Few social situations are more delicate than those involving loss, and knowing what not to say when someone dies can help you avoid an embarrassing and painful gaffe. Sometimes, what starts out as a compassionate impulse doesn't come across that way to the person who is grieving. If you're tempted to say one of these things, try something else instead.
What Not to Say: "He's in a Better Place."
It's tempting to offer reassurance or comfort by telling someone their lost loved one is in a better place. However, there are a couple of reasons this isn't a good idea. First, the person who is grieving may not have the same beliefs you do about the afterlife, and assuming that they do is inconsiderate. Additionally, a statement like this can minimize the emotional turmoil someone is experiencing during this time; it's a subtle message that feeling sad about the loss is selfish when the loved one is actually better off.
Instead, try: "This is a really difficult loss. I'm so sorry."
What Not to Say: "At Least Her Suffering Is Over."
Watching someone in pain can be a very difficult experience, and in some cases, there's a relief that comes from knowing that pain is over. However, grief is a complicated mix of emotions, and it's individual. You can't know how someone else is feeling at this time, and indicating your relief does not allow space for the grieving person to have other emotions.
Instead, try: "You were a great comfort to her."
What Not to Say: "Stay Strong."
Losing someone precious is one of the greatest emotional trials people face in a lifetime, and it's understandable that you would want to wish someone the strength and endurance to overcome this challenge. However, the grieving process isn't a simple journey from loss to healing, and grief isn't a sign of personal weakness. Telling someone to stay strong sends the underlying message that there's a wrong way to grieve and that sadness is weak.
Instead, try: "I know this is hard. I'm here for you."
What Not to Say: "I Know How You Feel Right Now."
Loss is universal, and there's a temptation to tell people they aren't alone in this experience. However, just like every relationship and love is unique, grief is an individual experience. No two people grieve the same way. This means that while you may have lost a parent, you do not necessarily understand how someone else feels when they lose a parent too. It can seem like you are invalidating someone's unique experience of loss if you say you know how they feel.
Instead, try: "I can only imagine how you're feeling right now."
What Not to Say: "It Was His Time."
There's a comfort in thinking things happen according to a set schedule, but not everyone believes this is true. In addition, an attempt to make sense of the loss can seem to minimize its emotional impact. Grief is not rational, and loss may not happen according to a plan. Indicating that it does is not comforting to most people.
Instead, try: "There's never enough time. I'm so sorry."
What Not to Say: "At Least She Had a Long Life."
It can feel unfair when someone dies young, but that doesn't mean it feels fair when someone dies at an older age. When you love someone, there may never come a point when you feel ready for that person to pass away. Commenting on the long life of the deceased person can seem like you're invalidating the great sense of loss survivors may feel. This is never a comforting thing to say.
Instead, try: "She touched so many people in her long life. I remember when...."
What Not to Say: "These Things Happen for a Reason."
When someone dies, it's understandable to want to make sense of the loss. This is particularly true when someone dies unexpectedly. However, people have different belief systems, and not everyone assumes there is set plan or destiny. Even if they do think things happen for a reason, there's little comfort in that when faced with the loss of someone important.
Instead, try: "This is so hard. She was such a special person."
What Not to Say: "You Can Always Have Another...."
Whether someone has lost a child, a pet, a partner, or anyone else, it's never a good idea to indicate the lost loved one can be replaced. Every love is unique, and indicating that the pain of the loss can be "fixed" with a replacement dishonors the unique nature of the relationship and of the person or pet who is lost.
Instead, try: "He was so special. I'm really sorry."
What Not to Say: "Let Me Know if I Can Help."
The desire to help after a loss is very powerful and important, and there are lots of things you can do to make this time easier for someone who is grieving. However, the whirlwind of emotions and tasks can make it hard for someone to come up with specific things they need. Some people also feel strange asking for help, even when it's offered. It's better to keep offers of help specific.
Instead, try: "I'd love to take care of your lawn for you for the next few weeks. Is that okay?"
More Words to Avoid When Offering Condolences
Part of knowing what not to say when someone dies involves avoiding a few key words and phrases. Never say the following to someone who is grieving:
- "Should" - It's not helpful to tell someone they "should" do something or feel something.
- "At least" - Everything that you say after "at least" can serve to minimize the current emotions of the person who is left behind.
- "I know" - Rather than focusing on your own experience, be aware that the other person has a unique perspective.
- "Don't" - Avoid anything that starts with "don't," such as "don't cry" or "don't worry."
Know What Not to Say at a Funeral
If you're attending a funeral, these are just a few of the words and phrases you should avoid. Instead, focus on the person who is grieving and the ways you can offer practical and emotional support. If you keep your statements about the situation at hand and don't try to control how the other person feels, you'll always know what to say at a funeral or when talking to someone who is grieving.