What NOT to say

There are phrases that seem to automatically come out of our mouths, without us even thinking about what we’re saying or why we’re saying it. These things are not helpful:

  • Platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “they’re in a better place now” or “good will come from this in time”
  • Anything that starts with “At least…”
  • Anything that starts with “You should…” or “You can always…”
  • I know how you feel
  • Don’t cry/be strong
  • They wouldn’t want you to be …
  • It could be worse
  • You just need to…

The problem with platitudes is there’s always this ghost sentence. This second half of the sentence that we don't say out loud but is very, very clearly implied to the grieving person.

So, if you’re grieving and I come to you and I say “At least you had them as long as you did,” the second half of the sentence there is “… so don't be so sad.”

“They would want you to be happy … so stop feeling so sad.”

The grieving person can hear the second half of the sentence even if you don't say it out loud. So a really cool and slightly uncomfortable exercise to do for yourself if you're thinking about things I might say to a grieving friend or family member, if you can add "so don't feel so bad" at the end of what you're thinking of saying, don't say it.

We asked people who have lost a loved one to share their least favorite thing people say or have said to them about grief:

Play Video placeholderCarmichael Khan: Call Me If You Need Anything

Death is difficult to deal with and difficult to talk about and people have social conventions, so when at the funeral, they will say, "Call me if you need anything." But really what they mean is, don't call. And that's okay.

There's some of uh- uh- and- and Asia and I have- have talked about this, some of her friends, some of Rose's closest friends have never reached out to me after the funeral. Although they showed me, and she had very close friends, that anytime I needed help, call me. But I picked up on the secondary, uh, the subse- the subsequent um you know uh time frame uh, no don't call. Because they cannot deal with their own grief. And that's okay, I've reached them all. I don't hold it against them um it's because it's so difficult for them. And I- I simply understand that.

Play Video placeholderMegan Torres: Everything Happens For a Reason

People said like everything happens for a reason. And that one I do not like, because I just... feel like, that's, you know, that just doesn't pertain to this situation (laughing), like I don't think...You know, our higher power, whoever you know you believe in, I guess would do that.

Play Video placeholderKate Suddes: I Can't Imagine...

One of the things I think that people think is a good thing is to say, is, like, "uh, I can't even imagine." Which really is like, I mean it's certainly a way of othering, right? It's like saying, you're over here, and I have no idea. And I'm nice and safe over here. Really you can imagine. It's that you don't, you don't want to.

Play Video placeholderMichelle Winship: It Was Meant To Be

There certainly are resources and people that say that there are wrong things to say, where people's... you know, they'll say, "Never tell someone that, you know, um, it was meant to be." Or you know, different little sayings like that. Or, "This is what God wanted." Um... I don't... I don't think they should be faulted for saying those things. I really don't, because everybody's dealing with it their own way. Everybody has dealt with grief in some sort of way I don't think it's anything that's mean spirited, or meant to hurt the person who's grieving. They just don't know what to say.

Play Video placeholderNona Perdue: It Was Part of God’s Plan

I had someone say that this was part of God's plan. That God knew the exact day and time that He was going to take Drew, so I didn't need to feel guilty. Because it was nothing I could have done, because that was the day that he was supposed to die. And I thought, "Oh. Okay. So God did do this." (laughs) "Where does that leave me?" Right? Oh. So, what I believe is that, Drew made a stupid mistake. He made a really bad decision. A bad choice that night. And I believe that God was just as sad, and just as heartbroken as me. That's what I believe.

Play Video placeholderMegan Bolich: I Understand

I appreciated all of the things that people were saying and I think I had took quite a few steps back to try to figure out, okay, they are trying to be nice about this, but some of the really hard things where when people would be like, "Oh, I know exactly what you're going through, I know how you feel. I just lost my grandma a few months ago and that was really awful and I just, I get exactly where you're coming from." Where it was hard, because I understood that they wanted to help, but sometimes it was like, "You don't know what I'm going through, and I lost the grandma as well and it's nothing like this.”

Play Video placeholderAjai Blue-Saunders: You’ll Find Someone Else

People say things like, "Oh, you're still grieving?" or "You still miss him?" "Oh, you'll get better." Or "You'll find someone else." "He's probably, he's probably in a better place." "You and your daughter will, will still have a good life."

