What not to say to families who are grieving
The wrong words and the right words for parents who have just lost their children.
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.
Even 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
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".
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.
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.
So, in reality, when you meet someone that has lost a loved one, it probably best to not say anything or the simple words, "I am sorry for your loss." "Please let me know if there is anything that I can do for you'.
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