When grievers are dealing with the emotional pain of a loss of any kind, they are constantly bombarded with advice that negatively impacts them. Most professional grief support providers know better than to say many of these things. The problem is that the vast majority of people trying to support them have no professional training. Their immediate circle of friends are trying to be helpful, but just do not have the best information at their disposal to provide meaningful support.
Many of us have been told what not to say to grievers. The problem with a list of “don'ts” is that it is easy to forget. The reality is that things sometimes pop out of our mouths before we think of how those comments might be perceived. Rather than offering a list, we will be looking at a few of those comments and explain why they can be painful to the griever.
Please keep in mind that there is an enormous difference between “intention” and “perception”. Most people never intend to upset a griever by offering advice. They are desperately trying to provide help and support. The problem arises in how the griever perceives the comment. Grievers have a reduced sense of concentration and may be highly sensitive to what they hear. Things that they might normally dispute or ignore can cut like a knife to the heart. That is why these well intentioned remarks need to be avoided.
“Get Over It!”
No caring person wants to see another suffering. We naturally want them to feel better! After an arbitrary amount of time, many think that the passage of that time should somehow make a difference in how the griever is responding to their loss. This is frequently when people tell them that they need to “Get over it!” The reality is that when something major happens in our lives, we never “get over” it. The memories of that event will be with us forever. With the proper education and assistance, we can learn to “survive and thrive” in spite of that event.
Telling someone to get over it is often perceived as telling that person that the loss they experienced is not significant enough that it should continue to impact their life. If that loss was significant enough to cause grief, it will continue to impact their life on some level. The degree of the impact is not controlled by time. Time only passes by and sets that emotional pain into place as part of their “new normal”. When that happens, not only does the griever not get over it, but rather continues to live that pain silently. They start stuffing their feelings to avoid hearing this painful suggestion again and again.
A far better thing to do is to let them know that it is possible to take grief recovery action to lessen that emotional pain. By taking such action, they will be able, once again, to enjoy the many positive memories of that relationship.
“I know how your feeling…”
No one knows how anyone else feels over their loss. It does not matter if you have had a very similar loss. You may remember how you felt after your loss, but that does not mean that you have a clue about what is going on inside this griever. Their feelings are based on their personal relationship, which is obviously different than the relationship that you grieved. When grievers hear people say this, they know it is not the truth.
When I was 21, I had a swimming accident and broke and dislocated my neck. I spent a month in the hospital while my doctors tried various methods of stabilizing the fracture. While I was in the hospital, a friend came to see me and asked how I was doing. I tried to explain how I felt, as I was lying there with tongs screwed into my skull, attached to weights to prevent pressure on my spinal cord. After a few minutes, he said, “I know just how you feel! I broke my finger once”. Needless to say, he was very fortunate that I was on a lot of pain killers and strapped to my bed. I really wanted to strangle him!
The comparison that my friend made to his broken finger obviously bore no relationship to my situation with a broken neck.
For the griever experiencing the very personal emotional pain of their individual loss, hearing people continually say these words, as a means of comfort, can eventually result in anger and disbelief on a level similar to what I experienced. I have often heard families at my funeral home tell me that they will punch the next person that remotely suggests that they know how they are feeling. To make matters worse, even members of their own family, who have experienced the same loss, do not really know how others in that family are felling.
If you have experienced a similar loss, it is better to say, “I know how it felt to me when I was dealing with _____, but how are you doing right now?” If you ask this, be willing to listen to their answer, without analysis, criticism, or judgement. Understand that there is little you can say in that moment to make this better. If you have not had a similar loss, but want to say something, you might begin with, “I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through at this time…” and invite them to tell you how they are feeling.
“They are in a better place…”
Even if you knew the deceased and are certain of this family’s faith convictions, this may or may not reflect what they are thinking. Furthermore, that person may be in a better place, but that does not make the loss any less emotionally painful, because the family is stuck here and has to deal with everything in “this place”.
I heard this innumerable times after my father died. He suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to my faith beliefs, I knew he was in a better place. The problem was that I was not in that better place as well. My mother also suffered from Alzheimer’s and I was stuck in the position of having to remind her, every morning, that the reason my dad was not joining her for breakfast was that he had died!
