Words are powerful. They have the power to hurt or heal.
But sometimes we say things that we think offer comfort, when in reality, they actually hurt the people we love. We have a responsibility to guard our words, especially when someone is emotionally vulnerable, like after the death of a loved one.
Consider avoiding these phrases when speaking to a friend or loved one who has lost someone close to them (regardless of whether the loss was recent or further in the past).
“I know how you feel.”
It’s true that you may have suffered a similar loss, but you have not suffered this particular loss. The temptation here is to engage in “troubles talk” to find common ground with the person and, in a way, share the burden of the loss. But this comment assumes that you know the complex emotions of the bereaved and that you have felt each one exactly as they do. This is impossible. Rather than hearing your desire to show how much you understand, the bereaved person hears: “I don’t want to understand your specific situation” or “I want to talk about myself.” Every loss is one that has never been experienced before. Every person feels, processes, and heals in a different way. Instead, you might say, “I know every loss is different in its own way, but something that helped me when I lost my mom was (insert helpful suggestion here),” or just simply and sincerely ask, “How are you doing?”
“You’re so strong.”
You may intend this to be received as a compliment, but what you’re communicating is, “I expect you to be strong enough to keep your emotions in check through all of this.” This may or may not be your intention, but the result is that the grieving person feels like they can’t share what they truly feel because you expect them to “stay strong.” No matter how “put together” a person looks on the outside, on the inside, they may be experiencing incredible pain. A comment about how strong they are takes away their option to express any vulnerability or genuine emotions to you. You essentially become an unsafe person to talk to. It may invite a more honest response, and you should be ready with your emotional support, but instead, consider saying, “It’s okay to cry.”
“Sometimes we just don’t understand the will of God.” Or, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”
These phrases and many similar ones are often used in Christian religious circles, and whether by intention or not, they essentially blame God for the death of a loved one. While it is true that we may not fully understand the will of God, these platitudes are not helpful because they contradict the Christian belief in a loving God whose original creation did not include death. In the story of Adam and Eve, death only entered the world after the fall of man and was not in God’s original design. Death is now a natural part of life. It is appropriate to pray for others and seek comfort from God after loss, but not blame him for the loss. Instead, consider saying “I’ve been thinking about you so much” or “You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers.”
“She’s/he’s in a better place.”
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, you don’t want them to be in a “better place.” You want them to be here, now, with you. In time, it may be a comfort to think of a loved one in heaven. But in the midst of the deep sorrow of NOW, it’s difficult to find comfort or healing in the phrase. Simply be there, and consider asking them questions about the loved one they’ve lost.
“If there’s anything I can do for you, just call me.”
Take note: the grieving person is not going to call you. They aren’t going to want to inconvenience you, even though your offer may be entirely sincere. Instead, take the initiative, and do something intentional. Tell them you are going to pick them up for lunch the following week. Ask them what day you can swing by to drop off dinners for the week. Or, call them every week or so just to check in. As you are intentional, they will feel your love and support.
“It’s been a while since she/he died. Isn’t it time to move on?”
Grief has no expiration date. Allow your loved one the time they need to grieve and put no expectations on them. You can lovingly suggest a grief counselor, ask about the person they lost, but don’t push them. Don’t try to fix their pain. Loving them through their grief will help them along the path to healing much more smoothly than your impatience.