Over the last couple of years, a number of my friends have experienced deaths in their families. I’ll admit, at times I’ve been completely stumped as to how to console them or what to say.
Grief affects everyone differently, and ultimately, all we can do is be a comforting presence, a shoulder to cry on, without minimizing their pain.
Because no matter how well-meaning we are, certain phrases can evoke more pain than comfort.
So, here are 12 things to avoid saying to someone coping with grief, and what to say instead.
And hey, if you’ve made the mistake of using some of these phrases in the past, don’t be too hard on yourself.
They are commonly used, but hopefully, this article will help you better approach grief with understanding and empathy.
1) “He/She is in a better place now.”
I understand why this phrase has been used so much – when someone is sick or has had a hard life, it’s easy to think that it’s comforting to mention that they’re no longer in pain.
But to the person grieving, that doesn’t matter right now. All they can think about is the fact that they’ll never see their loved one again.
Even if it’s a fact, let them come to that conclusion themselves, once they start processing their loss.
A softer, kinder approach would be to simply say:
“I’m so sorry for your loss. He/She was a wonderful person.”
2) “At least he/she lived a long life.”
I know I’ve used this in the past, especially when the deceased was someone who lived to a ripe old age.
But ultimately, when someone is grieving, the amount of time their loved one spent on this earth does little to comfort them.
Their sense of loss isn’t lessened by the length of the loved one’s life.
When my best friend’s younger brother tragically passed away, she and her family said hearing and sharing happy memories gave them a lot of comfort, so you could say this instead:
“Your loved one left a remarkable legacy. Would you like to share some of your favorite memories?”
3) “I know how you feel.”
As much as you might mean this in a bid to make the grieving person feel less alone, you don’t know exactly how they feel.
As I mentioned earlier, everyone copes with death differently. And our relationships are all different – your loss isn’t the same as theirs.
But I get it – no one says this phrase to intentionally hurt. It comes from a good place.
However, a better way to approach this is to just offer support, without trying to match their emotions. Try this phrase instead:
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here to support you in any way I can.”
4) “Everything happens for a reason.”
Does it though?
It may be a motto that brings you comfort and reason, but not everyone takes comfort in hearing this. In fact, it can be quite dismissive of how the other person feels.
When someone is grieving, they can’t understand why the person they love was taken from them.
This saying makes it seem like they shouldn’t be so upset because their loved one’s death was part of a grand plan or in some way beneficial.
So, even though you might say it to help them make sense of why this has happened, it’s best to avoid it. Instead, focus on being there for them and acknowledge their pain with a phrase like this:
“It’s so hard to make sense of why such painful things happen. I’m here for you as you navigate this difficult time.”
5) “He/She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
Well, this statement is probably true. But to the person grieving, it can make them feel like they need to suppress their emotions.
It’s a well-intended phrase, but it could cause them to feel guilty for being sad.
The truth is, releasing emotions is a necessary part of grief. It’s the only way to reach the healing stage. Instead, you could validate their emotions and let them know it’s normal with a phrase like:
“It’s okay to feel sad and to miss him/her. Your feelings are important.”
6) “It’s time to move on.”
Let’s say your friend has been grieving for a few months now and you want to give them a push to get back to “normal”. You might use this line thinking that a bit of tough love will help.
But unfortunately, there’s no place for tough love when it comes to grief. Some people can get back to normal life after a few weeks, others may take years.
And being told to “move on” can make them feel like they can’t share their emotions with you. A kinder, more patient phrase would be:
“Take all the time you need to grieve. There’s no right or wrong way to process your loss.”
7) “At least you have other children/you can have more children.”
This is possibly one of the worst things you could say to a grieving parent. Each child is unique and precious to their parents.
Having another one or focusing on their sibling won’t fill the burning void in their lives. And by using this line, it’s almost dismissive of the child who has passed away.
You may have used this phrase as a way to remind them to focus on the positives, but right now that’s not what they need.
They need time to process their loss and comfort as they grieve. Keep it short and simple by letting them know they can lean on you, with the following:
“I’m deeply sorry for the loss of your child. Please know that I’m here for you.”
8) “Look at the bright side…”
To you, there might be a bright side. But to the person grieving, the world looks dark, dim, and bleak. They can’t see the silver lining or the light at the end of the tunnel.
So when you hit them with this line, all it does is minimize their pain. Of course, you say it because you want to encourage optimism, but right now isn’t the time for that.
Let them get to that point themselves when they feel able to do so. Remember, grief isn’t linear. It’s an up-and-down process, and all you can do is help people through the journey. Try this instead:
“When you’re ready, it might help to talk about the good times you had with your loved one. Until then, I’m here to listen and support you.”
9) “It could be worse.”
Could it though? Think about it, losing someone you love dearly is the worst thing in the world, at least for the person grieving.
So even though you might say this to bring some positivity into the mix, it’s not helpful.
When it comes to grief, there’s no room for comparisons. Each death, no matter how it comes about, is devastating in its own right. A softer approach to try is this:
“I can see that you’re really hurting, and I’m so sorry. I’m here for you through this.”
10) “Just be strong.”
I’ve been guilty of using words similar to this effect in the past. “You’re so strong, you’re gonna make it through this.”
And even if it’s true and the person is resilient, right now they don’t need to be that way.
They need to cry, be angry, and let their sadness out. They don’t need to be strong.
And by saying this line, we could make them feel like they have to put on a brave, bold front. But that would be detrimental to their healing process. I’ve since learned to say this instead:
“It’s okay to feel this way. You don’t need to hide your feelings around me.”
11) “He/She had a good death.”
I get it, there’s a difference between someone quietly passing away in their sleep and someone involved in a horrific accident.
But remember – those who are grieving might not want to hear about this just yet. At some point in their healing journey, they may acknowledge this themselves, but being reminded by others isn’t helpful.
Ultimately, you don’t want to focus on how someone died. That can be quite jarring.
You just need to focus on the person in front of you who’s going through incredible pain right now. Again, a simple line like this can convey your condolences:
“I’m really sorry for your loss. This must be really hard for you.”
12) “This is God’s plan.”
Now, if you’re religious you’ve probably heard/used this line many times.
But if you’re not, being told it’s part of God’s plan can be very painful and distressing. Especially if the person grieving is questioning their faith or doesn’t believe God has a divine plan.
Personally, unless you know how religious they are and whether they would take comfort from this or not, I wouldn’t use it. Instead, I’d stick to something along the lines of:
“I can’t understand the depth of your pain, but I’m here to support you in your time of need.”
I hope this article has helped you recognize how some of the common phrases used to console can actually cause more pain. As I mentioned earlier, don’t beat yourself up if you’ve used these expressions – I have too.
But together, through education, understanding, and practicing empathy, we can do better for our grieving friends and family.