The Worst Thing to Say to a Grieving Person
If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, you know - it truly sucks. There are so many emotions to take in and responsibilities pile up whether you’re organizing a funeral, corresponding with family members and friends, or going through belongings. On top of that, people struggle with what to say. It’s natural to want to comfort loved ones when they are hurting. But this can lead to unknowingly diminishing their feelings by pointing out ways to look on the bright side or consider the positive of whatever is going on. While it may be well-meaning, this is not typically what that person needs in the moment.
That’s why the worst thing to say to a grieving person is anything that starts with “at least.”
The problem with this behavior is not the intention, but rather, what is being inadvertently communicated to the grieving person. When we use phrases like “At least…” (“At least they didn’t suffer,” “At least you got one last birthday with them,” “ At least they lived a full life,”) we are also saying that the sadness being felt is something we would like fixed, rather than perfectly acceptable as is. In her book, “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand,” Megan Devine says, “True comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away. Companionship, not correction, is the way forward.”
We as a society would benefit from shifting the desire to find a solution for painful situations, and instead, listen, support, and sit with a grieving loved one in the way that they need. Will this feel uncomfortable? Probably. Will the discomfort last forever? No. And that short moment of discomfort will show your friend or loved one that the way they are feeling is entirely acceptable and not something you are looking to change.
Grief is experienced in a multitude of ways. The best way to help someone move through the pain is to allow them to feel however they do. How beautiful it is to have no agenda and support a friend right where they are.
So how can we provide support to someone in the middle of a tough situation? Here are some ways I think are worth considering:
Validate how they are feeling. It is their grief experience after all, not yours. There will be many different emotions that arise and it is most helpful to allow each emotion to have its own time and space.
Let Them Be Sad
...or frustrated, or relieved, or content. Just let them be. Sadness can be the hardest for us to accept for those that we love. Keep in mind even if it is hard to accept at the moment, it is better, in the long run, to allow a full range of emotions through the grieving process.
There will be times when there are no more words or your grieving loved one does not want to talk about their loss. Your presence during mundane and normal moments can mean just as much as your verbal support.
I don’t say all of this to shame you if this is how you have operated for most of your life. It is, after all, how we have been taught to respond in moments of loss. What we can all do is work to unlearn these responses and instead come non-judgementally, with no plan to restore what ultimately is not up to us. The pressure is off and we don’t have to worry about fixing everything. Life is full of equal amounts of joy and pain, and we get to be there for those we love through it all. So we can either run from it or accept it. Let’s work to choose acceptance.