Although you may have good intentions, sometimes the things we say may be the wrong words to help a friend through grief. So, it helps to know which expressions we should be avoiding.
Why do we struggle with what to say to a grieving friend?
Not knowing what to say during bereavement is a particularly English trait. Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist and author of The Grief Collective, says, ‘We’re very much in the “don’t rock the boat” camp. But that comes from not wanting to be the one who makes a friend feel sad or cry.’
We also get caught up in the anxiety of not wanting to say something upsetting, adds Adrienne Kirk, a psychotherapist who specialises in grief. She says, ‘We tie ourselves in knots not wanting to say the wrong thing, so we end up either saying nothing at all or blurting out the wrong thing.’
So, what sayings should we cross off the list if we want to comfort a friend who’s grieving?
“They had a good innings”
You may hear this, a lot, when an older person dies. ‘It doesn’t matter what age someone passes, you’d much rather have them here for longer,’ says Marianne. ‘We’re never really ready to lose someone.’
And the longer someone has been in our lives, like a parent or partner, the more likely you are to be aware that they’re no longer here. Marianne says, ‘That feeling can really rock your foundations.’
If you do want to console someone, simply saying ‘I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through’ lets them know you recognise their emotions without having to “explain away” their grief.
“Things happen for a reason”
This can be particularly hurtful if a death is unexpected. Adrienne says, ‘Can anyone give you a good reason why your husband, wife, or child, has died? No, so avoid saying it.’
But the reason people do say it is to offer help. ‘It’s providing a solution for your grief, to try to help it stop,’ explains Adrienne. ‘But – of course – grief doesn’t work like that.’
Instead, you could offer real, practical help. Adrienne says, ‘Tell them “I want to help; is there anything I can do?”. This could be picking the kids up from school, cooking a meal or meeting up for coffee once a week.’
“I didn’t think you knew them that well”
Another version is “I thought you weren’t that close anymore” but both really mean “I don’t understand why you’re upset”. Again, the intention is not to be hurtful but trying to understand a friend’s grief.
‘If the deceased is someone from your past, they may represent a significant time in your life that’s now over,’ says Marianne. ‘Or if they’re a new friend, you may have thought you had more time to make your relationship stronger.’ Either way, your future will be different without them.
Remember, just because you don’t see or ‘get’ a friend’s grief, doesn’t mean they’re not grieving. Ask ‘How are you feeling about X at the moment?’ to give them a chance to talk about their bereavement, if they want to.
“You won’t always feel this way”
While this expression is meant to help, it can make someone feel as though they should be getting over their loss. Adrienne says, ‘I have clients who say, “My mum died six months ago and I’m still crying” but I tell them “Your mum only died six months ago, that’s why you’re crying”.’
She says we tend to put a time-limit on grief, believing that once all the big ‘firsts’ are out the way – like the first Christmas or anniversary – then we should be getting over it. But ‘I don’t think we ever really get over a death. We just find a way of dealing with it and moving on with it,’ says Adrienne.
If you’re not sure how a friend is dealing with their grief, ask them. Adrienne says, ‘If in doubt, check it out! Ask them if they want to talk about it, or if they’d like a different conversation – many bereaved people want a ‘normal’ chat about something other than what’s happened to them.’
But make sure you do check in regularly. Some symptoms of grief are similar to depression, such as loss of appetite, low mood, or not finding joy in the things you used to. But if they start having an impact on daily life – you don’t want to go out, for example – or you feel life’s not worth living, this could be a mental health issue.
Talk to your GP or contact one of our partners for more advice: Mind, SAMH and Inspire.
• We have lots more information on coping with grief and where to go for more bereavement support.