I’ve given a lot of thought to how we should (or shouldn’t) talk to other people who are grieving.
Part of this is professional. I’m an adversity strategist, which is a fancy way of saying I help people afflicted by all sorts of adversities, from injuries to job loss to the death of a loved one.
But I’m also curious about this topic for personal reasons. I live with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, so I have no choice but to structure my life in such a way that I am able to thrive in the face of sometimes debilitating physical and neurological challenges.
Many people don’t know how to talk to me about my illness. Just like they don’t know how to talk to anybody about any other struggle they might be facing.
When bad things happen to somebody we love, we want to help, or at least make them feel a little less alone.
But sometimes we only end up making them feel worse.
How? By trying to fix them with platitudes. Like “Everything happens for a reason” or “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
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While platitudes are often well-meaning, they’re also harmful, because they prevent us from doing the only thing we must do when our loved ones’ lives are falling apart: acknowledge.
Here are some common responses you might be tempted to make to a friend or relative who is dealing with difficult circumstances, and what you should be saying to them instead.
They recently lost a loved one.
Common response: “Everything happens for a reason.”
Why you shouldn’t say it: It’s damaging because it’s a shame-based response. It prevents the person from being allowed to grieve, and makes them feel isolated and alone.
Try this instead: “What a terrible tragedy.”
By acknowledging that their circumstances are awful, you’re acknowledging them.
You’re not trying to fix it or sweep it under the rug, you’re making it known that you’re there for them when they most need support.
They were diagnosed with a serious illness.
Common response: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Why you shouldn’t say it: That doesn’t work because it sugarcoats your friend’s very real difficulties and makes it seem as if there’s something inherently good about their circumstances, when that’s clearly not the case.
Try this instead: “What’s this been like for you? I know you might be scared, but I’m not going anywhere.”
When people’s lives are suddenly changed, they’re often most afraid of being abandoned and judged.
By asking questions and making it clear that your friendship is unconditional, you give your friend the space to feel safe in voicing their anger and pain.
They lost a job and are facing serious financial stress.
Common response: “It’s for the best.”
Why you shouldn’t say it: It takes you out of the present reality and into an imagined, fairytale future.
Try this instead: “That’s awful. Tell me more.”
By actually recognizing that your friend is in a very tough spot, you show that you’re trustworthy when they are most vulnerable and scared.
By asking an open-ended question, or asking them to “tell me more,” you invite them to share whatever they want to share, and direct you towards ways that you can really help.
Their spouse left them.
Common response: “Time heals all wounds.”
Why you shouldn’t say it: It implies that if your friend just waits it out, everything will get better.
But that’s dead wrong. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. In fact, it can make them worse.
Time alone does nothing. Support does.
Try this instead: “I’m going to support you, and here’s how.”
Don’t just say, “Let me know if you need help.” Be specific.
Say, “I’ll call you tomorrow evening,” or “I’ll pick up your kids from school.”
If they don’t want you to come, they’ll let you know. But offering concrete ways you can be there for them will go a very long way.