Things not to say to someone coping with the death of a loved one and what you COULD say instead

What to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one (C) Getty Images/iStockphoto

What to say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one (C) Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What to say (and what not to say) to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one – including someone who compared the death of the author's mother to the death of her cat...

It's a minefield we all need to cross at some point: just what do you say to someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one?

It helps to realise that the truth of the matter, of course, is that you can't 'mend' someone's pain regardless how lovely your words are - but what you can do is think carefully about what you write before you send it.

The good news is that a simple "I am so sorry" or "I just don't know what to say" is often enough - the suggestions below are a guide rather than a manifesto and are compiled after my own experiences (my mother died in November) and those of my friends and family.

It is a long and lonely path that the grieving tread and the avoidance of painful potholes laid by well-intentioned sympathisers is to be encouraged if possible. If you've laid unintentional potholes in the past, look to the positives: saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing.

I stress that these are my thoughts and those of people I know and they might not be right for you. Feel free to ignore them (except, perhaps, the bit about the cat, please don't ignore that).

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What to Say (and What Not to Say) to Someone Who's Grieving

(1) Don't make it about you: this is not the time to hijack someone else's grief to talk about your own and definitely not the time to require the newly-grieving person to comfort YOU.

What to say instead: "I know how much they meant to you, this must be so hard."

(2) Do not play the 'compare the market' game with death: Just as a man I know once compared the pain of giving birth to having a broken leg, someone else compared the recent death of my mother to the death of their cat: on the plus side, I did have to stifle a laugh, which I hope isn't disrespectful to the cat.

What to say instead: "I wish there were some words that could make this better."

(3) "At least their suffering is over": This is for the grieving person to say to you, rather than the other way round: death rarely offers silver linings, and a good rule of thumb when contacting the grieving is to avoid sentences that start "at least". Do not ask someone in pain to focus on any positives.

What to say instead: "I know how much you loved him/her."

(4) "He/She is in a better place now...": File with "God never gives us more than we can handle" and "God has called them home". Your faith is just that: yours. See below for a religious alternative.

What to say instead: "I will remember (deceased person) and you in my prayers."

(5) "Think how much time there will be for you now": When my Dad died after years of struggling to live with Multiple Sclerosis, someone said to my Mum "I know he was a burden to you so it must feel like a release..." Someone suggested to me that my Mum's death would "free up lots of time for you."

What to say instead: "I know what a huge part of your life (deceased person's name) was."

(6) "Time is a great healer": This may well be true, but to add a timeline to grief isn't helpful and might just remind someone that they may be in dreadful pain for the foreseeable future.

What to say instead: "Did I ever tell you about the time..." Stories about the person they've lost when they are facing the fact there will never be new stories are the best gift to the grieving.

(7) "Let me know if you need anything": It's well-meaning, it's probably genuine but it just gives the grieving person something else they have to ask for.

What to say instead: "Shall I pick the children up from school for you on Tuesday?" Be specific with your help.

(8) "Stay strong": This implies that if you are crushed by your grief, you are weak. This is definitely one of the times when 'staying strong' does not apply.

What to say instead: "Please be kind to yourself and take all the time you need to heal. Whatever you feel, whenever you feel it is OK."

(9) "I know how you feel": No two losses are the same, there's no benefit in comparison.

What to say instead: "I am hear to listen if you need me."

* If someone you know is struggling with grief, encourage them to talk to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor - you could also contact a support organisation such as Cruse Bereavement Care, or call: 0808 808 1677