Two people hugging

What not to say to a bereaved person

Posted by AK Lander | On April 12, 2019 14:56

We spoke to a variety of bloggers and grief support professionals who explained what the best and worst things are to say to someone who is bereaved.

Many people can struggle for words when trying to provide comfort to someone who is going through a bereavement. We spoke to several bloggers about their personal bereavement and what not to say to someone when offering condolences as well as what you can do to show you care.

Jane and Steve’s journey

“Still asking, five years on, how we are doing would be so wonderful to hear.”

Jane and Steve set up their blog Voices for Traffic Safety as a way to document their grief after their son died in 2014 at the age of 27 while crossing a road near his home. The pair have turned their attention to advocating for traffic safety.

Jane said friends were quick to react following David’s death, however, there were a few “cruel” comments which people had “no idea were hurtful”.

The words ‘everything happens for a reason’ was just one comment the couple found particularly difficult. “At the time we were too numb with grief to challenge this. But once it sank in, we were angry and so sad. How, we wondered, could someone tell us that there was some unknown reason our beautiful boy had died? The universe would never do anything that cruel. But it stuck with us and it hurt a lot.”

Another comment the pair heard after David passed away was ‘when your time’s up, it’s up’. Jane described this phrase as not only hurtful but “ludicrous”. She said: “People in the throes of loss are not capable of weathering such comments. Our son was 27. He was in the prime of his life, he'd recently returned to university and loved it. How could his time be up?”

We asked Jane what words of comfort she found helpful during such a difficult time. She explained that phrases included ‘David was a beautiful soul. It's wrong that he's been taken like this. It's completely unfair.’ Another was ‘I can't even imagine what you're going through, but I will do anything it takes to help you through.’

Jane told us that bereavement does not end after a month, a year, or a decade, but is something that is ongoing. “Our world is still devastated by David’s death. It has been five years now and a lot of people think we're back to ‘normal’ because we look normal and we function normally. But we are not.

“Lots of times we operate on automatic. We wish that people could understand that we are forever changed. Still asking, five years on, how we are doing would be so wonderful to hear. Also, I so wish people would say our son's name and share stories about him. Very few do and that is painful for us, too. It's as if he never existed.”

Jennifer’s journey

“I don't want to hear how I should be handling it or what you would do in my situation.”

Woman sitting with clasped hands

After losing her son to suicide, bereaved mother Jennifer set up her own blog dedicated to her son’s life: Zuka’s Legacy. As well as launching the blog, Jennifer is penning a book all about Zuka’s life and her grief journey. She told us some of the things she heard after her son passed away.

She said that while the phrase ‘if you need anything, reach out to me’ was a nice sentiment, she didn’t find it helpful. “Someone in deep grief doesn't know what to ask for. It's better instead to either just do something like, bring food, call to check on them, ask if you can mow the lawn, anything to make life easier for them. When you are going through grief you can't even think about what you need.”

Many people suggested Jennifer should go for a walk, or ‘get out and have fun’. However, she told us that sometimes the person who is grieving just needs to sit down and talk. “There is no fixing it. As a griever, I don't want to hear how I should be handling it or what you would do in my situation. I just want them to hear me. Grief needs to be heard.”

In order to show you care, Jennifer suggests giving continued support, not just in the days or weeks after the loss. “People come very soon after a death, but they disappear just as fast. It would be nice to have more ongoing support. People are still grieving after the first week, after the second week. Just as reality is starting to set in, the support and visits stop. Continued support would be so helpful.”

Marty’s Journey

“Don’t begin a sentence with the words ‘at least’ and phrases to avoid include ‘give it time’.”

Marty writes for the Grief Healing Blog and has focussed her practice on issues of loss, grief and transition for more than 40 years. “I am honoured to accompany people who are struggling with, working through, and overcoming the most devastating challenges of caregiving and loss. Every day I learn something new from each of them. I cannot imagine more inspiring, uplifting work than this.”

Her blog has a wealth of advice for anyone who is coming to terms with bereavement. She also writes about what to say and what not to say to someone grieving. Simple phrases such as ‘I want you to know I’m thinking of you’ and ‘I’m here for you, and I will continue to be here for you’ can mean a lot to someone enduring a loss.

She also urges readers to be aware of things which aren’t considered helpful to a person in mourning. She writes: “Don’t begin a sentence with the words ‘at least’ and phrases to avoid include ‘give it time’, ‘this will make you stronger’ and ‘time heals all wounds’.”

