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  • Avery Garn

5 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

Originally published on Hopeheals.com


I wrote a much more cynical version of this in college. With the help of Hope Heals and a couple years of perspective, I updated it to what I hope is a less cynical and more inspirational approach.

Photo by Alex Wolf

When someone we love is hurting, we often tiptoe around the pain to avoid stirring up grief. In reality, their grief has never settled and they’ve never stopped thinking about the pain, even for a minute. By bringing up the hard stuff, we’re not reminding them of it; rather, we’re joining them in that place of pain so they are no longer occupying it all alone.

Grief is a language all its own. “Less is best,” when it comes to speaking into pain, as Katherine and Jay advise in Suffer Strong.

With this in mind, let’s resolve to remove some unhelpful cliches from our lexicon of well-intentioned responses. The next time you find yourself across the table from a grieving friend, here are some phrases to avoid.

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Were you close? There is no good answer to this question. Either the answer is A) yes, and that is painful. Or, worse, the answer is B) no, which can be just as painful as the former option. Myriad complicated feelings accompany grief. The nature of your friend’s relationship with the person he or she lost can make those feelings even more complex. It is not important whether they spoke every day or hadn’t seen each other in years. What is important is that a loss has occurred and the compassion you offer isn’t dependent on the details.

What to say instead: “Relationships are the most important thing about life. Losing someone, no matter who it is, is unbelievably hard. Your pain is valid.”

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Everything happens for a reason. Everything does not happen for a reason. While tangential goodness can and probably will come out of painful circumstances, positive side effects are not a consolation for tragedy. This aphorism does not make your friend’s loss any easier to endure. God is working all things together for our good, but we may not get to see that good work on this side of heaven.

That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. Romans 8:28 (MSG)

What to say instead: “This is terrible and I am so sorry you are bearing the burden of this sorrow. You’ll never carry grief—or joy—alone.”

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You seem to be doing well. In some ways, this sentiment can be the very poorest choice of verbal support. Because we are not mind readers, we can’t know how someone is doing from the way they are presenting their grief, or apparent lack thereof. If we are entrusted with a friend’s grief, then we must be gentle with them by not making assumptions about how he or she is feeling or doing. Allow your friend to control the narrative of their suffering and respond only to the reality they’ve expressed, rather than the story you’ve inferred. Don’t elevate your comfort above their need for compassion by rushing the non-linear trajectory of healing.

What to say instead: “I know grief ebbs and flows in unexpected ways. I’m here to process your feelings no matter when you need to work through it.”

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You will never be given you more than you can handle. This statement is as untrue and unhelpful as “everything happens for a reason. Many people—most people—are given much more than they can handle at one time or another. We are not created to handle pain on our own. We are made to live in relationship with other people and with God through victories and in trials. Coping requires community.

All too often we are given more than we can handle, and when we see a friend struggling under the weight of grief, we have an opportunity to reach in and lift up.

What to say instead: “No one would be able to handle this situation alone. You don’t have to be strong. You can be sad and I am here to be sad with you. I’m also here to heal when and how you want to.”

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Let me know if you need anything. It is hard for a grieving person to muster the mental and emotional energy to ask for specific needs to be met. So do not wait for the request. Instead of offering these well-intentioned words, do something. Do not wait to be asked. Act. What does acting look like?

It looks like reaching out, whether with a book, a loaf of bread, or just an embrace. Maybe it looks like a care package with tea, tissues, or a journal. Maybe it looks like delivering coffee every morning for six weeks. Maybe it looks like plans on birthdays, whether heavenly or earthly. Maybe it looks like holding someone tight and not saying a word.

Maybe it’s just a meal. Maybe it’s a note. Maybe it’s just plain presence—reliably and bodily showing up at your friend’s house every morning for a month. But grief does not end after a month, or six months, or a year. So make a note in your phone, and after one year, two years, and for some years to come after a loss, you can remind your friend who has not forgotten that you have not forgotten, either. Occupying a place of grief, for as long as it takes, is the greatest something we can give.

What to say instead: Don’t say anything. Do something.


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