16 things you should never say to a grieving person, according to psychology

When somebody is grieving it can be very hard to know what to say.

Whether it’s a death, a breakup, a lost friendship or a destroyed career and reputation, dealing with somebody in deep grief can be a confusing process.

We often feel almost powerless in the face of their frustration, loss and the pain they’re going through:

This can lead to saying the wrong thing in the pain of the moment, and causing the situation to become even harder and more awkward.

Here’s what to avoid saying to a person who’s grieving, according to research and insights taken from psychology.

1) “I know what you’re going through.”

This is often meant in a very caring and empathetic way.

But even if you’ve also been going through a similar pain to what this person is experiencing, this statement often ends up making them feel worse.

As psychologists Shonda Moralis, LCSW, and Sarah Dinan, LPC, advise:

“Even if you have a similar story, you don’t know their personal pain.”

2) “You look like you need more sleep.”

This may be 100% true, and often those who are grieving and going through a very difficult time have trouble sleeping.

But saying this often tends to make the person who is grieving feel under pressure or expected to “keep up appearances.”

They begin to worry they are grieving too much or making others uncomfortable by their own state.

This ties into the next point:

3) “You’ll get over it with time.”

This also makes the griever feel pressured or like they’re being sad in the “wrong” way.

There is no set schedule for sadness, loss, frustration or pain. Predicting that somebody will get over their pain, even if meant well, ends up minimizing it.

“There is no right or wrong or even a correct formula or time frame when it comes to grief,” ” explains psychologist Kali Alfaro.

“It is one of the most complex life experiences a person will go through.”

4) “I know how special they were to you.”

Telling somebody you know how special someone was to them who they lost or who they broke up with can be a helpful and supportive idea.

But intentionally not using the name of the person who they lost is actually more hurtful.

In many cases people who have lost somebody feel like others are walking on eggshells around them and that the memory of the person who was lost (or left) is being slowly erased in a way that hurts them even more.

“This is especially true for a parent whose child has died: They can feel that it’s their job to keep their child’s memory alive and love to hear the child’s name spoken aloud,” explain Moralis and Dinan.

5) “Just stay busy and don’t think about it.”

This advice may be well meant, but it tends to go awry.

Those who have lost a loved one or experienced a painful breakup or life event do not need to be told this.

They’re already likely doing their best not to become morbid or dwell on what’s happened.

Telling them this just isn’t helpful, even if it’s meant in a kind way as a sort of “tough love.”

6) “How did they die, exactly?”

In some cases you may genuinely want to know how somebody died when there has been a loss.

The general way they died may even be relevant to what’s being discussed.

But asking for details of how they passed or how exactly it happened can re-trigger the painful trauma and shock of the event for the person grieving.

“Keep those thoughts tucked safely inside,” advises psychology writer Lisa Bain.

7) “Well, love hurts…”

When there’s been a painful breakup or even a death that resulted in widowing, this can be tempting to say.

It’s one of those truisms that can strike you as a sort of wise, tough love sort of statement.

But it just doesn’t help.

It may be true, but it only makes feelings of despair and loss even stronger. 

8) “You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

There are times when those who are grieving definitely need people around and need to feel a warm body close by.

However it is up to them to state their needs.

Deciding they shouldn’t be alone can actually lead them to not have the time and space they need to process and sit with their grief.

“Allowing them that space is very important for grief to be lived, otherwise it can get repressed and develop into anxiety, depression and social isolation,” notes Alfaro.

9) “Someday you’ll meet ‘the one’”

When somebody has broken up or been disappointed in love, they don’t want to hear platitudes.

This is especially true of a person struggling with loneliness and heartbreak who feels that the pieces will never come together.

They’re being told that they’re “still young” or that the right person will eventually come along and it’s only making them feel worse and wonder when exactly!

10) “X is in a better place.”

This may be meant with the best of intentions and may indeed be part of your spiritual or religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, however, it’s the kind of thing that’s said after a death which can come across as an attempt to minimize or escape the pain.

In short, it’s just too much of a cliche to make somebody feel better.

As psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD. advises:

“Definitely resist platitudes.”

11) “They were just a dog / cat.”

When somebody has lost a pet this is definitely the wrong thing to say.

People love their pets enormously, and they may be going through a huge maze of emotions and crushing sadness upon their loss.

Trying to write it off as at least they were not human can come across as a way of minimizing the pain, even if this is meant in a way to try to help.

12) “God / ‘the Universe’ has a plan.”

This is another one of those things which may be fully within your belief system or spiritual values.

But it ends up making people feel like their grief is wrong or incorrect.

Plus, they are likely to either not believe it and be even more upset or to believe it and therefore feel guilty for being so sad regardless.

As Moralis and Dinan note:

“Refrain from platitudes such as God has a plan (grievers don’t like this part of the plan), or now there’s another flower in heaven, or at least you have another child. Better to say nothing at all.”

13) “Everything happens for a reason.”

This is in a similar vein to the previous point:

Whether or not it’s true, it creates a similar effect to saying God or the Universe has a plan for everything.

The person who is grieving feels robbed of somebody they valued or saddened by a life event that’s left them crushed.

They aren’t going to feel reassured or supported by hearing that it happened for some grander “reason.”

14) “It’s a lot like when I experienced…”

You may have been through similar pain to what this person is going through.

But when you start talking about your own loss and your own similar experiences, it can be a bit much for the person who is suffering.

They will feel like you are trying too hard in many cases and withdraw even further into grief.

“Though it feels like you are conveying understanding and empathy, it can easily overwhelm someone who is grieving,” point out Moralis and Dinan.

15) “I just want to make this all better for you.”

This is a very kind-hearted statement and it isn’t the worst thing to say.

At the same time, it’s best to usually avoid this kind of statement.

There are times when life just hurts. A lot.

That’s not in your control, and trying to “make everything better” isn’t always an option and may just create a sense of pressure in this person that they should “buck up” and keep up appearances to not make you feel bad.

“Don’t feel like you have to make the person feel better—just try to communicate support and connection,” explains Gallagher.

16) “Are you feeling any better these days?”

This may be meant in the most kind-hearted way.

But it tends to come across as a form of temperature checking.

The truth is grief doesn’t have an expiry date, and checking how somebody is doing in such a way usually isn’t helpful.

As Gallagher points out:

“It’s good to continue to acknowledge that their grief will last a long time, because they may be feeling, ‘It’s been a month, I should be feeling better.’”

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