The experience of grief is a normal and natural response to a major loss, which is often associated with the death of a loved one. However, grief can also occur following other losses, such as being fired from a job, a relationship ending, divorce, or becoming an “empty nester.”
Grief can manifest both psychologically and physically. Psychological expressions of grief can include feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, guilt, or anger. Common physical expressions of grief include headaches, crying, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and fatigue. It’s important to note that while there are common stages of grieving, they often do not occur in a linear fashion.
When someone is grieving, it can be difficult to know what to say. You want to support them, however often it is hard to find the “right” words. Additionally, sometimes well-intentioned statements can be upsetting to those who are grieving. The following are three things you shouldn’t say to someone who is grieving.
1. “I understand how you feel.”
No two people’s experiences of grief and loss are the same. For instance, even if you lost your mother and the other person lost their mother, you cannot know exactly how they are feeling. We are all unique human beings with complex feelings, reactions, and relationships. Therefore, it’s important not to make any broad generalizations or assumptions in terms of how the person is feeling.
Saying “I understand how you feel” might cause the other person to be resentful and angry. Something more helpful to say could be the following, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here for you if you want to talk about how you are feeling.” If the person needs space it is also important to respect that, as they may not be ready to talk about their feelings with you.
Additionally, you can also make specific suggestions for other ways that you might support them. For instance, “Would it be ok for me to bring over dinner for your family tonight?”
2. “Stay strong,” or “They wouldn’t have wanted you to cry.”
In our culture we are often taught to try to avoid or suppress unpleasant emotions. However, it is perfectly natural and normal to experience intense sadness-especially following a significant loss.
Statements, such as “stay strong” or “they wouldn’t have wanted you to cry” insinuate that it is not ok for the person to feel what they are experiencing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Part of the healing process is learning how to sit with painful emotions, without using unhealthy coping strategies. This doesn’t mean that you must dwell in those intense emotions forever, however it is critical to allow yourself to feel in order to grieve in a healthy way.
A more helpful statement could be something like, “It’s ok and normal to cry and feel sad right now. Being able to let yourself feel is a sign of true strength.”
3. “They are in a better place now.”
If someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, it might be tempting to make a statement such as, “they are in a better place now.” However, this sentiment can be offensive or upsetting to some individuals who are grieving. First off, people have different religious beliefs and ideas as to what occurs when someone passes away. Additionally, even if you know the person’s religious beliefs, you cannot assume that this statement will be comforting.
Someone who is grieving may be in a stage where they are experiencing a lot of anger, questioning their religious beliefs, or experiencing utter shock. Saying “they are in a better place now,” could only serve to intensify the emotions that they are experiencing. Further you cannot assume what the other person is feeling; therefore it is best to avoid this statement all together.
Supporting Someone Who Is Grieving
Even if you have no idea what to say to someone who is grieving, it can also be upsetting if you choose not to say or do anything. You could even say something simple, such as, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I am thinking of you and here to support you in anyway that I can.”
If you are close to the person, you might consider offering some concrete suggestions as to ways that you could support them. Sometimes the act of “holding space” for the person and listening to them as they express their feelings can be incredibly powerful.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who created the five stages of grieving, said,
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She specializes in treating adolescents, survivors of trauma, and individuals with eating disorders and mood disorders. “Like” Jennifer on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW. Or check out her website at www.jenniferrollin.com