When someone we love experiences a loss or trauma we want to help. We want to say the “right” thing and ease their pain or reassure them. It’s impossible to know exactly what to say because we can’t read minds (shocking I know). But I have found that there are certain things we should avoid saying.
1. You will have other children/find another partner/get another pet.
This statement may come from a place of caring and wanting to help, but it only serves to diminish the value and importance of the loss. It implies that the void left by the loss is easily filled. No matter the spirit in which this comment is made, it is hurtful and insulting.
2. Say nothing and ignore that anything happened.
When we don’t know what to say or do sometimes we may stay silent. Grief can be overwhelming and scary, but as much as you may feel uncertain of what to do, saying nothing can be incredibly hurtful. Chances are that the message received by your grieving friend will be that you don’t care.
3. It’s been ____ months/years, it’s time to get over it and move on.
There is a common myth that the grieving process “should” be completed in a year. This may be true for some, but is not true for others. Each person has a right to process grief in their own way and this means that some will grieve longer than others. The other problem with this comment is that we don’t “get over” grief. We move through it and learn to carry it differently over time, but it is always part of our story. No matter how long it has been since a loss we can get triggered, have a difficult time coping around anniversaries or just feel the loss more deeply at times. There’s no timetable for grief and implying that there is invalidates the pain and complexity of the grief experience.
4. Let me know if I can do anything.
Ok, to clarify, this is not a hurtful thing to say, but it has become trite and overused. Even when said with complete sincerity and a desire to be of service chances are you will never get a call asking for support. So if you sincerely want to help, offer specific and personalized service. For example, bring dinner once a week for the first month or two, call regularly just to say you’re thinking about them, offer to run an errand or ask which chores you can help with. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, it can be simple and yet these acts of service help to lessen the feeling of isolation that often comes along with grief.
The most powerful things you can do or say when someone is grieving are usually the simplest: I love you. I’m so sorry. I wish I could take the hurt away. These statements validate and comfort. So when you don’t know what to say, keep it simple and show your caring and support through actions as well as words.