When I was 23-years-old my mother passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. At her funeral, someone said to me, “It’s only going to get worse. Wait until all this is over and your loss starts to really sink in.” Although I suspect this woman thought she was being helpful, her sentiments were far from comforting.
Three years later, when my husband passed away, someone said, “You’re young. You’ll get married again someday.” That comment seemed to make my loss sound more like I’d broken my phone and the solution was to simply get another one.
I certainly don’t hold any ill will toward people who say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving. It’s hard to find the right words to comfort someone who is dealing with pain. And if you’re not careful, your attempts to console someone could come across as insensitive.
I reached out to a couple of fellow authors who also have a first-hand understanding grief. They shared a few more things you should never say to someone who is grieving:
“Time is really just the title of a magazine,” says Kristin Meekhof, a self-help expert and author who became a widow when she was just 33. When conducting research for her book, Meekhof spoke with over 100 widows and she says, “I can confidently tell you that there is not a specific time frame for healing. For example, just because twelve months passed, the bereaved one doesn’t just wake up on a certain date and feel happy.”
Meekhof says it’s best to avoid using the words ‘at least’ because that phrase minimizes the person’s loss. “While this may seem like an innocent comment, the bereaved hears this is all they have. And thinking about the memories from the past can bring more tears.” So if any sentence you begin to utter starts with, ‘at least,’ you may want to think twice.
Jill Smolowe, a grief coach and author of Four Weddings and a Funeral, cautions against pointing out the silver lining. “Saying things like, ‘At least she didn’t suffer,’ or ‘Life goes on,’ risks rankling more than it soothes or comforts.”
Smolowe says it’s important to avoid projecting yourself into the situation. “It may sound sympathetic to you, but to the listener, it risks sounding like you’re judging their marriage or suggesting that their grief doesn’t cut deep enough (since, obviously, they’re going on).” Instead, she suggests offering a more honest statement like, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
“Someone who has just lost a loved one is unlikely to want to hear about your own loss,” says Smolowe. “If the time comes when sharing that information might be useful to the bereaved person, remember that each person’s experience of grief is different. So, ‘I know just how you feel’ is never a good idea.”
Avoid making offers you can’t possibly keep. And it can be more helpful to make a concrete offer, rather than a generic one. Smolowe suggests asking questions like, “Which night this week can I bring you dinner?” or “Would you like me to take out your garbage?” Those little things can go a long way to helping someone who is grieving.
If you don’t know what to say, keep it simple. A quick, “I’m sorry for your loss,” can be best. A card or flowers may be a meaningful way to express your sentiments as well, especially when you’re at a loss for words.
Originally published at www.inc.com