And they're saying those words trying to console you as well as trying to encourage you that life does go on. And while I get that, it doesn't help.

Those words don't help because people need to really just be there in the moment for people.

They don't need to try to fix it.

Play Video placeholderAsia Khan: She’s in a Better Place

I think the anger of people telling us, "Oh, she's in a better place." Well she's not here, that doesn't help us really. Is that supposed to make us feel better? Why can't we be with her? Why can't she be with us? That's not a comfort.

I don't think a lot of people in our position would feel comfort from you being told that. I think that's what made Dad and I the angriest, when people would tell us, "Oh, one day it will pass", or you know, "You'll get over it one day", or ... That's, it's like an insult to us. Like, we'll get over her? She was, she's not something you get over, she's not a cold or anything. She was Mom.

Play Video placeholderSavvy Boyd: You’re Lucky He Died

I had one person tell me the day after he died that I was lucky that he died. There's nothing lucky about it. There is no benefits from it. I understand that she was saying that I don't have to take care of somebody, you know, that's in a vegetable state. And I'm glad that he was able to let go.

Those were hard words, and they were painful words. And although I know she never meant them in a way to hurt me, you have to stop and think before you say certain things.

And you don't tell someone they're lucky their husband's dead.

Play Video placeholderMegan Bolich: You Shouldn’t Hold onto his Things

One person looked at me, and this was so hard and I remember telling my family and they were ... it was hard for them as well. They tried helping and they were like, "Hey, we know that you guys want to hold onto some of Nate's stuff, but haven't you considered that there are other people who could use that stuff and it would be better for them to use that stuff because they actually need it rather than you holding onto it."

They were trying to be helpful and they were trying to help our family with kind of some of the tension, but instead I think it caused more anger than anything.

Play Video placeholderJayne Agena: Take a Hot Bath

I remember, um, it might have been a week after Mark died? I talked to a good friend who's also a family friend, known me my whole life, kind of thing. And I really remember specifically her saying, "Oh, well, you know, you should just go take, go take a hot bath." And I'm like, "Really? Did you just say I should just go take a hot bath?" As if that makes it all better.

A lot of people just didn't say anything, which is hard all by itself. There's things that, you know, I think that are implied. That you should be moving on. You should do your grief differently. You shouldn't grieve anymore. Just short of, you shouldn't have those feelings.

So I think they know a little bit better not to say that to me, to my face. But you can feel this sort of expectation that you, um, you should be going on.

And it's a hard thing, right? You- you understand it. And you kind of know that when their turn comes they'll understand it better. But at the same time you don't want them to have that turn.

Play Video placeholderNic Hepton: Take your Wife for a Nice Lunch

The doctor stopped the baby's heartbeat. And it was incredibly traumatic moment when we were done there- there the doctor said to- to me, or to Jen. I can't remember, but he said to both of us or one of us that, um, I should take Jen for a nice lunch.

Um, and there was a really good Italian down the road, and- and when I told people that story now, and like people like, "What did you say?" And at the time, I said nothing because I wasn't … I was in kind of primal mode, I think. But now I just think that was the start of, um, a really … It was indicative the lack of support we- we would receive, going on the first time we experienced loss. From there, there was no support. No support from the hospital; there was no support from, um, from, uh, anyone professionally involved with the decision we were having to make, doctors, etcetera.

Play Video placeholderBeatriz McKee: You’ll Get Over It Eventually

One of the things that I recalled was somebody saying to me, "We'll you'll get over it eventually and you'll be able to move on." Or simple statements like, "Well it's been this long, like it's time to time to get back to it for your children. You really have to get yourself together for the sake of your family and your children."

And I'm sure that they meant well, but it wasn't the right thing to say to someone because there's no timeline with grief.

It's not that one day you wake up and you say, "Huh, guess what, I'm done grieving now." That's not the way it works. You wake up and if you make it through a day without crying, then you had a good day.

Play Video placeholderGriselda Quintanilla: It’s Time to Let it Go

Some people they don't really wanna hear you saying your problems and you know. When some, you tell your problem, they don't really understand when you cry. And when you talk about that person.

They think it's enough. You know? Is like "Forget about it." You know? (Clears throat) "He's gone. Is nothing you can do." That's what they tell you.

Play Video placeholderDarin Jensen: How Do You Do It?