The reality of things is that a person who is deeply grieving a death and constantly hearing this from others, might possibly consider suicide so that they can join that person in that “better place”. This is obviously a worse case emotional response. If the family’s faith involves belief in an afterlife, they do not need constant reminders. If they are not people who hold this as part of their personal faith, it is a comment that holds no value for them.
“You shouldn’t feel bad because…”
Emotional loss is painful. Telling people why they should not feel sad does little to change that pain. If anything, they may begin to feel bad about the fact they are experiencing pain. No matter what reason you may have to offer on why they should not feel bad, it has very little impact on their level of emotional pain.
The perception of many grievers, on hearing this, is that their personal pain is not something that matters.
“You must be feeling…”
Grief can be very much like being on a roller coaster. The feelings associated with any grieving experience can, at times, be overwhelming. At other moments, the griever may feel relatively at peace with their situation. The problem, for those trying to offer support, is that we can never truly know where they are on this emotional ride. No matter what you think, you never really know how they are feeling and to suggest that you do, can easily be taken as another example of “I know how you feel”.
Grievers get very tired of people telling them how to feel. If you suggest that they are feeling sad, and at that moment they are not, they may now feel bad for not feeling what you suggested their feeling should be.
It is, again, far better to invite them to share their feelings instead.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty…”
Grievers may or may not feel bad about some of the choices they have made. Suggesting, before they say anything, that they should not feel guilty, frequently makes them think of all of the reasons why they should feel guilt. Many grievers never associated their feelings of loss with guilt until someone suggested that they should not feel guilty.
Introducing the concept of feeling guilty encourages the griever to feel that they are somehow responsible for the loss. This is rarely the case.
If, on their own, grievers tell you that they are feeling guilty, it might be helpful to ask them if they are instead thinking of things they wish might have been different, better, or more in that relationship. If they say yes to this, you might begin to talk about the Grief Recovery Method actions they can take to better express and deal with those feelings.
“You should be grateful for…”
Grievers sometime perceive this as another way of discounting the honest pain they are feeling. While they might feel grateful that their loved one is no longer suffering, that does not mean that they, the griever, are not suffering.
“It was God’s will…” or “God never gives us more than we can handle…”
I have heard this expression passed on to grievers more times than I can begin to count. This may or may not reflect their personal religious belief.
This comment sometimes causes people to question their personal faith in a God that would “take their loved one from them”. Children can be particularly sensitive to this comment. In a number of situations I have heard a friend or clergy member tell a child that “God needs your Daddy more than you”! While this is meant to be comforting, that is rarely the case. These children are often left questioning their relationship with their faith.
“They led a full life…”
This may be true, but many of us wish that we still had more time to share.
As with many statements that people make to grievers, this one is based on an element of logic. The problem is that grief is emotional and not logical. It speaks to their head, rather than their heart. As a result, it offers little or no comfort.
“You need to keep busy…”
Keeping busy does keep our minds occupied, but it does little to relieve the emotional pain of loss. When the busy work ends, the pain is still there. It is not uncommon for grievers to keep themselves busy to the point of exhaustion. They continue to repeat this cycle over and over, thinking that on some level, it will help them get beyond their emotional pain.
Keeping busy solves nothing. It is not helpful advice. Grievers would be better served with being offered recovery actions to help them move beyond the loss, rather than just being offered busy work, which encourages them to stuff their feelings.
Most of these statements and comments are things that all of us have heard other people say when we were growing up. If you think back to your childhood, when adults told you to get over it and other bits of unhelpful advice, those comments likely did not make anything better. Since you heard these things from the people you trusted, you very likely still tried to make them work for your situation. It was not until you took advanced training in helping grievers that you may have finally realized that they had become part of your belief system and that you needed to avoid falling back on repeating them to grievers.
As grief support professionals, our goal is to help grievers move through and beyond the emotional pain of loss. There is a high probability that others have encouraged them, intentionally or unintentionally, to hide their feelings. The fact that we are avoiding these platitudes, and instead, inviting them to tell their story automatically distinguishes us as someone who truly cares. This is an important step in building the trust necessary to provide them meaningful assistance.