Walking with You

Blog Search

Blog Archive


What to say and what not to say to people who are mourning

Our society is awkward with death. Often, people don't know what to say - and in their attempt to offer comfort, they say things that are upsetting and may even intensify the feelings of loss or grief. 
I remember when my dad died. He was in Scotland and I had to make an emergency trip to be with him. He died three days later and I remained in Scotland for a few weeks, making funeral arrangements and helping my mum get affairs in order. I am an only child. My father's death had been sudden and there was a lot to do. 
About a week after I returned to Australia I was at a lunch with friends. They all knew why I had been away. One of them, without mentioning my father's death, casually asked me how my trip had been. To me, it felt like he was asking if I had had a good holiday. I felt as if my father's death was unimportant and as if my grief was being negated. 'My dad just died - how do you think it was?', I snapped.  Not the best reply, I know! It would have been so very different if the friend had just acknowledged my dad's death. Just an 'I was sorry to hear your dad died. How was your trip?'
So what are the things you should not say? And what are better alternatives?
I know how you feel
No, you don't. This is probably the one that gets said most often and causes the most upset. Nobody knows how another person feels. It doesn't matter how similar our experiences, you are not me and I am not you. We are all different. You can never know exactly how I feel, just as I can never know exactly how you feel. I know that you are trying to express support but this actually negates how I really feel. 
After my son's death, some people said this to me and it just caused me so much pain and anger. I am not dismissing others' experiences of grief. But, in a way, you are dismissing mine if you say this.
It's better to say something like, 'I can't know how you feel' or 'I can't imagine what you're going through'. If you want to reference your own experiences, then be specific. For example, I might say 'I remember when my mum died, I felt bad about the fact that I hadn't spent more time with her'. If the other person acknowledges that they are feeling like that then you can offer to talk about it with them.
And it is always ok to just say that you don't know what to say or to just say sorry.
Life must go on
This is another one that is really upsetting. Yes, life does go on but for the person that has just lost a loved one it is often too hard to look at the future. Life without their spouse/child/parent seems unbearable. They need time to acknowledge and process what has happened. They need space before they can think about how they will create a life without their loved one. Being told the obvious doesn't help at all. 
At the moment my son died, I had friends around me who said, 'One breath at a time'. That was as far ahead as I could manage. They gave me the strength to take that next breath. Then it became one step at a time and then one day at a time. 
Instead of saying life must go on, try suggesting something that you can do together. It could be going for a coffee one morning. Or going for a walk. But be prepared for the other person to decline or cancel. Sometimes planning for a day ahead is too much. There is a mental exhaustion that comes with grief that means that it is difficult to make even the simplest of decisions. 
Things could be worse
While this might be an appropriate way of dealing with a broken glass or failing an exam, it is certainly not appropriate when dealing with death and grief. To the person who is mourning, at that point in time nothing is worse than the prospect of life without their loved one. 
I have a friend who lost her daughter at age 16 and was told that at least she wouldn't have to deal with the problems associated with drugs and alcohol. The truth is she would have given anything to be facing those problems with her daughter rather than facing a life without her. 
Reminding somebody of the things they still have in their lives also falls into this category. 'You still have your other son', was something I got told. Yes, I do and I am so grateful for him. But when your life has just been ripped apart by the death of a loved one, you need time to process and to grieve for what has gone. Reminding somebody of what they still have also reminds them of what they have lost - not just the person who has died but all their expectations for the future. Nothing can ever replace or compensate for that loss. 
You need to be strong
No, they don't - they need to be able to fall apart and feel sadness or anger or whatever feeling it is that day. They need to be able to cry and mourn.  It's ok for somebody to be vulnerable.
After her husband died, a friend was told that she needed to stay strong for her children. She was complimented on her strength. Years later she came to the realization that she had internalized that idea of herself and had not given herself the space to mourn. It had taken her far longer to accept her husband's death than it might have done if she had been able to let her feelings out at the time.
If you are able, offer a shoulder to cry on. Listen. You don't need to say anything - just allow them to express their feelings. A loving silence can help more than words. If they have dependents, offer to babysit and give them a break so that they can sit and cry if that is what they need to do. 
One last tip
There are other things that it is better not to say but I will cover them in other blogs. I want to close this with one last tip. 
Don't be afraid to talk about the person who has died. Share your memories of them. Tell stories. Laugh about the silly things they did. To a person who is mourning, it is important that others remember their loved one. Sometimes (especially in the early days) this may lead to tears but the tears are healing. When you never mention the dead person's name for fear of upset, it is as their life had no meaning or consequence. So recollect those anecdotes and keep the person's memory alive! 

Go Back