Something that people have said to me that is very difficult to hear, and it's been more lately than right after Dan died, uh, when people hear our story or already knew our story and someone says to me, "How do you do it?", that drives me crazy.

Because, how does anybody do their life? Um, you get up and you do what's facing you, which in my case is feeding a house full of kids and getting them in their clothes and off to where they have to go.

How I do it is that I love my life. And I think when people say how do you do it, they're coming at me with this assumption that "your life must really suck. Like how do you, how do you -- aren't those kids horrible to be around or something?" That kinda drives me crazy. Because, it's not hard to do. It's physically exhausting to do. But, it's not something I wish I wasn't doing.

Play Video placeholderTyana Simmons: God Makes No Mistakes

This line eats away at me ... "God makes no mistakes."

Even- even yesterday you probably, um, may have quoted on film, the guy that made the announcements during the balloon release. He said it and I was just, huh. (laughs) But people often throw religion in there and for me, it's just one of those things, like, "No I can't believe that."

Uh, I just really can't believe that someone would say, "Oh, take this pain of this baby losin' his life in one of the worst ways." Like not, oh he caught a cold, and caught pneumonia, and then, you know, passed away. No, like, a horrific unescapable fire.

Like I can't believe he did that for a reason. What reason? You can't answer me that. No one can answer me that, so I can't believe that, sorry.

Play Video placeholderNic Hepton: Don’t Choose Unhappiness

They'll say things like, "it's time to move on," or "don't choose unhappiness," or don't- you, "you'll stress yourself out, you'll get sick if you, if you're depressed."

Those are the types of things I think still today hurt because I don't think people truly understand that moment might just be a moment. You might be fine five minutes later and they don't truly understand, and how could they get the impact that losing a child would have on you?

Play Video placeholderJen Hepton: At Least You Have Each Other

Some people will say the dumbest, dumbest things, but I think it's just out of fear, and not knowing what to say. But as soon as I self-advocate and say, "You know, all you have to say is how are you?"

Or, before I used to get really angry if someone would be like, "oh god, thank god your health is okay. You've got ... you and Nick have each other."

They try to like, pull out the positives, and I'd be like, "I know what you're trying to do, and that doesn't help. What does help, is just being with me, asking how I'm doing." So, it's kind of like educating people, and some people take it on board like, "oh my god, thank you, I didn't know what to say." And other people get really defensive. So it's very interesting. It's like, on like individual basis.

Play Video placeholderRon Gallacher: At Least You’re Free Now

There was one lady that said uh, to my wife that she uh that that at least, she said "at least you're uh you're free now," she said at least you're free now. As though Lily had been like a ball and chain around her ankle, you know?

And so she was she was uh my wife was really upset about that 'cause it 'cause it I mean she didn't really feel like she was locked up or in any way, I mean it was just her life and and um you know she she was happy with what she had, you know? Certainly she would have wanted Lily to been better but she when she had the child, when you have a child its like a one in a zero, a binary thing, one is you've got a child and zero you don't have a child, you know and you much rather be a one than a zero you know?

Play Video placeholderBecky Bolich: The Problem with “I Understand”

I could never say to another mom. "I know what you're going through." Because each circumstance is so different. Family dynamics are different. But, I can wrap my arm around of grieving mom and I can look at a mom and say I've been there and if you ever need support I can be there for you.

But, I think as a general statement, telling someone that you understand. When someone has said that to me, I can look at them and say, "No, you don't understand. Unless your circumstances are the exact same as mine, you don't really understand." And I think that term "I understand" can almost make some people become defensive.

Play Video placeholderKate Suddes: He’s an Angel

Unfortunately I think, uh, the book I would write about, the bleep things people say is longer than the book. I would write about the good things. Um, oh my goodness. So the sort of the misguided, comforting things, there's categories, right? There's like sort of spiritual or religious categories. He's in a better place. He's with Jimmy's mom. He's an angel. He's with God. He's with Jesus. To me, what they're trying to say is like, well, he's in a better place so you don't have to keep grieving. So that's sort of that dismissive, like religious, spiritual component.

Then there's like the sort of everything happens for a reason and you're so lucky you have a living child. Or um you’re so young, you’re so young you can get pregnant again. Um I guess he just changed his mind; didn’t want to be here.