What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving?
When you're grieving, people want to help. They want to provide comfort, whether it's in the form of flowers, hugs, sympathy cards, or enough fried chicken and casseroles to feed an army. They offer words of comfort, but are they really that comforting?
When you hear "sorry for your loss" for the hundredth time, it gets old. It's a nice sentiment and well-meaning, but it does absolutely nothing to bring you comfort. After a while, these social niceties start getting on your nerves. It's like the sound of nails screeching on a chalkboard. It can bring you to the edge, where you might scream if someone says that one more time.
Have people ever said these to you?
- Sorry for your loss.
- I understand and know how you feel.
- Time will heal.
- Time heals all wounds.
- What’s done is done.
- They are in a better place now.
- They lived a good life, right?
- You have to be strong.
- How are you coping?
- You’ve got to get a hold of yourself.
- Life goes on.
- You should be over this by now.
- No sense in dwelling in the past.
- It's a blessing in disguise.
- It was God's will.
- All you have to do is keep busy.
- Everything happens for a reason.
- If you need anything, call me.
These are some of the typical cliches, questions, and phrases that people say when a loved one passes away. But you also hear these phrases when you're going through other types of losses as well.
Sorry, you lost your job. Sorry, your relationship didn't work out. Maybe it's for the best. You'll find a better job. You'll beat that disease. It's a blessing in disguise.
Here’s the truth: there is nothing anyone can say or do that will 100% make the pain stop. But that doesn't mean people won't try. You get to a point where you want to crawl into a dark hole and avoid everyone so you don’t have to hear any of it.
On a rational level, you know that things get easier with time. The intensity lessens, and hopefully, you’ll find your footing again. But on an emotional level you aren't ready to hear this, especially when a loss is recent.
But the reality is, grief is an uncomfortable topic.
It makes most people shift and squirm in their seats. If you are grieving, you feel like you have to hold it all together. You have to manage your emotions and be strong for others. On top of that, you feel like you have to tiptoe around what you're feeling and thinking for other people's sake. You may even feel ashamed and guilty for getting so annoyed with people because they are doing their best to be nice and mean well. It's this constant cycle that leaves you emotionally exhausted.
I remember when people would come over to visit my grandfather. They would leave and say, “He's lived a good life." Ummm, yes, he has. Then I would close the door and roll my eyes. Because why in the world is this person giving me a eulogy when my grandfather is still alive?
On the one hand, I get it. Both my grandparents went from seeing doctors to palliative care, which quickly transitioned to in-home hospice. In-home hospice is when you have a nurse that comes to your house checking on the patient once a week (or more as needed). A nurse's aide might come to the house two or three times a week to bathe the patient. The rest of the time you are on your own caring for your loved one. It becomes all about managing the symptoms and making sure they are not in pain and as comfortable as possible. We all knew what was coming.
In these situations, everyone starts going through grief early, often referred to as anticipatory grief. But even under these circumstances, the last thing any of us wanted to hear are these words when my grandfather was still alive in the next room. Hearing that wasn't helpful. It wasn't comforting. Instead, it was downright infuriating. I wanted to be mad in those moments, but I realized something.
People aren't taught how to grieve.
You may know what it feels like to have grief and loss, but you don’t understand those exact set of circumstances. Every person and situation is different. Grief is universal, but unique to each individual. Saying, “I know how you feel” could stir up some anger. Leaving you feeling frustrated because you were only trying to let them know that they are not alone.
What it comes down to is this: we aren’t taught what to do or say when someone is grieving. We don't learn how to deal with grief. We emulate what other people in our life had done when they lost something or someone. We take that information and apply it to our circumstances the best we know how. We stumble, fall on our face, and try to find our way.
The same holds true for those who are grieving. We learned how to react based on what we saw from those around us. Whether that was running away, avoidance, numbing out, or completely falling apart. Or maybe you had terrific examples of people in your life who knew how to handle grief in a healthy way.
Regardless, there can be a level of uncertainty from all sides. Let's dive into this more and look at how you can handle the cliches that get thrown around when you're the one grieving or what to do when supporting someone going through it.
When you are the one grieving, here are five things to remember that will help you navigate the stereotypical advice, social awkwardness, and fake smiles.
- Be honest with where you are at in your journey.If you avoid or hide it, it's possible to do more damage to yourself and others. Putting yourself on the back burner may feel like the best route to take because of life's constant demands, but in the long run, it will catch up to you. Honor your feelings because they are like a security alert giving you information as to what's happening on the inside. It matters.
- Communicate courageously.When you are going through a loss, communicating seems like extra work. Why should you make the effort? You're the one who is hurting. But let's be real. If you are having a tough day, it may be best to let the people around you know it. People can't read minds, so don't expect them to pick up on your subtle (or not so subtle) cues that you might need space or that you need to get out of the house. They might jump to conclusions and take it personally. It's best to be upfront to avoid unnecessary conflict. Be courageous and ask for what you need because that's also showing compassion to those around you.
- Bring balance with boundaries. Another not so pleasant B-word, Boundaries. Some people love them, and others don't. This point goes hand-in-hand with the first two bullet points. Perhaps you may need to set up some boundaries, especially in the beginning. It's important to realize that needing time for yourself is not selfish. It's okay to say no, thank you when you get invited somewhere. It's okay to request some alone time. Creating boundaries, setting limits, and asking for what you need from those you trust shows a Godly sense of maturity, strength, and wisdom.
