WHAT NOT TO SAY TO THE GRIEVING | Penny Kendall

When someone we care about is suffering, it is just a natural response to try to do something or say something to make their pain go away. We don’t want them to hurt … we want to make it stop for them. Unfortunately, this desire can often cause well-meaning people to share ‘words of wisdom’ that can be far from encouraging or helpful.

In visiting with those who are grieving, the subject of what people have said to them is very often a topic included in the conversation. And … if you were to search the words ‘what not to say to the grieving’ on your favorite search engine, you may be shocked to find that there are more than 1 million entries on the subject. This, it seems, would be a bold indication that inappropriate words from others are a continuing concern among those who have suffered deep losses.

After the tragic death of my 21-year-old son, I was often taken aback by the words that people would offer to advise me or comfort me in my pain. My desire to be tolerant and gracious demanded a meek smile and kind eyes in response to their words but my mind and heart did not always agree with what I insisted my face portray. The platitudes that people offered would sometimes cause me to chuckle and shake my head to myself. Sometimes that was the only way to keep the tears from spilling over … but in truth, the words weren’t really funny at all. They were often not only evidence of the speaker’s lack of understanding of what my wounded heart was feeling … they could also be very insensitive and hurtful.

Sometimes I hear my own past words echo in my mind … and in my new understanding, I wish I could grab them back. I pray that in my sharing, you will gain a new understanding, as well … and that because of it, you will have spoken no words that your heart will regret.

* AT LEAST … YOU HAVE OTHER CHILDREN

The first time I heard these words, I was so shocked that I couldn’t do much more than just nod my head and quietly acknowledge them. When I came to my senses, I could picture myself smacking my forehead with the heel of my hand (like in the V8 commercials) and saying … “Oh, I wish I had thought of that … I shouldn’t be sad, I have OTHER children”!

I was even more shocked to find that I wasn’t the only one … grieving people hear variations of these words every day. Those who suffer still births, premature births or miscarriages often hear … ‘at least you can have MORE children’.

While both of these statements may be true … these words are not comforting in the loss of a child, whether lost in the womb or outside of it.

I AM blessed to have other children and I am so very thankful they were by my side as I grieved the death of my son. Still the other children I have or may have in the future will never REPLACE the one I have lost. NOTHING can REPLACE the one I have lost. There will always be a hole where he belongs. He was valuable … he was cherished … he is irreplaceable.

~ Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? Luke 15:4 (NIV) ~

* IT IS TIME …
… to be happy/jovial
… to get on with your life
… to get over it

I was recently scouring a shelf of books on grieving and came across one titled “I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can”. I’ve never read this book, but I LOVE the title … and I share the sentiment.

If I had a friend who was severely injured in a car accident and was hospitalized in Intensive Care, I would not feel it my responsibility or within my realm of wisdom to determine when it was time for him to — get over it and get on with life. Initially, when his wounds are great, he needs 24-hrs-a-day attention … he needs nourishment … he needs tender care … he needs rest, a lot of rest. Over time, his wounds will prayerfully become less life-altering and his care needs will change. Still, it takes time for full healing to take place. His healing can be guided but it cannot be rushed. And … even with the healing there may be many evidences of his original wounds. He may have scars or he may walk with a limp, but he will never be the same as he was before his accident.

Grief is multi-faceted. It is, in many ways, a physical wounding as much as an emotional one and its recovery is also multi-faceted. The grieving one is in Intensive Care. Initially, when his wounds are great, he needs 24-hrs-a-day attention … he needs nourishment … he needs tender care … he needs rest, a lot of rest. Over time, his wounds will become less life-altering and his care needs will change. Still, it takes time for full healing to take place. His healing can be guided but it cannot be rushed. Even with the healing there will be many evidences of his original wounds. There will be scars … and he will never be the same as he was before his loss.

Grieving takes time. How much time it will take can only be determined by the one suffering … and by the One who ultimately does the healing. His timing is perfect and right … mine is not.

~ He heals the heartbroken and bandages their wounds. Psalm 147:3 (The Message) ~

* IT WAS GOD’S WILL — GOD WANTED/NEEDED TO …

My God is the God of the Universe. He formed the world and all that is in it. He knows me inside and out and He knows my son, inside and out, as well. He holds me in His hands. He is in control of everything.

Does the fact that God is in control then mean that it was His WILL that my son should die a tragic death on a dark road in Iraq? I don’t think it does.

Do I believe that God allowed it to happen? Yes I do.

Do I believe there was a purpose in God allowing it to happen? Yes I do.

Do I understand what that purpose is? No I don’t … not at all!

It is simply impossible for my finite mind to grasp the wisdom and purposes of a Holy and Sovereign God. Neither do I believe that others can understand God’s purposes for why God allowed my son (or anyone else’s loved one) to die the way he did. The grieving heart is not comforted by the second guessing of God’s plan … only that He has one.

