Well Meaning Statements Devastate Mourners

Mourners need two things: (1) to be able to express themselves and share their grief experience without being judged and (2) to know that they have been heard and understood.  Remember that the best way that you can help mourners is to be present, listen, support and encourage them.  Simply being there for grievers can help them move toward healing.

Here’s some of the actions and sayings you should avoid doing for people in grief

  • Don't judge the person or his or her circumstance.  Avoid telling the mourner why the death or situations leading up to the death took place.  Steer clear of telling the mourner that “Everything will be all right” or that “Everything happens for a reason.”  There could be some truth in those statements, but still they are not comforting to mourners in pain.
  • Don't  try to find theological reasons for the death.   (I put this rule in for well-meaning ministers, chaplains and church members.)  Don’t try to make the situation better by explaining it in spiritual or theological terms.  Avoid saying, “It was God’s will.”
  • Don't belittle or discount their feelings.  Stay away from statements like “You shouldn’t feel that way.”  Let the mourners feel what they feel at the moment.  A more appropriate response might be to affirm the person’s feelings by saying “I could see how you might feel that way.”
  • Don't say "I know how you feel."  This statement is one quick way to get a rise out of an angry mourner or to shut down him or her from any further expression of grief emotions.
  • Don't say "I am praying for you" when you aren't.  Often this declaration is made at the end of a conversation with the mourner as a way for the comforter to exit to other activities.
  • Stay away from "at least" statements.  Some of the most discomforting statements made to mourners start with the words “At least.”  Steer clear of such statements as: At least you have other children....or you can still have other children. At least you had (however many) good years of marriage together.... At least they didn't suffer.... At least you know they are in a better place…. At least you're young. You can always remarry....
  • Think before you speak.  After twelve years of working with grieving people, I have collected some of the most common statements made by would-be comforters that can deeply upset the mourner.  Please avoid these hurtful clichés.Waxing theological: It’s God will…. God needed him (her) more than we did… God never gives you more than you can handle… He (She) is in a better place…. She (He) is an angel now looking over you…. Remember, God is in control….Waxing philosophical: Everything happens for a reason… People die every day.  It’s just part of life…. It was his (her) time… It’s all for the best…. It will get better…or…It will be all right…Unwelcome advice: You just need to move on…. It won’t help to dwell on the past (or the death)… You need to get busy and just forget…. Aren’t you going to go back to work?  Get your mind off the loss… I could introduce you to someone nice.  I don’t want you to be alone… Are you able to have another baby?

Quit throwing your pity party!  It’s been three months…. You need to get rid of all of his (her) stuff…(And when you do, can I have the….?)

When with a mourner, be there for them, listen and say only statements that let them know you have heard them, that you understand them, and you love them.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.