Things Not To Say to A Grieving Person (Me, At Least)

Obviously, when it comes to death, everyone handles it differently.  Though the stages of grief may be similar, every person’s individual experience with grief is unique.  Differerent people find comfort in different things.

Death can be a touchy subject for many, myself included, and that means finding the right thing to say to a grieving person can be hard.  In the wake of losing another acquaintence from high school, I have been reflecting once again on society, people, and the role of social media in the grieving process.  Many people are clueless when it comes to tact, even in their everyday life, but especially in times of other people’s sorrow. Often, even well meaning people unwittingly say the wrong things.

My personal policy is ‘when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.’

Unfortunately, a lot of these people don’t have any doubts about the stupid things that may come out of their mouths.

As I said before, everyone finds comfort in different things, so to say that all grieving people would be annoyed or insulted by these things would be presumptuous of me.  But I will say, when I’m grieving, I do sometimes want to smack people who say certain things.

So here are a few things I try to make it a point not to say to someone who has lost someone else.

1) Who died? – Especially with the emergence of social media sites and “smart phones”, people seem to have forgotten some very basic manners.  If you must look in on your friends’ grief when they post about losing someone, there are waaaay more tactful ways to ask about their loss then “who died?” (Yes, I actually saw someone say this, this morning.)

2) They’re in a better place-  Oh, really?  That’s nice.  Personally, I prefer being above ground to below ground.  Oh, you meant Heaven?  Well, that’s sweet of you to say.  Really a nice thought… except, I’m an atheist, so…yeah, that doesn’t comfort me a bit.

3) At least they’re not suffering- Yeah, you may be right.   Maybe their long battle with cancer is over, or they no longer have to fight their addiction…  Or maybe they were just out with friends last week, having a grand old time, smiling and laughing, enjoying their life until it ended, perhaps suddenly and unexpectedly.  You know… not suffering.  

4) She/He’s lived a good long life-  Yup.  In fact, their life was maybe so awesome and good that they (and the people who loved them) will probably miss them like crazy, and wouldn’t have minded them sticking around for a bit longer.

5) Heaven has another angel- Um… like I said…atheist.  But even if I wasn’t, humans don’t become angels when they die, do they?  I thought angels were created by God before humans ever existed.  Maybe I’m being ungracious, and people are just saying things like this to find comfort in what is likely a very confused and upsetting time. But, again, to me at least, these types of sentiments ring a little false.  They offer me no comfort, and in some cases, not a little bit of annoyance.

6) The good die young- Yep.  But, then again, so do pimps, drug dealers, and, often, rock stars.  Chances are, the deceased was none of the above.  We all have light and dark.  The fact that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who lives and who dies is part of what makes death so hard to accept.  And please, don’t say

7) It was part of God’s plan

Not to me, anyway.  I might not be able to restrain myself from smacking you and then telling you it was in God’s plan.

I have also heard some people say that they hate it when people say “If you need to talk…”

I personally don’t think that would bother me, unless the person saying it never seemed to notice my existence before my grief.  Some people just thrive on other people’s drama.  And maybe grieving people get tired of talking.  If you feel you must say something else, asking your grieving friend or relative “what can I do (for you/ to help)?” may be reasonably safe, and then leave them the option of what telling you what it is specfically they need (and it may not be someone to talk to…)

Basically, unless your grieving friend opens one of these avenues of conversation (for example: indicating they believe in Heaven, or mentioning that they are glad their loved one’s suffering is done) the best bet when addressing someone who is in mourning is to just say, “I’m sorry” and not much else.


                              In Memory Of Greg Knapstein (1981-2013)

30 responses to “Things Not To Say to A Grieving Person (Me, At Least)

  1. I’m sorry for your loss. It’s not easy when the person is 101 years old, let alone any younger.

    People say some stupid things when people are grieving, and your list is pretty good. Some are worse than others, particularly 1, 6, & 7. Some of the others I can understand the sentiment behind “He’s in a better place/ at least he’s not suffering”, but think they sound horribly misguided.

      • When I was in 8th grade, the father of a classmate died, and one of our teachers handed out a little sheet on what to do/what not to do when someone is grieving. It was very helpful, and pretty much informed my approach to a grieving person.

