Phrases to Avoid - Things NOT to Say to a Grieving Person

The first time you see or talk to someone after they've lost a loved one isn't easy for either of you. And while your friend isn't expecting you to have the perfect words to magically relieve her sadness, you still want to say the right thing. You're usually safe if you keep it simple and heartfelt, but even the most well-meaning people might have a verbal misstep when they mean to comfort. Here are some phrases to avoid-and some sympathetic alternatives.

"I know how you feel."

Repeat after me: "This is NOT about me." We know you're trying to be helpful, but even if you've lost someone of your own, grief is a personal thing. Everyone deals with it very differently. There's no way for you to know how your friend feels no matter how close you are.

Try this:

"I can't imagine what you're going through."

This opens the door to let them tell you how they feel and shows that you realize their situation is one-of-a-kind. Be present and supportive rather than talking about your own experiences.

"He's in a better place."

Even if you know your friend believes in heaven, you can't be sure how she feels about her religious beliefs right now. And this doesn't address her feelings of sadness and loss.

Try this:

"I'm so sorry for your loss."

Instead of trying to make your friend feel better, it's best to acknowledge her loss or celebrate the deceased's life with words like, "I know you have so many wonderful memories of your dad."

"He fought a good fight."

It's natural to try to "look on the bright side" and focus on how brave someone was, especially after a long illness. But this implies that if he fought harder, he might still be here. It's best to avoid the "fight" or "battle" metaphors altogether, unless the bereaved happens to bring it up.

Try this:

"What I remember most about _____ was..."

If you want to talk about something positive, celebrate his life. This would be a good time to share a memory or talk about the relationship your friend had with the deceased.

Say hello in many ways over many days in the first year.

"There's a reason for everything."

This statement puts both of you in an awkward situation. It's hard to agree that death is part of some master plan, and everyone needs to find his or her own answers. And even if there was a solid medical explanation for the loss, it doesn't stop your friend from aching for the baby she dreamed of having.

Try this:

"I've been thinking of you so much."

Your friend might not necessarily want to be around too many people right now, but it's comforting for her to know that you're thinking of her even when you're not together. And in the weeks and months to come, be sure to keep letting her know it. Who opens their mailbox, and is not happy to see a colored envelope with handwriting on the front? Say hello in many ways over many days in the first year.

"How's your family holding up?"

This is especially common when someone loses a sibling or if a man's wife had a miscarriage. And while it's perfectly fine as a follow-up question, it implies that other people's feelings are more important than your friend's.

Try this:

"How are you feeling?"

He's your friend and his feelings are the most important thing to talk about first.

"You're so strong."

Even if someone looks strong on the outside, people often feel helpless, scared and even a bit needy during a time of loss. Makes sense, right? If you focus on how "strong" your friend is being, it might make it difficult for her to express how she really feels.

Try this:

"It's okay to cry."

Giving your friend permission to feel sad is the best thing you can do for them. Hearing those words let her know she doesn't have to put on a brave face with you.

Your friend probably won't call you. If she does, be sure to thank her for letting you help...

"She lived a full life."

Let the bereaved say this one, right? Even if your friend lost her 105-year-old grandmother, her death might still feel like it was too soon. And this doesn't validate your friend's feelings. No matter how long Grandma's lived, your friend still misses her. If she says it, feel free to nod and agree, but you don't get to pick how long a life was enough.

Try this:

"What are you going to remember most about your Grandma?"

When you don't know what to say-ask. And listen. Saying the name of the person who died and asking specific questions will encourage your friend to share memories, which is important to the healing process.

"Call me if you need anything."

You have the right intentions here, but we all know how hard it is to ask for help. Your friend probably won't call you. If she does, be sure to thank her for letting you help, and then do your best to do what she needs. But it's better to make the call yourself.

Try this:

"I'll be by next Tuesday to take you to lunch."

You can take control of the situation without being intrusive. Call and make a specific offer - ask about her dinner plans, offer to babysit for her next appointment or much-needed alone time, tell her you're running errands and ask her if she needs anything. You don't have to wonder whether she wants to hear from you or not. She does.

"You're still young."

When Lisa lost her husband unexpectedly, her mother wanted so desperately to give her daughter hope for happiness, she immediately began focusing on her getting married again. But what Lisa needed most was someone to help her get through the day.

Try this:

Don't say anything at all. Just be there.

Give a warm hug, squeeze her hand, look her in the eye. Sometimes your silent presence is all she needs at the moment. And when the words finally come, which they most likely will, they'll be from your heart.

Something sweet is happening...