Afraid to Say the Wrong Thing to Someone in Grief?

by | Mar 22, 2024

Unsure of what to say when someone is grieving the death of a loved one?

A quick search on the internet will bring up countless websites and articles listing the many things a person should never say to someone in grief. The lists can be confusing, overwhelming, and even contradictory. At some point, the fear of saying the wrong thing may cause us to not say anything, or worse, simply avoid the person in grief.

In an Instagram post by Litsa Williams, Program Director and Co-Founder of What’s Your Grief? (WYG), “How Instagram Made Me Scared to Support People Grieving,” she references an informal survey they sent out to 2,000 grievers. Of the comments people left, “almost the only consistent thing that everyone was hurt by in our survey was people saying nothing.” She says, “Silence is the worst!” 

So now, we know that offering some form of acknowledgment or comfort is important when someone is grieving. Keep in mind, however, that some of the “Don’t say” lists are helpful. In a follow up article to Litsa’s Instagram, WYG posted “The Case for Unscripted Grief Support: Why we no longer advise people what not to say.” Among the helpful advice provided is to avoid starting with “at least…” as it can inadvertently minimize the depth of grief. For instance, phrases like “at least you can have more children,” or “at least they lived a long life,” or “at least they are no longer suffering” may unintentionally diminish the significance of the loss.  

Additionally, focusing the conversation solely on the person who has recently experienced the death of their loved one is important. Don’t talk about yourself and your own experiences with grief, as no two people grieve exactly the same. Each person’s grief and pain is unique to that person. What offers comfort to one person may inadvertently cause pain or offense to another, underscoring the importance of sensitivity and understanding in these interactions. 

Our intentions are good, as we want to console our friend or family member who has just experienced the death of someone close to them. It’s inevitable that at times we might inadvertently say something hurtful. However, it’s crucial to recognize that saying the wrong thing, while imperfect, is still preferable to remaining silent or avoiding the grieving individual altogether. Those in mourning often feel profoundly isolated and yearn for opportunities to share memories and emotions about their departed loved one. Even if our words miss the mark, engaging in conversation provides a chance for both parties to learn and grow in understanding the complexities of grief. 

So how do we talk with someone in grief? The article does offer some helpful “unscripted grief support tips:” 

  • Acknowledge the person’s loss 

  • Ask open-ended questions and conversations about the person, about their loss 

  • Actively listen 

  • Understand there is no “black-and-white rule” for grieving, or what to say to someone grieving 

  • Know that what worked for me in grief may not work for another person 

  • Be open to learning from those in grief to better understand and adapt to what people in grief may need 

In a subsequent piece titled “Shifting From Grief Literacy to Grief Humility,” WYG introduces a concept of grief humility. Lists and articles on “dos and don’ts” can focus on “grief literacy,” or having to educate oneself on grief protocol. Grief humility takes a different approach. Grief humility helps us realize what little we do know about grief, and we can never fully grasp another person’s experience of loss. “Grief humility… asks us to be okay with not knowing.” Grief has many layers of complexity that can never be narrowed down to a set of rules and steps to follow. As WYG clearly tells us, “Grief is not a puzzle to solve but a landscape to explore.” 

Knowing that our words can provide comfort or hurt to someone in pain, this fear should not hold us back from giving support. Reach out to someone who is living in the pain of loss with an open mind, and an open heart. Be a compassionate listener and remain open to the needs of the grieving person. None of us will ever be an expert on grief, but we can be caring, compassionate individuals who want to help someone in pain. It’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes along the way—after all, grief is messy. These suggestions offer valuable perspectives on how to accompany someone through their time of need. 

The Catholic Cemeteries provides a free resource, called the Grief Care Library, to help you in your grieving process. This library includes:

  • A comprehensive collection of over 200 articles and support resources available to you 24/7
  • Helpful booklets and articles
  • Videos and podcasts
  • Virtual monthly grief support groups
  • Free to share with family and friends
  • Resources for specific losses – loss of spouse, parent, sibling, child, friend, pet loss, and more.