When someone we care about loses a loved one it can be daunting to understand how to best be there for them. Even though I have personally experienced the devastating loss of my mother, I too sometimes find myself without words when talking those who are new to grief. When faced with suffering of such magnitude our tendency is to try to make it better. The impulse to "fix" usually comes from a good place -- we want our friend or loved one to stop hurting and we want to find a way to lessen their suffering. But these attempts to decrease suffering ultimately end up minimizing and invalidating the person's experience, rather than bearing witness to it. When trudging through the messiness of loss people need to know that they are not alone and that they can rely on people in their lives can make space for, rather than try to squash, their pain. Let your grieving loved one know that they don't have to hide their pain or pretend their grief is not there. Show up, make space, and listen (including honoring that they may not want to talk about it at all).
Here are four common, yet totally unhelpful, platitudes to avoid when speaking to someone who is grieving. All of them share this one thing in common: while the statement may in fact be true, it will like serve to invalidate what one is feeling rather than help them feel supported.
1) "At least...."
If you catch yourself wanting to start a sentence with the words "at least," -- "at least you got to say goodbye," "at least you had 10 good years together," etc -- pause and redirect. "At least" is code word for "you shouldn't be as sad as you are cause at least you had this (fill in the blank experience) that you can be grateful for." See how invalidating that could feel? My mom passed away less than three months after my wedding day and for months people would say to me "at least she got to be at your wedding." It's true, she did get to be at my wedding, and I am incredibly grateful for that, but that does not in any way make her absence in my life even one-tenth of an ounce less painful.
2) "They're in a better place now"
Depending on your belief system or on how sick a person was at the end of their lives, this statement could ring true for a lot of people. That said, it does not make a dent in pain that accompanies loss. Most of the time, when we are grieving, the only place we want our loved one to be, for better or worse, is right here next to us, happy and healthy.
3) "Your loved one wouldn't want you to be sad"
I heard this one a lot: "Your mom would want you to be happy and move on with your life." It's true, if there was one thing my mom always wanted for me, it was a joyful life. But loss creates sadness. It is a normal and expectable part of grief. And you don't want to make someone feel shame around their sadness. Furthermore, you don't want to send the message that they might be upsetting their deceased loved one by having a particular feeling.
4)"This experience will make you stronger"
Let's think about break up's here for a moment. After a relationship falls apart people love to say things like "in a few years when you find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you'll look back on this and see it all made sense." While this is often true, has that statement ever made you feel less sad about your break up in the moment? No. Because when we are grieving we cannot access how we might feel or what our lives might look like 2 or 5 or 10 years from now. We are stuck in the immediacy of our loss and this too will land as another attempt to make what the bereaved is feeling go away.
What you can do instead
Remember, no one expects you to be able to fix a situation as devastating as loss, so don't try. If you would like to helpful, rather than offering platitudes, offer action. Offer to cook dinner, to go grocery shopping, to pick up dry cleaning, to help plan the memorial. Don't ask the bereaved what they need cause in the fog of grief, we barely know our own names. Just offer to do something you are willing and able to do. And don't underestimate the value of these tasks. When we are grieving even the most simple things can feel impossible. By lending an hour of your time you could make a bigger difference than you can imagine.