Death is an unpleasant and unwelcome inevitability of life, and its presence makes us feel uncomfortable like little else can. Even the most talkative of people struggle to speak to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. Hoping to provide some comfort to grievers, people often resort to the clichés and other trite expressions that readily spring to mind in order to avoid an awkward silence.
Unfortunately, while well intentioned, many of the oft-heard expressions used at funerals, wakes and in condolence letters are misguided and, frankly, insensitive. Here are five common expressions you should never utter to someone grieving the death of a loved one.
1. "I know how you feel."
No, you don't.
Even if, for example, you too experienced the untimely death of your 16-year-old daughter, who was also named Anne, in a freak drunk-driving accident that happened on the same stretch of highway, just 22 days after she too received her license, while also driving a sky-blue vehicle, and at that same time of night... -- even if the situation is eerily similar, you still don't know how someone else feels about losing his or her child.
Like our personalities, the way in which each of us reacts and responds to grief is unique. Stating that you know how anyone else feels is condescending.
A better approach: If you experienced the death of someone close and feel the need to reference it, do so in the form of an open-ended question or comment. For example, you might say, "When my daughter died, I blamed myself for letting her use the car that night. If you're feeling that way, please know that I'm here to talk any time you need to."
And if you don't know how someone mourning a death is feeling, it really is okay to simply state, "I don't know what to say, but please know that I'm sorry." (Avoid saying, "I'm sorry for your loss." This phrase is trite and rings hollow to those grieving.)
2. "He's in a better place now."
Anyone who utters this phrase has clearly never grappled with the forever-loss of someone close due to death. A mother facing the future without her child, a widower first returning to the empty house he shared with his wife for decades, anyone struggling to understand why a motorist with previous drunk-driving offenses was still behind the wheel "that night" -- these survivors (and most others mourning a death) think that the best place for their deceased loved ones is right by their side and among the living.
Telling a griever otherwise, even if you believe that the better place is heaven, suggests that he or she should somehow feel happy about the loss and that crying and showing anguish about the situation is out of place. And even if the mourner believes in life after death, the loss of someone loved often challenges faith. Remember, the devout apostle Peter still denied Jesus three times, according to the Bible.
A better approach: Anyone caught in the throes of grief struggles to accept why a loved one isn't in a single location -- among the living. Therefore, there simply is no reason for you to suggest he or she is in any other place right now. Instead, share you favorite memory of the deceased, if appropriate, which can help recall other warm memories about his or her life.
3. "Don't cry" or "You need to be strong."
Commenting on how someone is responding to or handling a difficult situation is condescending and serves no purpose other than to create feelings of guilt and/or resentment. Generally, people experience several similar stages or phases of grief following a significant loss, but just when and how someone exhibits his or her grief response is unique. Telling someone he or she should not express feelings naturally can contribute to an abnormal or complicated grief response because the individual cannot process, and eventually accept, the feelings associated with a loss to death.
A better approach: Switch off your cognitive function temporarily and simply allow yourself to respond emotionally. Words are unimportant right now; appreciated and remembered will be holding a hand with both of yours, the long hug, the feel of your hand on a shoulder, or tears shared.
4. "She looks so natural."
Have you ever looked at a living person and said something like this? Of course not, because someone who looks natural in life just looks, well... natural. In other words, we don't feel the need to comment on it. Uttering this comment when looking at a dead human being lying in a casket, however, merely emphasizes that he or she is not alive.
In addition, one of the most common fears funeral service professionals harbor is that a family will think an embalmed and cosmetized loved one does not look natural, i.e., the way he or she did while living. Thus, being the first to comment on the appearance of the deceased is never wise because you simply don't know what an immediate family member or close loved one thinks.
A better approach: Obviously, if a mourner expressly asks you, "Doesn't he/she look wonderful?" then you should readily agree. Short of that, avoid any comments on the appearance of the deceased in an embalmed/cosmetized situation, such as a wake or visitation. Instead, share a happy memory that you feel captures/conveys something special about the person who died.
5. "Let me know if I can help."
Telling someone hurting due to a death -- and already mentally exhausted by the multitude of decisions he or she had to make in the past few days -- that you want him or her to make yet another decision is insensitive and burdensome. More than likely, the individual has given little thought to the necessities and responsibilities of his or her "normal" life since the death occurred. Asking this question, therefore, merely puts them on the spot in order to make you feel less helpless.
A better approach: If you sincerely wish to help the griever at some point, then simply state that you will phone him or her next week once things have settled down a bit. By then, not only will the funeral and committal services have concluded, but out-of-town guests will likely have headed home, too.
And when you do call, you should still offer a specific suggestion or two instead of leaving it up to the bereaved individual. You might offer to cut the grass, shovel the drive or to perform some other basic outdoor chore. Cleaning the house, doing the laundry or picking up some groceries can certainly prove helpful, as well. Perhaps most appreciated will be an offer to bring over a meal and simply spend some time listening, if the individual feels like talking, or to provide some quiet companionship.