I think we all have experienced that feeling of helplessness when trying to comfort someone who has experienced a devastating loss. We always seem to try and find the “right words” to convey our sadness, and our desire to comfort and help the hurting individual. Unfortunately, there are no “right words” that will take away the pain of a devastating loss. However, I have found through personal experience, and from the experiences of my family, friends, and clients, that there are some words that are definitely not helpful. Here is a short list of some of the most common unhelpful things grieving people often hear.
“If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call”.
While this statement in and of itself may not be offensive, it also isn’t very helpful. Anyone in the throws of grief probably hears this more than any other comment, but it is often received as “what people are supposed to say” rather than a genuine offer. Also, most grieving individuals may be so overcome with the emotional pain, that they are unable to communicate their needs to others, or they do not want to “bother” anyone.
It is more helpful to assess the needs of those individuals, and offer assistance that is practical and specific. For example, dropping off groceries, cleaning the person’s house, baby sitting their children, cooking meals, and taking on some of their responsibilities for a few weeks while they work through their grief. Talking to close family members and friends of the person affected by loss, can be an affective way to identify specific needs as well.
“You’re still young, you can always __________”
This blank in this statement is typically filled in with things like: Have another baby, get remarried, find another job, or “bounce back”. While I am sure this comment is well-intentioned, it can be very insulting. First, it diminishes the person’s loss of whomever or whatever was important to them. Second, it inherently comes with the implication that whatever was lost can be replaced. Yes, it is true that many people who lose children, spouses, and jobs go on to have more children, remarry, and find gainful employment, but their current feelings of loss are significant and must be acknowledged. Additionally, to imply that something can be replaced, reduces its value.
It is much more helpful to acknowledge the magnitude of the loss, and share in the memories of what once was. For someone who is grieving the loss of another person, the thought of moving on often feels like forgetting. Helping them remember special times, setting up memorials, and acknowledging that their loved one was real and that the world will be different without them, allows the grieving person feel validated and gives their grief a voice.
“You should be grateful; you still have___________”
Well-meaning people often fill this blank with things like: Your health, your family, your other children, or your job.
First, let me emphatically stress an important point; Grief is not the absence of gratefulness! Just because someone is grieving the loss of a child, does not mean that he is not grateful for the children he has remaining. If a cancer patient is grieving the loss of health, it does not mean that she is not grateful for every day she is able to fight for her life.
It is much more helpful to allow someone who is grieving to express their grief in a way that is comfortable for them, without trying to make them “feel better”, or ease your own discomfort with their tears. Validating a person’s feelings is more beneficial than a thousand well-intentioned words!
“God’s will was done”
This one makes me cringe every time I hear it. I am a believer, and have been for many years. I do believe in God’s sovereignty, and that He ultimately brings beauty from ashes. However, for me as an outsider to say to someone in the depths of grief that this thing that has caused them so much pain is God’s will, is not only insensitive, but borderline cruel. This is especially true if the grieving person is a non-believer as it indicates there is a good reason this terrible thing has happened to them. Even for individuals with a strong faith, this can be hurtful because they are torn between wanting God’s will and feeling the devastation of personal loss. Both believers and non-believers often become angry with God, or question why He would allow something so terrible to happen to them. It is not our job to defend God! It is our job as believers to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and to mourn with those who mourn.
Even the most spiritually mature individuals can feel forsaken by God when they are going through extreme difficulties. Just read the book of Job and you will find a perfect example of this. I also think of Jesus on the cross when he asked “My God, My God; Why have you forsaken Me?”. He knew the answer to His question, and He still questioned His father in the midst of unspeakable emotional and physical pain. God can handle the anger, fear, disappointment, and doubt that often comes with grief. It is not our job to defend Him with our feeble attempts to give a reason for His allowing pain into the world.
It is much more helpful to admit that you do not know why this happened, and that these emotions and questions are a normal part of experiencing loss. Listening without judgment or criticism can help the grieving person process these feelings and move toward feelings of acceptance.
“I know exactly how you feel. I lost ______________”
First let me off by saying that no one, can know exactly how another person feels. While we may experience some of the same feelings as others who have gone through similar situations, we are all unique and the way we experience loss is also unique. Sharing our own stories of loss, and how we got through it can be very helpful for others if it is done in an appropriate and timely manner. However, it is important to realize that unsolicited advice can be hurtful as it may contain the message that my way is the only way to grieve, or the best way to cope with this situation.
It is more helpful to say that you are sorry for the pain the person is feeling, and that if they need a nonjudgmental ear, you would be happy to listen. Then, you can let them know you have been through a similar situation yourself, and you understand how confusing and difficult it can be. The main thing to remember is that this is their time to share their pain, so be careful not to make it about you and your experience.
I firmly believe that we have the best intentions when we try to comfort those who are hurting. However, it is important to remember that our job is not to make a terrible situation better. There is nothing we can do or say that will take away the pain of a significant loss. Our job is to weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn. There are no “right words” that will magically heal the pain experienced by loss. Grief is a process that must be recognized and experienced. Sitting in the pain with another person without trying to “make them feel better” is uncomfortable and goes against every natural instinct within us, but it is one of the kindest and most selfless things that we can do for one another.