- Focus on the sentiment, not the sentence.Here’s the big one! We don't learn how to grieve in school. We don't even get this "how-to" in church. People don't know what to do or say, and everyone feels like they're walking on eggshells. If you are grieving, you want to be polite and don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. On the flip side, those supporting you don't want to come across as trite or uncaring. Their intention is meant to comfort and lift your spirits, not annoy or anger you. It can be hard to look past the words that well-wishers say, but I believe it all comes from a place of kindness. In these moments, remember we are all doing the best we can when tragedy strikes. Give yourself grace and extend that same grace to others.
- Go to God more than Google. David was a king. He had the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. He wrestled with his feelings, but he laid his heart out before God continuously. It's written all through the book of Psalms. He was angry, tormented, depressed, overwhelmed, remorseful, and the list goes on. No matter what he was facing, he talked to God. When we go through a loss, we want information from the why or the how-to. With convenient access at our fingertips, we can turn to a search engine for every question that pops into our heads. Where do you turn to first, Google, or God? It can be easier to type in a problem than go through the Bible and find something that applies to our situation. A couple of tips:
- Find comfort in familiar favorites by reading your favorite scripture, quote, or story.
- Memorize it, write it on a post-it note or index card so you can connect with God in your moment of need.
- If the Bible isn’t your go-to spiritual resource, then find one that fits your belief system.
It's easy to try to handle everything yourself in times of grief. You may feel like you have to be strong for others. You may feel like you want to be left alone. You may immediately be open to talking with a coach or counselor. You may need to phone a friend and vent regularly. You may find that journaling in silence is your go-to way to process. Whatever it is, know that you are not alone. In Psalms 34:18, it says, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."
When you have questions circling in your mind and don't know what to do next, remember that God is your source and strength.
When you support a grieving person, what do you say to comfort someone? Here are five ways to be present with someone as they go through a significant life change or loss.
- Acknowledge their pain.When someone is going through a loss, many times, we tiptoe around it. We avoid saying the person's name, especially when a loved one has passed away. It's crucial to bring validity to their pain by acknowledging it. We can do this by simply saying "that sucks," or "I can't imagine how you are feeling", or "I love you, and I'm here for you." If we don't create space for someone grieving, they will most likely suppress their emotions because they don't feel free to open up.
- Let them get it out.Grieving is a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Let them tap into all of the twists and turns without any censorship. Let them vent, yell, cry, or escape for a few minutes. Do they need to scream into a pillow? Do they need to find a punching bag and wail on it with a jab-jab-cross punch combination? Sometimes people who are grieving hold things inside because they don't want to make others feel uncomfortable. Allowing them space to feel their feelings is truly a gift. Be present with them in their pain. Of course, the caveat being as long as it doesn't hurt them or others.
- Be okay with where they are at in the process.It's hard enough dealing with the loss itself, but to feel judgment on top of that adds a type of stress that no one needs. Try to avoid pushing your agenda. For example, maybe you want the person grieving to talk to a counselor or go to a grief support group. Those are valid suggestions; however, perhaps wait until they have had some time to sit with their emotions or bring it up themself. After all, they are trying to get through the next hour, not think about the rest of their life. If you feel they are "stuck," you could bring it up gently down the road. I find it's best to position it in the form of an open-ended question. For example, “I can't imagine how you are feeling or what you're going through. Would you ever consider talking with a grief specialist if or when you are ready?”
- Create a safe space for them to share. Recognize that grief is different for each person.What works for one person won't necessarily work for another. Maybe you know what it's like to lose something or someone. That means you can relate. You know what loss feels like, but don't pretend you know what they went through and how they feel and think. It's a time to listen more than speak. Skip the temptation to insert your opinion or tell them how they "should" be behaving or grieving. Your goal is to be present and create a safe space where they can talk openly.
- Check-in and follow-up with them, regularly. Life happens, and we all get busy. But if we genuinely want to be there for our family and friends, it will take some effort. For example, when it comes to grief, think beyond the funeral or the initial loss. Key dates like birthdays, anniversaries, etc., can be emotional triggers, so reach out regularly. The key word here is regularly. Write a note, put a reminder alert on your phone, or whatever your system is to remind yourself to check in with people from time to time. Perhaps they will want to talk, or maybe they’ll want to be alone. Either way, respect their response, and rest assured they are grateful for your kindness.
We need to honor each other in moments of grief and loss. We need to move away from trying to "fix" the person or issue and shift to a place where we are fully present, ready to listen, and have a servant heart for those experiencing grief.
This topic is to serve as a gateway to how we perceive grief, especially in social settings. It gives those grieving permission to feel annoyed and angry with the bombardment of cliches that come up when a loss occurs.
We also need to open up our hearts and minds to see that we don't know how to grieve or what to say when someone is suffering. Like most of life, it's a live-and-learn process. That's why we need to forgive ourselves when we get upset with others for saying "stupid" things, and we need to forgive them when we know deep down, they are doing their best to be present and supportive.
*Note: In this post I talk about God and the Bible. This is what I personally believe in and it’s been a lifeline for me. But if that’s not your cup of tea, that’s cool. I would encourage you to stay tuned in because we can all learn from each other no matter our beliefs and background. I remain open to learn from all sources and I hope I get to learn from you as well.