By Courtney Clark
When a friend is grieving, you want to be there for them. You want to help them. You want to make them feel better.
As a three-time cancer survivor, I’ve spent a lot of time around grief and loss. In my nonprofit work with survivors and others in grief, I’ve heard many of the same phrases used time after time – phrases that are supposed to be comforting, but end up being frustrating to the person grieving.
Many of the things that come out of our mouths when someone we know is hurting are actually meant to make US feel better, not them. We feel uncomfortable watching them cry or be upset, so we say things we think will encourage them to feel happy instead of sad. But that’s like using a fly swatter to stop a Lear Jet!
Here are 4 common phrases you should avoid saying to a friend who is grieving:
“It Will All Be Okay”
Most of the phrases on this list minimize grief, in some way. This particular phrase grates on my nerves, because it also sounds like the person saying it has a crystal ball.
In reality, life will likely be “okay” for your grieving friend, but it will never be what it was. It may never feel quite as full. Or as secure. When you say “it will all be okay,” what your friend hears is “you won’t miss <whatever or whoever it is> that much anyway.” Your friend isn’t yet at a place where it’s all okay, so allow them to process their grief in their own time.
“Everything Happens for a Reason”
I really struggled with hearing this phrase after my friend Ruben died. If you’ve heard me tell the story of Ruben, you know he was full of life and had just married his true love, Jen, when he passed away. When people said “everything happens for a reason,” it felt like they were saying “Ruben was meant to die.”
In my life, I have experienced many gifts that have come from bad situations. I believe that we can find meaning and hope in even the worst of grief. But I can’t pretend to know the reasons why difficult things happen. I think, facing loss, people want to believe they know something, because feeling powerless is uncomfortable. But it’s not the time or place to school your grieving friend on the mysteries of life.
“I Know Exactly How You Feel”
Empathy is a beautiful thing. When we’re hurting, one of the most powerful gifts we can receive is someone who just “gets it” to be with us. If you’ve understand your friend’s grief, you’ll be able to support them in a way few others will.
But… in my experience, most people who say “I know exactly how you feel,” are the very people who don’t know exactly how I feel. The people who know how I feel say something else, like “I get it. I’m here with you.” Real empathy doesn’t require a comparison.
“God/The Universe Doesn’t Give You More Than You Can Handle”
This phrase is similar to “Everything happens for a reason.” It presumes the speaker knows the inner workings of life’s great plan. It’s meant to be a compliment, telling your grieving friend that he or she is strong, but it runs the surprising risk of coming across as a guilt trip. For example, I know a woman who lost her son who heard this phrase, and it made her feel like “Do they mean it’s my fault? If I hadn’t been so strong, this wouldn’t have happened to me?”
These phrases to avoid all have one thing in common: they’re meant to provide perspective to a person grieving. But you can’t give perspective to a person grieving – they can only come to that perspective in their own time.
There are no magic words to make them stop crying and say “you’re right! It’s not as bad as I thought!” Grief doesn’t work like that. In fact, the old Stage Model of grief, originally developed by Kubler-Ross, has been proven incorrect. Grief comes in cycles and waves, there is no linear pattern.
So don’t try to say anything meaningful or deep. Just be there. That’s the best thing you can do.
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