8 Things To Never Say To Someone Who's Grieving — & What To Say Instead

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
When someone you care about has experienced loss, you probably just want to do what you can and find the right words to make them feel better. But it’s not always easy — and sometimes, in an effort to be helpful, we can inadvertently say something that comes off as offensive.

“The reality is, people mean well,” Robin Goodman, Ph.D., executive director and program director of A Caring Hand, tells Refinery29. “And they want to say the right things, but they can feel awkward. It’s a topic that just isn’t well talked-about. The more we can talk about it, the better it is for everyone.”

William Hoy, Ph.D., a medical humanities professor at Baylor University, agrees. “People don’t say hurtful or unhelpful things out of a desire to be cruel,” he tells us. “Instead, I think we are doing our best to care. If we did not care, we would say nothing at all.”

Oftentimes, Dr. Goodman says, we’re trying to make the other person feel better. Still, it’s important to remember that the one thing they want is the one thing you can’t do: bring the deceased person back. Instead, she recommends keeping in mind that the person just needs to feel understood and cared about.

“I think people think it’s really hard [to know what to say to someone], which is why they get stuck,” she says.

Ahead, some common sayings that might actually be more insensitive than they are comforting, with experts weighing in on what to say instead.
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.
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Illustrated by: Chloe Seroussi
“I know how you feel.”

Comparison can inadvertently turn into a competition of whose grief was better or worse, Dr. Goodman says, but the truth is, there isn’t any "better" or "worse" when it comes to grief.

“This effort to try and make the other person feel not so alone, it can backfire, because it becomes about you, rather than the other person’s experience,” she says.

Instead, try:

“I know people can have a lot of different feelings. How are you doing?”
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“She is in a better place.”

“Do not spiritualize the death,” Dr. Hoy says. “Even when you know the faith of the individual who has died and the bereaved person, it could offer no comfort.”

For example, he says, people often turn to adages like “you know he’s in heaven now.”

“True, but I would rather him be here with me,” he says, taking on the point of view of the person grieving.

Instead, try:

“What are the ways your beliefs and customs nourish you/comfort you/guide you in a crisis?”
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“Pull yourself together — you need to be there for your loved ones.”

Not everyone responds well to “tough love,” and you never know who you might be hurting. Even if this is true, it puts the weight of responsibility on someone who is already having a difficult time.

Instead, try:

”How is everyone doing? Is there anything I can do to help?”
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“At least she isn’t suffering now.”

“Do not start with ‘at least’ or any other words that could have ‘at least’ placed in front of them,” Dr. Hoy says.

That’s because “at least” is usually followed by attempts to make the loss seem less than it actually is, such as “at least she lived a full life.” Even if unintentional comments like this can minimize the person’s feelings and their pain.

Instead, try:

“I know she had a tough time”.
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“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

You may be trying to make someone feel better, but as Dr. Goodman tells us, grief isn’t something that you can fix or take away.

“Grief is a living, breathing thing, even though death is final,” she says, and telling someone not to be sad may come off as being insensitive or as if you were invalidating their feelings.

Instead, try:

“People can have such a mix of feelings.”
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“You should expect that at his age.”

“My mother was in declining health the last 10 years of her life until she died in September, just a few months short of her 91st birthday,” Dr. Hoy tells us. “Her death came as a relief, to be sure, but it also was accompanied by significant feelings of sadness and loss.”

In other words, knowing that death is coming doesn’t make it any less devastating.

Instead, try:

“It is always hard to lose someone special.”
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“This reminds me of when I…”

“Never compare stories,” Dr. Hoy warns. Everyone experiences loss differently, and your friend’s loss is completely different from yours.

Instead, try:

“I want to know how you are doing. I know everyone goes through their own process.“
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“She died a long time ago; you should get over it.”

“The two biggest lies we believe about grief is that it should be of short duration and that the level of loss is somehow attached to the ‘official’ level of relationship,” Dr. Hoy explains. “Some people move through the grief experience in a few months. Even after a long illness, death is often not quick; holidays and special occasions can create upticks in the grief for many years as we remember afresh what we have lost. That is perfectly normal, predictable human behavior.”

As Dr. Goodman says, “there’s no timetable for when someone should get over their grief.”

Instead, try:

“I understand that someone special can always be a part of you. “

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