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What to Say (and Not to Say) to a Grieving Person

I revisit my seventeen-year-old son's death, and ponder what people said or did that seemed helpful and not so helpful.
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I was scheduled to be a guest on an early morning radio broadcast from Bakersfield, California. I am a family therapist, bereaved parent and president of Open To Hope, the world's largest internet site with a mission of helping people find hope after loss. Grief and recovery is a topic the media avoid, and I am happy that they will not broach the topic. Theresa, the person who called me to book the show, has given me the topic. It's what to say and what not to say to people who have had a loss. My spot is pre-recorded and three minutes long.

Not much time to discuss such an important topic. I woke up early to jot down some thoughts on what seems like a lifetime away. I revisit my 17-year-old son's death and ponder what people said or did that seemed helpful and not so helpful. Silly statements like, "You now have an angel in heaven." Blaming statements like, "Were they wearing safety belts?" or "Had they been drinking?" Yes to the safety belts. No to the drinking. One lady came to the wake and informed me with a twinkle in her eye that "Scott appeared to me last night and said to let you know that he was fine." I thought the statement was strange as I was sure that if he appeared to anyone it would be me.

Jeff from News Talk Radio starts. He says, "Dr. Horsley isn't it true that people grieve differently?" I say, "Yes that is true, but there is also some commonality in that grieving comes in waves and is very stressful." Jeff quickly moves on to the topic, "So, Dr. Horsley, what are the things that people say that are helpful and what are not helpful after a loss?" Jeff then quickly mentions the fact that he lost a sister to a brain tumor.

Jeff, in this blog I want to tell you and all of you who have suffered a loss how sorry I am about your loss and congratulate you for the good you are doing by your willingness to address this topic.

Here are some of the things that my daughter, Dr. Heidi Horsley , and I found helpful -- and unhelpful -- after the death of our son/brother, Scott and his cousin Matthew.

What Not To Say To A Grieving Person:

You will never get over it. - This comment really drove me crazy as it always felt so condescending and minimizing and how do you respond? I didn't want to "get over my son and his cousin's death," yet I wanted to move on to become strong and hopeful once again. I did want to get over the hurt. I now realize that I have "never gotten over it" but with time and work have transcended the pain and suffering and have again found joy.

They are the first things you will think of every morning. - This was a comment was made by my husband's secretary at Scott's funeral. It's true Scott being killed in an automobile accident was the first thing I thought of every morning for a while, and then as time went on I noticed that I started giving equal thought to my three living daughters and now my ten grandchildren.

It wasn't meant to be. - This is very fatalistic. How does anyone know what was meant to be. Someday when we join our loved ones we will know all the answers or not.

You're young. You can marry again. - I know that this comment drives widowers crazy. That special person will always be a part of your life.

You can have another child. - Again, people are not replaceable. Our loved ones are unique and fill a special place in our lives.

Maybe God is trying to teach you something. - Now, this must be a really crazy God if he/she wants us to suffer. I just can't buy into this idea of a God.

You must move on. - Who says? It is your life, and people move and change when they are ready. As a therapist, I always try to remember, "Don't want more for people than they want for themselves."

They had a good life. - My sorrow is not about their "good life." It is about how I will construct a new life without them.

Be thankful you have other children. - As if I wasn't thankful for my living children already. Our special children can never be replaced, but that doesn't stop us from having a unique and special place in our hearts for each and every child that comes into our lives.

Be strong for your parents. - This comment really bothered Scott's sisters -- Heidi, Rebecca and Heather -- because they felt as though it discounted their loss.

Helpful Things To Say Or Do For A Grieving Person:

Show up. - I used to send a card. Now, I send myself. My friend Sally showed up at our house before our first dinner alone, brought a book, and just read while we ate. It was very comforting.

Do a kindness. - Friends mowed my lawn, took out the garbage, walked the dog and took the kids to movies.

Answer the telephone and take notes. - We had dozens of casseroles, walls of flowers, and random gifts. Without careful notes taken by friends, we would have had no idea what to do with the empty dishes or who to thank.

Create a memorial website. - When I was working on the Columbia University 9/11 project helping the fire fighters' families whose loved ones died in the Twin Trade Towers, we created a memorial website where our staff could tell his family the great things their son and brother had done to help those in need.

Be willing to sit down and listen. - This is important, as people often get anxious when confronted with grief and have difficulty being silent when those in grief talk. I needed to tell my story over and over again in order to have the enormity of my loss become a reality.

Ask how they are really feeling. - Don't ask this question unless you are willing to take some time to listen. You feel dropped when people ask you to dig deep and then look at their watch.

Don't try to be profound. - This advice was given to me by a very insightful priest. Just showing up and sitting with grievers is profound.

Be patient. Learning to live again takes time. - Friends and family don't like to see you suffer, and they really do want you to get on with life. They want you to be the person you were prior to the loss. They don't want to hear the reality that "you will never be the same but will have to find a 'new normal'."

Share your loved one's name in the comments below. Tell us -- What have people said to you? Was it helpful or hurtful in your healing process?