Marty writes: “These overly simple, empty phrases minimise the mourner’s feelings, diminish the importance of the one who died, and takes away the person’s right to mourn.”

Sharon’s journey

Phrases such as ‘be strong’ and ‘God needed another angel’ can be deemed as unhelpful.

Sharon, who runs Grief Reiki, said phrases such as ‘be strong’ and ‘God needed another angel’ can be deemed as unhelpful. She told us: “The statements diminish what a griever is feeling and can do more harm than good. Hurtful statements, even though they are unintentional, can cause grievers to isolate themselves from those around them.”

Comforting phrases include ‘can I give you a hug’ and ‘tell me what happened’ can be helpful to someone who is mourning. Sharon said: “These statements do not try to intellectualise or rationalise grief but come from a place of love which is exactly what helps a griever to feel heard.”

Sharon also explained that even the smallest of gestures can be helpful to those going through a bereavement. “Grievers may not feel like talking on the phone after a loved one dies. However, receiving a simple text message from someone interested in how they are doing can make a griever’s day.”

Suzanne’s journey

People “should not be frightened to mention my father, not to be frightened of my tears or worrying they would upset me.”

Suzanne returned to the UK a few days before her father passed away and described the months that followed as painful and difficult. She said: “I wish neighbours and friends had been more open with me about how much they missed my father too.”

Phrases that Suzanne heard after her father’s death which she didn’t find helpful were ‘yes, it is hard, but it is something we all have to go through’ and ‘you won’t think it now, but you will recover’.

Suzanne, who runs the blog Chicken Ruby, told us she would have liked to have heard things like ‘sorry to hear about the death of your father’. She told us people should consider “Ringing, calling in, sending a card or turning up with a coffee or food.”

She went on to explain that people "should not be frightened to mention my father, not to be frightened of my tears, or worrying they would upset me."

Bex’s journey

“It’s not helpful to suggest there’s a good reason behind the death of someone’s child.”

Rainbow and a tree

Bex Massey has written about her experiences of infertility and child loss on her blog. She explains what people should avoid saying to someone who has experienced the pain of child loss or miscarriage. ‘“At least you know you can get pregnant’, ‘everything happens for a reason’ or ‘it just wasn’t meant to be’. You may truly believe this and have the best of intentions, but believe me, it’s not helpful to suggest there’s a good reason behind the death of someone’s child.”

Bex advises using phrases such as ‘I understand if you want some space, but please know I’m here for you if you ever want someone to talk to’ or ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this, please let me know how I can help you’ instead.

Bex suggests showing that you care with a gesture if you can’t find the words to express your support. “Say it with something pineapple or rainbow themed. Pineapples are good luck symbols of the trying to conceive (TTC) community and are used to show strength, love and support for those going through fertility struggles. A child born after infertility, miscarriage or child-loss is often known as a rainbow baby because they are the beautiful outcome of a stormy time.”

Paul Alexander

"Don't try and fix the grief or pain"

Paul runs Grief Song and provides music for grief support, bereavement, hope and comfort. His recordings are used by church groups, funeral homes, hospices, hospitals and bereavement support groups.

He told us: “Phrases and helpful things to do include ‘I am so sorry for your loss and pain’, ‘I hope I can be here for your during the days and months ahead’. Don’t say things such as ‘they are in a better place now or they are no longer suffering’.”

Paul said don’t try and fix the grief or pain, instead simply being present is a good way to show support.

Karin Sieger

“We must accept that not knowing what to say is understandable and normal.”

Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer who explained that many people can feel huge pressure and stress to “get it right” when providing words of comfort. She explained: “Loss, bereavement and grief are as individual as the person who is grieving and the circumstances of their loss, the person who has died etc. We must accept that not knowing what to say is understandable and normal. 

“Grief lasts a long time, so keep checking in on the other person. I have been in many grief situations, from a number of angles, and every time I continue to get the feeling and question, ‘what is best?’ It’s normal, therefore I would recommend being who you are and don’t be afraid of telling the truth.”

Be honest and considerate with your comments. Karin suggests phrases “‘I am shocked’, ‘I don’t know what to say’, ‘I am sorry’ or ‘I am sad’. Also, let the other person know you are there for them.”

We understand that bereavement is one of the hardest things people go through. With so much on your mind, it can be difficult to choose the right gravestones for loved ones. We are available to support and guide you on choosing the perfect memorial.