~ I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work … for as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think. Isa. 55:8, 9 (The Message) ~

* YOU SHOULDN’T BE SAD … HE’S IN A BETTER PLACE

My heart is at peace in knowing that my son is indeed in a better place than this world offered him. I believe he is where I so desperately wanted him to be; where I prayed his life on earth would lead him someday … but not today. Though my heart is comforted knowing that he is with our Lord and Savior, I simply was not ready for him to go there yet. I wanted him with me a little longer. I wanted to watch him grow into a young man, a husband … a father. I wanted so much to see what he would become … here … in THIS place.

Whenever I think of him in Paradise, I can’t keep from smiling. Still my heart yearns to speak to him … to see him smile … to feel his hugs. Though he’s in a ‘better place’ … I still feel sad knowing he’s not here with me.

~ There is a time for everything … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Eccl. 1:1, 4 (NIV) ~

* YOU SHOULD BE GLAD … YOU WILL SEE HIM AGAIN SOME DAY

Knowing I will be reunited with my son in eternity does bring great comfort to me but … unless I myself die an early death, it will be a while before I see my child face to face again. That is a crushing thought.

You see, losing someone you love is like having a part of you amputated. As with a physical amputation, your life is forever changed. You know you will survive it. You know you will live through it but you will always miss what you have lost … and you will always walk with a limp. You will never walk the same as you used to walk.

I know I will celebrate the day I see my son’s beautiful smile once again but for now … I just miss him.

* I KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU FEEL … MY DOG DIED LAST WEEK

Need I say there is no comparison?

The truth is, even though I may have experienced a loss similar to yours, I don’t know exactly how you feel. I only know how I feel. I can imagine how you feel because I’ve been through it but I do not know for sure. Though our experiences may be similar, they will also be quite different. Because of this, our hearts can react and respond in a completely different manner to our loss.

I need to be careful not to compare my grief with the griefs of others … and I need to be careful not to have expectations of those who are grieving based on how I would feel or not feel.

* YOU SHOULD … YOU SHOULDN’T … AT LEAST

If in doubt … it is best not to begin any offerings meant to comfort those who are grieving with — “you should…”, “you shouldn’t …”or “at least…”

According to David R. Reinstein LCSW … “Saying things intended to try to cheer the person in mourning up, though well intentioned, conveys some disrespect for the depth of their loss and sorrow and also implies that you are uncomfortable with their sad feelings”.

So …

What SHOULD you say?

* I’m so sorry!
* I love you!
* Sit down and tell me about it.

If you just don’t know what to say … offer a hug and say nothing!

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14 thoughts on “WHAT NOT TO SAY TO THE GRIEVING | Penny Kendall

  1. One of the most helpful things that anyone did for me was to hug me the day of my brother’s funeral and say, “my heart is hurting for you.” It as quiet, simple and profoundly touching.

    I think a great rule if you dont know what to say, is so say little to nothing. Just being there with someone is often all the comfort they need :)

  2. Sadly we have all tried to say all those words BEFORE we knew better-
    I was thinking- about losses- it’s not always a death that leaves us so alone.
    Whatever it is we learn what not to say,huh?

  3. Autumn … you are so right. Grief comes in many forms besides death and many of the things that affect us when we lose someone to death, also affect us in the other losses of our lives.

  4. My husband and I heard so many of those after going through our miscarriages.

    “At least you’re still young and can have more children!”

    “At least you weren’t too far along” (So how far along is far enough?)

    “It was for the best. There was probably something wrong with the baby anyway.” (And so we should be happy?)

    Like you, though, I remember saying equally insensitive things to grieving people before going through my own grief. I wish I’d known how to handle things better back then.

  5. Harmony … thank you so much for sharing.

    Yes, unfortunately, sometimes we need to walk in someone else’s shoes before we realize how uncomfortable they may be.

    This is why we are here and what this site is all about. We so desire to offer a place for people like you to honestly share … and a place where we can help people understand well, without them having to go through it themselves.

    Thanks again.

  6. Dear Penny,
    Thank you!
    Grieving is longest and hardest process in our lives. People think it will go over, but it will never.
    Love you … hug

  7. This artical is long past due and its such a pleasure to be reading it now!

    I pray that God will continue to use this site to comfort those in pain and give schema to those who are used to comfort those overcome with grief!

  8. May I add one?

    “He (or she) would want you to…

    We should never pretend to know what is best for one who is grieving. The best we can do is love them, let them know how it hurts us to see them hurt, and help them express what THEY need to get better…then LISTEN!

    I think it’s also important to remember that our tears and our pain HONOR those we love as long as we don’t stagnate there.

  9. Penny thank you so much for the thoughts. This sums it up and tells it like it is. Jared I agree with you-it’s long overdue.

  10. When my brother died tragicallyat 28 years old- a lady from my church came to wake at the funeral home and whispered in my ear,”was he saved?”
    What struck me was that this may have been one of the most insensitive questions that anyone has ever aked me; funnny how you remember these things that were said 25 years ago. I’m sure she never gave it another thought 25 years ago….. We need to be so careful with our questions and our words…..

  11. This helps me so much as my mom has been in hospital for over a month.She is 87 and has been suffering so much. I have never seen my mom in pain. Everyone just tells me to give it to God. I know or thought I had. They will also say she is going to see your dad and they can be together. Yes I don’t want her to suffer but just dont say anything.

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