I know I’m not the only one who looks back at 2020 and remembers how terribly hard it was. While the beginning of the pandemic brought hardships for everyone, with our lives changing drastically, it also brought along a lot of pain. In April of 2020, my family lost my grandmother which was one of the hardest times I’ve ever experienced. I’ve gotten pretty lucky this far, without losing a loved one until recently, but the pain was horrible.
All of life’s priorities became more difficult and felt minuscule. Losing a loved one can make it seem like nothing else really matters in the grand scheme of things, but I prevailed and my partner and I stayed in our hometown for as long as we could to be with family, especially because our work had recently been shifted to an online-only format. We weren’t able to have a funeral ceremony until two months later because of COVID-19 regulations, which also made it feel like our mourning was being prolonged. Throughout these rough months of 2020, I had many conversations with people and picked up on what some of the most common language is when someone has lost a loved one. Here’s what not to say when a friend has lost a loved one.
First of all, you should say something
Even though it can be very uncomfortable to witness someone’s grief, you need to reach out to those that you care about. Whether you say something simple or heartfelt, it will be better than nothing at all. When someone you care about is grieving, the worse thing you can do is ignore them and not reach out when they need to support the most. Don’t lose someone you care about just because you are nervous about dealing with their grief.
“How did they die?”
This question is completely unnecessary to ask someone. The way someone died does not define their being at all. This question can also be very triggering for someone dealing with a loss, because they may have to recall and tell you about a situation they are trying to heal from. Instead of asking about how they died, ask your friend to describe them or to tell you a story about them. Sharing a happy or fun memory about the person they lost is definitely easier and more beneficial than recalling their death itself. At my grandma’s funeral, it was beautiful hearing all of the funny stories people were sharing about her. Telling stories about the person can feel like you are keeping their memory alive, which is a very beautiful thing.
“I lost someone too.”
It is human nature to want to relate with other humans, but experiencing a similar loss does not lessen the current one they are going through. Saying this can come off as competitive, and you don’t ever want to make grief or trauma a competition. Right now, it is about their loss, not about anything you have dealt with in the past. Even if you’re just trying to be helpful and communicate that you understand what your friend is going through, sometimes it’s just more helpful to be there for them and listen as they express their grief in their own way.
“You should take some time off.”
Everyone is different but if you are a boss, teacher, or authority figure to someone who has lost a loved one, I would tread lightly in this area. I would recommend telling this person that they can have time off if they would like it, but not telling them that they have to. A simple “If you need extra time, that’s not a problem” would be a perfect way to make someone feel like they have options. Sometimes people don’t know exactly how to ask for extra time and feel stuck, while others won’t want any at all. Personally, I asked for extra work from my boss because I preferred to stay distracted instead of taking a break. Everyone copes in very different ways and pushing them to take extensions or time off might cause them to feel trapped in their own feelings with no escape. The day after my grandma’s funeral, I came up with a full project for my partner and me to do together (building a hammock stand for our backyard). This was something not very like me, considering I’m not much of a builder but having something to control and focus on was healing for me.
“You’ll be okay.”
While you may have good intentions with a reassuring statement like this one, it can often feel invalidating. When you are losing a loved one, you may be an emotional wreck or closed off, but you need to feel and let out what you feel. Reassuring affirmations like these seem nice but can make someone feel like they are being overdramatic or like they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Sometimes, it is best to just be there and to listen, instead of providing any of your own input. When I’m crying, the last thing I want someone to do is to try to get me to stop — I need to let it all out to feel better. If you feel awkward and don’t know how to console someone properly, consider just being beside them or asking if they want to do something with you like watch a movie or do a puzzle.
“It’s been a long time.”
It doesn’t matter how long ago it was. Whether it was last week or ten years ago, people’s grief does not have a time limit. Grief can be lifelong, and you should be able to experience it for as long as possible, even for the rest of your life. Phrases like this can make people feel like their grief is burdensome to you, even though they may not be ready to move through it yet.
“They’re in a better place.”
Not only does this push religion onto someone who may not have the same beliefs as you, but it is also completely insensitive. Not everyone who dies was suffering — and even if they were, it is not your place to tell people that their loved one is happier dead than they were alive. Many people go through losses that are completely unexpected, and this notion will not make them feel better at all. Instead of consoling the person mourning, you might even be placing blame on them or making them feel like what they did was not enough. This might also make the person feel like they are being selfish — like they would have rather had their person here with them, even if they were suffering. You should not try to make them feel grateful for losing a loved one.
“It was just an animal.”
To many people, animals and pets are family. Just like any other family member, a loss of a pet can have a major impact on a person. Even if you haven’t had this connection with an animal or don’t understand, you should never diminish the way someone feels.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Even if this is your mentality, it can feel invalidating if said to someone going through a loss. A death is not a stepping stone for everyone around them — this is not a book or a movie and their death didn’t happen so that others could have personal growth or change. To me, this statement makes it seem like the death I am mourning will be the reason that something else happens in my life, and I simply do not want to see it that way. The person who was lost was a living person who may have had their own path, dreams, and hopes and they should not be minimized as a plot point for anyone else. Don’t take autonomy away from someone who has died just to smooth over someone else’s mourning.
“You can always have another child.”
This statement is truly sickening and should never be spoken to anyone, especially to someone who has lost a child or has had a miscarriage. People are not replaceable. You can’t replace a child like you can a broken blender, by buying a new one and forgetting all about the other. Saying this to someone is horrible because it also makes it sound like life is less valuable if it’s shorter. A child’s life is just as valuable as an elder’s, and mourning because of either of these losses is valid.
Losing a loved one is hard, and it can be hard to help someone grieving. Did we miss anything? Share your advice in the comments below!
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