
An Innocent Mistake
So you asked a recently let go acquaintance how their job is going… whoops. The words left your lips before you could stop yourself. Or, a comment like my manager made happens and they simply didn’t think before speaking. Guys, it happens.
Even if you apologize profusely but you can tell they’re uncomfortable or saddened by it, you wish you could take it back. It’s happened to all of us, right? You’ve likely done it at least once, people have likely done it to you.
When someone makes an inappropriate comment or insensitive joke, it can hurt deeply which makes patching it up that much more complicated and difficult. Here’s the thing, it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves or anyone else to be a perfect communicator or never misspeak. Especially because humans are designed to operate in a community. I found a recent study in the Clinical Journal of Pain which found that the same neural pathways that process social distress are also involved in the pathways of physical pain. Interesting, right?
Usually, people are pretty quick to apologize after an innocent mistake is said or done. If you’re on the receiving end of the insensitivity, assess the hurt and be realistic and vulnerable with yourself about the damage. It could be as simple as finding thoughtlessness on someone’s part, or the remark could have really touched a nerve. I know I’ve certainly experienced both, but one is certainly easier to come back from than the other.
If you’re the one who accidentally ventured down the rabbit hole of hurtful comments, don’t worry. All you can do is apologize and do better moving forward. Try not to “catastrophize” by saying something like, “I can’t believe I said that. I’m so terrible I’m sorry!” It causes a spiral of shame and, usually, it’s not worth the title of “most horrible human being”. Give yourself grace.
If you’re currently living in the shame spiral of doom, try reframing your mindset to what I alluded to earlier. Something more productive, such as: “This situation touches a chord. I feel ashamed, but I can do better. Everyone makes mistakes.” That’s the truth!
A few things to practice:
Don’t let it fester.
Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t get caught in the cycle of overthinking it without saying anything to the person who’s afflicted.
Resist the urge to get defensive, make excuses, or get into it over specifics with the one who’s hurt. Let the other person have their feelings, and make it clear that you don’t take what you did or said lightly. A study shows that labeling your feelings can help manage anxiety or depression, so expressing something like, “I’m ashamed I said that,” or “I’m ashamed I hurt you,” might alleviate some of your stress over the situation. Avoid making yourself the victim, though, so don’t lay it on too thick. Just be real about it!
Validate their pain.
It’s tempting to clarify your intent with what you said, and it’s totally understandable to want to clear your name. I’ve 100% been there, because I hate when people feel like I’m insensitive. I, admittedly, do care what people think about me (it’s something I’m working on). So, I’m always quick to do this and apologize. Can you relate?
Unless the person asked what you meant by your comment or joke, don’t go there. Here’s why: perception is reality. Whatever you meant is irrelevant at this point. I’ve learned this the hard way in some mistakes I’ve made and, no matter how I go about justifying my actions, it doesn’t matter. The damage is done, and the afflicted feels how they feel. And they’re entitled to that!
You can’t tell someone what to feel or what not to feel, right? Just as they can’t do that to you. Accept that what the person heard and felt is valid because at the end of the day, you said what you said (or did what you did) and now it’s time to move on from it.
Instead, simply say something like, “My comment was inappropriate and I understand why you’re upset.” However, I would caution against saying “I understand” if you don’t really understand, like I was getting at in the second section above. If you find yourself unclear or confused as to why they’re feeling hurt, ask! Just be sure to do it in a kind, genuinely curious way. Such as, “Tell me how this makes you feel” or “Tell me how this hurt you, I want to understand”.
Reassure and explain how it won’t happen again.
Sharing what the situation has taught you will reassure them that a lesson has been learned, and you’d like to move forward.
Be genuine about it.
Make sure your apology comes from a good place (aka that heart of yours!). Avoid basic phrases like, “I’m sorry if you were hurt.” This can feel a little hollow and impersonal. And, the “if” part of that sentence can come off as though you’re questioning how they feel. It’s not if they were hurt, they were! Let them own that.
Don’t forget about body language here, too. If you’re anything like me, you might have a good RBF but a terrible poker face. Facial signals and your tone of voice are all lost in written communication, so text and emails are less than ideal when apologizing. Do it face-to-face or, if you have to, over the phone.
Post-apology, do your best to reset and let it go.
This can be easier said than done depending how bad the comment or action was. Truthfully, I’ve had a couple of fallouts that still haven’t resulted in a resolution or even speaking yet. But I have had one or two tiffs over the last decade that ended perfectly well after a good heart to heart. Maybe even a little humor coming from our mutual understanding of what happened, we both took responsibility for what we needed to, and we’ve never been better. It’s all about reassuring them all is well in the most heartfelt way possible. If you can’t do that in a way that doesn’t feel genuine, another conversation might be in order.
If someone isn’t able to move forward and past the transgression, it may be time to reevaluate or disengage. While you can offer a sincere apology and own up to your mistakes, you can’t make anyone accept it.
Actually avoiding these things I’ve mentioned above can be difficult, I want to acknowledge that. Especially in the heat of a conversation, it’s human nature to want to relate and support people that are suffering by way of bringing in our own experiences. That’s what we have to go off of, right? Seems fair. It’s SO easy to say “I understand” in the moment, but consider what that really implies.
The takeaway here is that you can still show love, comfort and reassurance of their loss by recognizing their feelings. Despite perhaps not understanding fully, simply validating them. That’s the focus. And, offering help. Actions speak louder than words. Ask what they need from you and show up.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Here’s the thing, and I can speak from experience here—they may not know what they need or want. That’s okay, and that’s a very real thing when you’re grieving or coping with a loss. Especially if someone hasn’t been through something very traumatic before, they may not even know which way is up right now.
The best piece of guidance I can give is to continue checking in, and be in touch with how they respond to things. If something you do or say strikes a sour cord, avoid that in the future. If it seems to spark joy for a brief moment, do a little more of that and build on it. Yes, this can be a little exhausting! I’m sure my husband felt like he was walking on eggshells with me half the time. That’s grief, sometimes. That’s the role we play as supporters of people coping with a loss.
It can all come and go in waves, that’s the reality of the situation. What might be okay one day could be triggering the next, so do your best to be present with them, practice patience, and have self awareness. Practice putting yourself in their shoes and think about what they might have sensitivity about if you were them, and that will provide a lot of insight on how to navigate this trying time.