A Psychologist Reveals What You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

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What to Say to a Grieving PersonMike Garten
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The morning after my husband suddenly and unexpectedly died, there was a quiet knock on my side door. Standing there was Liz, a high school friend of my daughter’s, and her mom. I only knew this mom from quick chats at sleepover drop-offs; she wasn’t a friend. Nonetheless, she and Liz were loading things onto my stoop: a platter of bagels and a vat of coffee, and Costco-sized pallets of sodas and snacks. They quietly hugged me and left.

My family and I were grateful for the breakfast, but I didn’t understand the sodas and snacks until a couple of hours later, when my house started to fill up with teenagers—friends of both of my daughters who came to just sit quietly with them for hours and hours. Somehow, this mom knew I’d need snacks. I still appreciate her, 13 years later—and I especially appreciated that she didn’t call and ask me what she could do, because I wouldn’t have had a clue.

When I think back to those days and months, what stands out for me is not only what people said, but what they did to help me through. When someone in your life is grieving, it can be tough to know how to respond. Here are some things I learned, plus expert advice from Thea Gallagher., PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, and a mental health and anxiety specialist.

Say something

You may be worried about saying the wrong thing to a person who’s grieving. “The truth is, it's normal to feel uncomfortable,” says Dr. Gallagher. “It's normal to not know exactly what to say. We feel like there's some exact right thing to say, but people just want to feel like you're there and supportive and emotionally available.”

It’s fine to simply say you’re sorry; it’s even fine to say that you really don’t know what to say. Listen if they need to talk; keep listening even if they say the same thing over and over. Don’t feel like you need to fill the silence, either. Sometimes just sitting with someone is exactly the comfort they need. “Keep in mind that less is more,” says Dr. Gallagher. “You're not going to be able to take away their pain but just saying ‘I'm so sorry’ can help.”

And if the death happened awhile ago and you didn’t hear about it then, or you didn’t say something at the time—it’s not too late to reach out now. I remember about 8 months after my husband died, my doorbell rang and an acquaintance—a neighborhood mom I knew fairly well—was standing there, crying. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said. “I disappeared because it triggered so many fears in me about my own husband, and what would happen if he died. But I shouldn’t have disappeared.” It was late, but it wasn’t too little, and it meant a lot to me.

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Mike Garten

Avoid platitudes

I assume some people are comforted by the generic, auto-sayings that tend to spring from people’s mouths in times of grief. I wasn’t. This is my personal list of the things people said that really weren’t helpful, and what I thought at the time. “He’s in a better place.” (No, he’s not, here alive with us would be a better place.) “You’re lucky he went so quickly.” (Lucky?! Look at how shellshocked we are.) “God only takes the good ones.” (Obviously not true, and not helpful since I’m not religious.) In my opinion, it’s much more comforting to hear a specific little memory about the person, if you knew them. At my husband’s wake, a neighbor said, “I didn’t know Bill well, but I noticed how he always shoveled your neighbor’s walk. He must have been a really nice, generous person.”

Dr. Gallagher agrees: “Definitely resist platitudes. You could say something like, ‘He was such a great man, I have such fond memories of him.’ But saying things that are more generic like, ‘You have so many other things in your life that are going so well’ may not be helpful.” When it comes to talking about the afterlife, she suggests letting the grieving person bring it up first: “If they express the afterlife as something that comforts them—say, that they feel like their relative is visiting them—you can encourage it and say, ‘That must be such a beautiful feeling.’ Take the lead of what people want and need, and support them wherever they’re at on their journey.”

Push through your own discomfort

My husband died mid-summer, and that September, I had to go to parents’ night at the high school by myself. It was hard but OK, until I was walking down the hall between presentations and I saw a mom I knew coming down the stairs at the other end of the hall. She froze in her tracks, a stricken look on her face, and turned and scurried back up the stairs as fast as she could.

Later, a mom I barely knew fought through the hordes to ask me how I was doing. I told her about that other woman and said, “I guess it’s hard to know what to say.” She scoffed. “What’s so hard about it? You say, ‘I’m so sorry, that sucks.’” OK, point made.

“Sure, it feels awkward and uncomfortable,” says Dr. Gallagher. “We don’t know what to say. Just keep it simple. Don’t feel like you have to make the person feel better—just try to communicate support and connection.”

Offer specific ways you can help

“Let me know if there’s something I can do” isn’t very helpful, even if it comes from a place of generosity and love. It’s important to not put more burden on the person, says Dr. Gallagher. Often, they won’t know what they need (like I didn’t know I needed snacks for throngs of teens that first day), or they feel too underwater to reach out for help, or they don’t want to call you and say, “Could you pick up my kid at school today?”

Don’t assume you know what they need, either. You could call and say, “I’m going to the grocery store—what can I pick up for you?” Or “I’m making a big batch of lasagna—does your family eat that? I can drop some off.” Or “I’m taking my kids bowling—think your kids would want to come?” Or simply: “Is there something I can do for you today?”

Squelch your uncomfortable questions

This probably shouldn’t need to be said, but here goes. If you don’t know the circumstances of a person’s death, you might be curious. Keep those questions to yourself. The same goes for other intrusive questions. At my husband’s wake, someone asked me why we didn’t have an open casket (“Because I think it’s a bizarre, ghoulish tradition” was the actual answer, but I just walked away). Years before, at my father’s wake, an old friend who knew he’d died at home asked me how we got his body to the funeral home. I kid you not. Wonder all you want, but keep those thoughts tucked safely inside.

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Mike Garten

Don’t make it about you

When a person is grieving, it’s a wonderful gift to listen to whatever they want to share. Withhold the temptation, though, to jump in and tell them your own experience with grief and death or give advice based on your own life. Save your story about your father’s similar death for much, much later—unless, of course, they ask. “Sometimes if people know you’ve also been through a great loss, they want to hear about your experience in the hopes that you can give them some level of comfort, and a sense that this is going to get better eventually,” says Dr. Gallagher. “I had a friend reach out to me in this way and said, ‘You know, it’s hard to talk to other people because they haven’t been through something like this.’”

For me, it was very hard to deal with other people’s hysterical grief when I was trying hard to hold it together, although I realize different people and different cultures may not react this way. When someone wailed, “Oh my god, your poor children, how will you go on, they lost their dad, you lost your husband, this is such a horrible, horrible tragedy,” I wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers up and just stay there.

It's important to meet people where they’re at, says Dr. Gallagher. “You can let them know, ‘If you don’t want to talk about it and want to just go shopping, we’ll do that. If you want to talk, I’m here to listen.’ People don’t want their friends to ignore it and pretend like nothing happened,” she acknowledges, “but know that sometimes they might say, ‘I appreciate you bringing this up, but I can’t cry right now.’ Follow their lead. And know that moment by moment, they might need something different.”

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Keep showing up

During the first week after my husband’s death, the doorbell kept ringing, the flowers and food baskets and cards kept arriving. And then naturally, all that stopped, and life went on. One work colleague, though—whom I didn’t know all that well—touched base about once a month through the tough first year. Peter emailed, he sent a book, he sent a postcard, he emailed some more, just to let me know that he knew grief lasts. And he acknowledged the first anniversary of my husband’s death. So be like Peter. Sending a note, a text, an email every now and then, beyond the first few weeks, lets the person know that you haven’t forgotten their grief.

“It’s important to continue to show up,” says Dr. Gallagher. “It’s good to continue to acknowledge that their grief will last a long time, because they may be feeling, ‘It’s been a month, I should be feeling better.’ It’s important to continue to ask the person, ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling today?’ Keep checking in.”

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