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What not to say to families who are grieving

The wrong words and the right words for parents who have just lost their children.

By Britt Olson MSN Living Editor Dec 18, 2012 3:41PM

All the sympathy card sentiments in the world can seem insufficient when trying to console someone who has lost a loved one. The death of a child is particularly challenging. Such anguish can appear implacable even when met with the best intentions and carefully selected words.

Photo: Terry Vine/Blend Images LLC/Getty ImagesEven when our aims are true, some of our most common expressions of sympathy can offend grieving parents. Here are phrases to avoid when trying to offer support to the bereft.

“Time heals all wounds.”

Avoid banal philosophical or religious statements. Frequently such declarations seek to minimize the pain survivors feel.  For instance, “Time heals all wounds,” implies that the hurt the parent feels will at some point go away. It won’t diminish. The loss of that child will abide with the parents throughout their life.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

People often contend that there must be a reason for the terrible event. We would like to believe that a rationale exists for every catastrophe, that there is a silver lining to each dark cloud. Even if a benefit does later reveal itself, often that reason will remain obscured to the parents until they have worked through their loss. And even then there simply is no upside to death.

"I know how you feel."

It can be insulting to the bereaved to suggest that you know exactly how they are feeling. Instead, try asking them how they feel and let them know it's ok if they are not ready to share their feelings.

“It’s God’s Will.”

Common religious consolations often suggest that the death is God’s doing, not because God is diabolical but because God is teaching us something. As Rev. Emily C. Heath writes in The Huffington Post, attributing terrible events to God makes it seem “that God will break parents' hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.”

So, what is appropriate to say to grieving parents?

"I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you."

This phrase let's the grieving person know that you care about them and their situation, The American Cancer Society says. It also may give the bereaved an opportunity to talk about their feelings.

“Please let me know how I can support you.”

Make yourself available to the family. Offer to help with chores or errands. Be available to talk. Your help and consideration will mean more than any words can, but allow the family to choose how to involve you during this difficult time. Just be ready to assist when they call.

Often simply listening can be what the grieving person needs to help them get through such a difficult time. You can also offer support in other ways, such as grocery shopping, bringing food, handling arrangements, paying bills or just spending time together.

Photo: Terry Vine/Blend Images LLC/Getty Images

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Mar 7, 2014 3:45PM
Newsflash: not everyone believes in your god or even a god, so the whole tying up religion with a tragic loss may make you feel better but the focus should really be in making the person experiencing the loss feel better.  Unless you know for certain that the person is a believer of your god (e.g., you worship together) than just leave deities out of it.
Dec 19, 2012 12:11AM
When my only child died, people would say to me "Sorry for your loss", like a dog died or something. That is such an over used canned phrase it makes me want to barf. I cringe every time I heard it. 
Dec 18, 2012 9:53PM
There is never anything that one can truly say to someone who has lost a loved one...no matter the age.  I lost my younger sister this past July (only 5+ months).  It was sudden & uncalled for & just seems like yesterday.  My heart breaks nearly every moment of every day.  Just when I think it is getting a little easier to bear, something triggers a memory or thought.  People hv said all the same things, that I hv said to others, in this situation.  I know they mean well, as I did, but even though I know my sister is with our Lord & other loved ones who hv 'gone on' b4, it still hurts & I miss her terribly.  Sometimes I just want to be where she is but I know I need to be here, until it is actually MY time.  I feel so much 4 the grieving who lost their loved ones, as of late.  It was a horrendous event which took them, so only adds to their grief.  So many, 'what ifs'.  I know that my sister's spirit is near me, and crazy as it may seem to some (or many), I just talk to her.  Sometimes it helps...even though u just want to reach out & touch them, hug them & tell them u love them.  We never, never 4get them... and u may say no,..but the pain does subside, evetually, as with my Father & 'the Love of my Life'.  For some who r grieving, it takes so much longer than 4 others but we all grieve in our own way & as long as we need.  Just being there to talk, or let one vent, is a gift of help, to me at least, that is so appreciated.  Bless all those who are grieving.  I DO understand. 
Dec 18, 2012 9:51PM

Another trite saying is " my heart goes out to you". What the hell does that mean? Are people so lacking in a vocabulary this is all they can come up with?


How about " I feel terrilble for what you're probably going through", or " I can't even imagine the pain you must be feeling, but  I'm here for you if there is any way I can help".

Dec 18, 2012 9:29PM

When I hear "it is God's will" I want to look around for something to bludgeon the person with whose mouth this came out of.


If this is God's will, then I want NOTHING to do with THAT god.

Dec 18, 2012 9:28PM
i beg your pardon, but i do not see anything wrong in the acknowledging of the will of GOD when someone died . In fact, it the person is a true believer of GOD and this sound perhaps to hard to swallow immediately after the dead, the grieving person will find solace that GOD above everything is the one who take the souls, and when  I said the true believer, I mean the ones, what know as a fact, the existence of GOD, either you see it good or bad. the hypocrites, in the other hand, will not understand that the dead occurred for the power of GOD alone. it is written in the holly scriptures that all of our lives are all ready pre planned and that we have a day to be born and a day to died, regardless some of us do not want to acknowledge this fact. a true believer will understand this, a false believer has a disease(called hypocrite) in their heart and will be unable to see this.  May GOD give to all understanding of his power.
Dec 18, 2012 9:26PM
My heart goes out to these families who have lost the little ones.  My son was 32 when he went home to God last year.  A part of my heart went with him...I grieve for these parents who only had 6/7 years with their babies.  The loss is so great that it will be a long hard road ahead.  Nothing people said to me mattered.  everyone meant well, but to me it did not matter.  For these moms and dads to go on will be oh so hard, BUT they must....They must for their families that are still here.  Together, with family there is no stronger bond.   When my son died, I thought it was the end of the world for me. I did nothing, was just numb.  You see I gave birth to my son but I could not save him.  I am sure this goes thru the minds of the moms..That is something I will have to live with the rest of my life.   unfortunately...life does go on and THE MEMORIES OF your little ones will live forever..  a saying I have posted says:  WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE BECOMES A MEMORY, THE MEMORY BECOMES A TREASURE....Treasure life always...It is a gift.. GOD BLESS
Dec 18, 2012 9:25PM

One that always gets to me is "He/She is in a better place."  NO! I want to scream, the place he was supposed to be is with ME!


Sometimes just a hug and shared tears is enough.

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