What Not To Say To a Person in Grief

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Blog

My friend Suzie and I have bonded over many conversations about what not to say to a person who is grieving. A lot of these conversations have been marked with a bonding laughter and others with raw emotion and frustration.

In episode 1095 of the Primal Potential podcast, Suzie and I have a candid conversation, packed with practical suggestions, about the best (and worst) ways to show up for someone who is going through a hard season.

What Not To Say

First, let me establish that everyone is different. While Suzie and I share our perspectives, we aren’t sharing “right” and “wrong” ways to show support. Definitely tune in to the episode for the full scope of this nuance!

Suzie and I have both experienced infant loss and the range of emotions that come with it. Suzie was a critical part of the Primal Potential team when my daughter Dagny died and she’s remained a friend as my husband and I navigated the aftermath and then experienced the traumatic 27-week delivery of our twins.

I’ll never forget sitting in my hospital bed and getting a text from Suzie that said, “This is awful. It’s unfair and I’m sorry.

When so many people jump in to tell you it’s going to be okay, it felt so supportive for someone to acknowledge that it sucked.

When Suzie had her youngest daughter, she shared a text message she received from a friend. It said something like,

This is a big week for you! I love you and am here to support you. Would you rather:

A) I take the girls to a playground for a few hours

B) I come sit on the couch and hold you hand

C) I have food delivered from your favorite restaurant

I loved it and now use a similar approach myself. Here’s our suggestion:

Don’t say, “Let me know if I can help.

Of course your intentions are great, but it puts the responsibility on the other person to not only reach out to you, but to reach out for you and make a specific request.

Our twins spent 93 days in the NICU and I spent at least 4 hours each day in the car during their hospital stay, on top of my NICU time, on top of pumping, and on top of having a one year old at home. I can’t count the number of people who said, “Let me know if you need something!” What I can tell you is that I never reached out to those people with a request. Never.

However, if someone asked which night was better to drop off a meal, Monday or Tuesday, I let them know.

When someone asked if we preferred gas cards or Amazon cards, I answered.

Of course the options to show support depend on a lot of factors like the type of relationship you have with the person, their circumstances, your proximity, your resources, etc.

Recently, an acquaintance shared that her husband was in the hospital. While many people replied with, “Let me know if I can help!“, I reached out and asked how I could help with her young kids.

When a family member was recovering from surgery, I gave her options via text. I asked her which she’d prefer: a home-cooked meal delivered, takeout from her favorite restaurant, a gift card or for me to take her daughter to the park for a couple hours.

Don’t Say “God Needed Another Angel”

I cannot tell you how many people used this as a way of, I guess, making me feel better about the fact that my daughter died. First: it’s likely not your role to make someone feel better. It’s your role to show support.

Second, and Suzie explains this beautifully in episode 1095, be careful what you say about God.

While offering prayers, especially when you actually pray for that person, is lovely, proclaiming that you know a) that God make it happen and b) why God made it happen, is dangerous. That’s your belief, but you don’t “know” that’s to blame and you’re risking doing permanent damage to someone’s relationship with God during a fragile time.

Don’t Assert That Someone Will Be Okay

Literally hundreds of people told me that our twins would be okay while they were in critical condition. Lots of people told me Dagny would “pull through” also. Someone even told me she had a vision that Dagny would live. Spoiler: she didn’t.

When people told me the twins would be okay and that they “just knew it” I wondered, “So, did you know Dagny wouldn’t be okay?”

I understand that you’re trying to make someone feel better, but again, the job of someone showing support isn’t to make someone feel better. It’s to walk alongside them as they feel however they feel.

The bottom line is: you don’t know who will or won’t be okay. You don’t even know what “okay” means to a person who is suffering. There are lots of things you can say, but I suggest not proclaiming a satisfactory outcome.

Don’t Stay Silent

You won’t want to miss the part of the episode where Suzie explains how vividly she can remember those who said nothing at all. I get it, it’s hard to know what to say, but saying nothing is the worst option.

You can say, “I don’t know what to say.”

You can say, “I’m not sure what to do.”

You can say, “I don’t know how to help.”

You can say, “I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.”

But: say something.

There’s so much more to this conversation, so please head over to the Primal Potential podcast and take a listen to episode 1095. 

We will all have many opportunities to show support to someone navigating a difficult season in their life. Our relationships and our communities benefit when we get a little better as we go. These conversations matter.

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