        One thing that was on the list of “things you should NOT do” that might be a worthy addition to your list is the reminder not to try to find a positive in the loss, (e.g., “You must be devastated by the loss of your husband of 50 years, but the insurance money has to help.”)

      • And your post reminds me of the absolute shittiest thing I know of ever said to a grieving person.

        My dad died young, and at his funeral, my awful paternal grandmother blindsided my mom with the question, “Do you ever think you’ll get married again?” To which my mom, who hadn’t been thinking about it at all, said something to the effect of “I suppose so.” (She was 25 years old at the time).

        As if the question weren’t awful enough, my paternal grandmother spread it around (we lived in a small community) that my mom “was already talking about getting remarried at her husband’s funeral.”

        It’s funny in an awful way, but it was very hurtful to my mother, who 20 years later, did remarry. My grandmother died pretty much alone.

        • Da fuck is wrong with people? When my hubby’s brother died a few years ago, my mother asked two questions I felt very rankled by:
          1) Were they close?

          Even if they hadn’t talked for years (which they hadn’t, not because they fought or anything, but just…circumstances…) Does it really matter? THEY WERE BROTHERS!

          2) Was it drugs?

          Does it somehow make it less sad if it was an overdose? Or like, “o, well, what do you expect?”

          • Wow! Those are two things I might have said–so I will add them to “the list.”

            In defense of your mom, though, the first question is just a straight-up reaction. You’re right, it IS a dumb question, but sadly, I’ve asked it. And you know, at least in my experience, it’s actually a little easier sometimes when you ARE close.

            2) I TOTALLY understand where she’s coming from on this one. Yeah, I do think it’s better to die of a drug overdose (I’m assuming the unspoken alternative your mother meant is suicide; if I’m mistaken, this doesn’t apply). An overdose is an accident. A suicide just hurts to think about in the abstract.

            I’ve actually WANTED a death to be an overdose rather than a suicide.

            I’m supposed to be working, you know. This topic just sparked me, I guess.

          • Yeah, there’s not as much guilt of things unsaid if you are closer, I suppose… But that’s really the point of this post. Some things are completely meant well, but are nonetheless upsetting!

          • No…I think you misunderstood. SOme people take the attitude that a death is less sad when it’s an overdose (implying that a person who dies of an overdose sort of “deserves” what they get.)

  2. Unholy shite, did all this come from the loss of that lovely man? Wow. I’m sorry. Not only for the loss of an old friend, but for the insensitive things people say. I really hope hubby outlives me, as I would give a massive verbal smack down to anyone who tells me he’s ‘with Jesus now’. It could come to blows at his grave if anyone feeds me religious platitudes (if that even happens, I still don’t know how I’m meant to burn him secretly on top of our mountain like he wants).

      • Even deeper in Irish culture. You’ve seen hubby – he’s Viking/Celt with that hair and nose and lack of sideburns… and he’s said loud and proud to a gathering of his mum and aunties that he’s an atheist. And until my MIL threw – threw! it on me, I’d never touched ‘holy’ water.

        But… The well-meaning well-wishers might know you are atheist, but decide that the deceased couldn’t possibly be and so, Jesus.

        • I actually can imagine how the convo and ensuing fist fight might go…

          “He’s with Jesus…”
          “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in Jesus.”
          “It doesn’t matter; He believes in you.”

          Oh dear lord, with a lower case L…

  3. Sorry about your loss. I suck at condolences. I always feel like I could potentially diarrhea-mouth it, so I tend to keep it zipped. You know, one of those pursed-lip head nods? That’s me. I definitely don’t blow off 75% of those wacky one-liners on your list though. Insult to injury!

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  5. The first thing I thought was that NOBODY knows what is after life. I believe that the religious fairy tales have been designed by religious men in order to give false peace. They don’t know any more than I do. I lost a very close friend last year, and I decided that I would take his unfinished business on my shoulders to hopefully help our friends, his mom, siblings through memories and by example. I can never really make a distinction as to whether the dead are trying to rationalize their death like we do, but I would like to believe that the things we say are for the living, and should be chosen carefully.

    • Of course the things we say are for the living… and often, indirectly, for ourselves, either because we WANT to believe these comforting things for when our time comes, or because we really don’t know WHAT to say to a grieving person, so these idiot things come out. lol

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