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Say This, Not That

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

If “treat others how you want to be treated” is the gold standard for elementary school mantras, I think “everything happens for a reason” has reached the top spot for go to things to say to grievers.

Here’s the thing, one of those is helpful. One is well intentioned but absolutely no one grieving wants to hear that. Can you guess which one’s which?

I was talking to another widow mama last week and we got on the topic of different platitudes that people tend to say to someone who has had a loss. And, of course, the “everything happens for a reason” was blurted out followed by a laugh. A laugh because we both said it but more so, a laugh because who, really, would think that particular saying brings comfort or any remote kind of peace.

Let me be clear, I know and believe 99% of these sayings come from a place of good intentions and a desire to somehow find the right words to make it ok, or a little better. These people truly do mean well. That is why I am writing this. To watch as someone grieves and desperately want to make it better for them, is such a helpless feeling. We know the truth is, we cannot fix it because there is nothing to be fixed. It isn’t a broken bone, it’s a loss. And so, the hole cannot be filled.

But there are things we can say that provide genuine support and love, letting the heartbroken person know you are here and with them.

First, let’s chat about why the typical grief phrases aren’t helpful. Often, they can be dismissive of the person's pain. Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss, and it's important to acknowledge the person's pain and validate their feelings. Platitudes can minimize or dismiss the person's pain, making them feel unheard and unsupported.

They can be unhelpful in finding solutions. Some people who are grieving are looking for concrete solutions or ways to cope with their loss. Platitudes do not offer any practical help, and can leave the person feeling frustrated.

Especially to the over thinkers, they can be harmful. Platitudes can be harmful when they imply that the person who is experiencing grief is somehow responsible for their loss. This can be particularly hurtful to someone who is already struggling with feelings of guilt or shame.

They can be cliché. Overused platitudes can come across as trite and insincere. The person may feel like they are being given a pat answer rather than genuine support and empathy.

I was talking to someone recently, who has experienced different losses in his life and yet he still felt like he didn’t have the “right” words or know what to say to a family member who is fresh in the throes of grief. I wish I had the answer for him but the truth is, grief is so unique to everyone there isn’t a one size fits all answer.

It's natural to ask "how are you?" as a way to express concern, but sometimes, that actually becomes a difficult question for the person. In rapid fire thinking in their own mind, they’ll question if you actually want to know the truth, if they’ll be too sad or heavy for you and sometimes, they have no idea how they actually feel.

So, here are somethings I have found to be helpful:

“I know there isn’t anything to say to heal your pain but just know I am thinking of you, Vienna and Joe.”

With this one, it made me feel seen just by the acknowledgement that there is nothing to fix it or make it better. Hearing that the person is remembering not just my daughter and I but my husband as well gave me a small comfort to know he isn’t forgotten.

“What’s today/tonight been like for you?”

Although this is similar to “how are you,” it gives the person a chance to be more specific with their answer. They can label the day or night itself rather than their own feelings. It also makes them feel that you may actually want to know a more detailed answer, beyond the standard “it’s OK.”

“I’m always here to listen or just sit in the silence with you”

With this, it reminds the person that you’re available to listen and chat when they need it but you’re also willing to just sit in the silence. And that’s a big deal. Sitting in the uncomfortable silence as sadness and heartbreak hang in the air is h.a.r.d. But when the person grieving hears that someone is willing to brave that with them, too, that means so much.

“I was doing ___ and it reminded me of (fill in their person)”

I don’t think I will ever say it enough: share the memories. When we lose someone we love, we try desperately to remember every moment, every conversation. To hear a story we may not have heard before, it’s as though we had a new moment with that person we lost. I promise, you won’t make the person even more sad by mentioning their loved one. Share the memories.

“I know you’re not OK and I’m OK with that”

Grieving and navigating life after loss can feel so isolating and really jarring to your self confidence. By telling someone we accept any and all of the feelings they experience as a part of their grief without judgment, we validate them and remind them they’re not alone, they’re loved.

This was a long one, friend and a little different than my usual story telling style blogs. But in the last few months, the topic of what to say and the not so helpful grief platitudes, has been coming up more and more. I thought it was important to just share a little on the topic from my perspective.

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