What NOT To Say To A Grieving Person: Tips From A Bereavement Specialist

By Jennifer Messelt, MSW, LCSW

“I know exactly how you feel.”

In the nearly seven years I have worked as a bereavement specialist, I have learned this is one of most unwelcome phrases heard by those who have experienced the death of a loved one. No matter how similar two losses may seem, no two deaths are exactly the same. With grief comes a multitude of feelings, and with those feelings come individuals who experience them in their own unique ways.

“Are you still grieving?” is another unwelcome, but frequently asked question of grievers. In my work as a bereavement specialist, I’ve been asked to speak to groups as young as 5 years old.  After explaining to them what grief is, I will often ask if they know how long grief lasts. Many hands will go up in the air and the responses will vary from “one day” to “one month” to “one year” and so forth. Eventually, someone will give the correct answer—forever. That’s right. Grief lasts a lifetime.

The intensity of grief will not always be as strong. It will continue to lessen as time goes on. So to ask a grieving person, “Are you still grieving?” is not only unwelcome, it can also cause that person to feel as though something is wrong with them because they are still grieving. In fact, that person may grieve for many years to come.

Our loved ones will always be remembered and hold a special place in our hearts. Saying well-meaning things such as, “it’s God’s will,” “she’s in a better place,” it’s for the best,” or “it’s a blessing” are often not interpreted as well-meaning by the griever.

I remember attending my father’s funeral and well-meaning people made comments like these, intending to console me. It made me think, “How can this be a blessing? I don’t have my Dad anymore. Why would God want to take him from us? I want him here with us!”

Many bereavement clients say one of the most hurtful things they experience in their time of grief is when friends/acquaintances avoid them in their time of deepest need. They will often acknowledge these friends/acquaintances are likely uncomfortable with grief, but it still does not take away the pain a grieving person feels. It adds to their pain.

Instead of avoiding people who are grieving, be specific in offers to help. This could be offering to bring dinner on a certain day or offering to mow their lawn/shovel snow.

Instead of saying, “let me know what I can do to help,” say, “I would like to bring dinner over tomorrow night … would that be OK?”

This allows a grieving person to simply answer your offer versus having to ask for something they may or may not even know they need.

A welcome and helpful phrase you can share with someone who is grieving is, “I’m here for you if you would like to talk.” Being an active listener is one of the best gifts you can give to a grieving person. Ask those who are grieving to tell you about their deceased loved one. In this way, you are letting the grieving person know you are ok with his or her grief and won’t judge if he or she wants to talk about the loved one.

Speaking the deceased person’s name is also something so simple, yet so powerful to the grieving person. It has been 16 years since my father died; I still crave hearing someone mention his name. And better yet, to hear someone mention his name along with a happy memory of him. Just for a brief moment, it is as though he has come alive again through the memory shared. Another way of sharing a special memory might be by adding a personal note of a memory in the sympathy card.

Lastly, remembering a grieving a person on special days (wedding anniversaries, anniversary of the death, birthdays, holidays) can mean a lot to the grieving person, as it is likely the rest of the world has sent him or her the message that it is time to “get over it already.” Your card may be just the breath of fresh air needed.

For more information about Hospice of the Red River Valley’s grief support and services, please visit our website or call 800-237-4629 and ask for the bereavement department.

Jennifer Messelt, MSW, LCSW, is a bereavement specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
Hospice of the Red River Valley is an independent, not-for-profit hospice serving all, or portions of, 29 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota. Hospice care is intensive comfort care that alleviates pain and suffering, enhancing the quality of life for patients with life-limiting illnesses and their loved ones by addressing their medical, emotional, spiritual and grief needs. For more information, call toll free 800-237-4629, email questions@hrrv.org or visit www.hrrv.org.

4 Responses

  1. Kelly Moe

    As I am unable to sleep tonight thinking of my father-in-law and the last 40 years he has been in my life and that it’s nearing the end of our time together, I found great comfort reading your suggestions. We as Rogers family have all lived a Greater Life and our future will be just as enlightening due to a lighted path Roger began for his family to follow through thick and thin in their time of need. He has taught us to work hard first and play later. He taught us by working hard our playtime will be much more valuable and the quality will be much more memorable. Rogers wish was to drive his pickup into a river before ever being put in a nursing home. With the values he taught us So Well and the OUTSTANDING TEAM OF HOSPICE help, Rog lays comfortable in his hospital bed in front of His Family Room Window while able to see birds feed and flowers blooming out the window or the Smile of a Familiar Family Member as he looks across the room on his journey from us to those that have gone before him. Thank You From the Bottom of Our Hearts for ALL the help on this journey!! HOSPICE HAS TRULY MADE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR LIVES!!! FOREVER & EVER…AMEN!

    1. Hospice of the Red River Valley

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and kind sentiments with us, Kelly.

  2. Colleen

    So what should we say?? Great article, but what do you say other than offering dinner, or a listening ear?

    1. Hospice of the Red River Valley

      Hi, Colleen – Thank you for your comment. A portion of the article references some good suggestions on ways you can help a grieving person.

      A welcome and helpful phrase you can share with someone who is grieving is, “I’m here for you if you would like to talk.” Being an active listener is one of the best gifts you can give to a grieving person. Ask those who are grieving to tell you about their deceased loved one. In this way, you are letting the grieving person know you are ok with his or her grief and won’t judge if he or she wants to talk about the loved one.

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