8 Common Condolences Not To Offer Someone Grieving A Loved One's Passing

by Heather Varner

"Time heals everything." "(S)he is in a better place." "If you need anything just let me know!"

These classically overused words of condolence are bestowed upon our bereaved loved ones as easily and carelessly as the basic routine of brushing our teeth in the morning. And, while these words tend to come from a place of heartfelt warmth and goodness, their actual effectiveness is minimal.

I lost my mom this past May when I was 23 years old. That morning, we shared breakfast and tea. We ate, chatted, laughed and bantered back and forth, in our typical manner, before parting ways for our various Saturday afternoon activities.

When my phone rang two hours later and I found out she’d been in an accident, I rushed to the hospital and waited, too afraid to call anybody and say the words out loud. I was drowning in my own dread, refusing to think the thoughts that were forcefully creeping into my mind.

Try as I might, the moment I ran into the ER and was beckoned into a private waiting room, my heart knew the truth. When nurses, doctors and paramedics refused to look me in the eyes after two hours, I felt it.

And, when the neurosurgeon walked into the room and closed the door behind him, he didn’t even have to look me in the eye before I was sure of it. My mom was gone. There was nothing they could do.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, I never felt more loved and blessed by the amazing people in my life. The way people stepped up to support me and my family was truly outstanding, and I can’t imagine dealing with a loss like this without the compassion I received.

That being said, I have also realized that death is something with which our society is remarkably uncomfortable. Nobody wants to experience grief firsthand, but it is equally true that nobody wants to watch a loved one go through it, either.

We are hesitant, unsure and insecure when it comes to offering comfort and solace. We are unsteady with the words we choose and uncomfortable when it comes to “knowing what to say.”

There are no perfect words that can take away the pain of loss. However, there are certain phrases within our condolences vernacular that while well-meaning, should (in my humble opinion) be eliminated entirely.

Here are some of the most ridiculously unfortunate phrases I experienced during my time of bereavement along with suggestions for how switching up your phrasing might make a world of a difference:

DON’T SAY: “I know how you feel.”

Why not? Every loss is different! My brother, sister and I each faced the loss of our mom differently because we all are unique individuals who maintained unique individual relationships with her.

Even if you believe your previous experience with loss is comparable, it certainly is not identical, so please don’t suggest that you felt the exact same way.

Instead, say: If you truly feel that a loss you’ve experienced has provided you with valid advice, feel free to offer it. While each loss may be different, there are many healing practices that are universally beneficial.

Try saying something like, “I know this loss is difficult in its own way, but one thing that helped me when I lost (so-and-so) was (insert suggestion here).”

DON’T SAY: “It’s going to be okay.”

Why not? The answer is simple. It’s NOT okay. Someone loved is gone and not coming back. That just plain sucks, especially not from the viewpoint of someone dealing with the early stages of grief. This also invalidates feelings by suggesting it’s “no big deal.”

Instead, say: “I know the future looks bleak, but I will be by your side every step of the way.” (The key to this is the follow-through. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.)

DON’T SAY: “Stay strong.”

Why not? Your loved one may need help to find strength and it is important that it eventually happens. But, in the throes of grief, whether a person shows strength, weakness, numbness or a combination of all three, it is important to communicate that whatever they are doing is perfectly normal.

Moreover, the person will need to process the sadness at some point and feigning strength when the person feels most vulnerable may prevent this from occurring altogether.

Instead, say: “Be kind to yourself. Let yourself feel every emotion that comes your way and I’ll be a listening ear whenever you may need one.”

DON’T SAY: “I can’t imagine how you’re dealing with this.”

Why not? You’re right. You probably can’t imagine it. They probably can’t figure it out, either. But, they are somehow getting through it, day by day. And, while mere survival may feel like a feat beyond human capability, comparing your own place in life to theirs is honestly a little bit insensitive.

Instead, say: “The way you are handing this has been an inspiration for me. You have been a testimony to (fill in the blank; ie: inner-strength, faith, positivity, putting on a brave face, etc.).”

DON’T SAY: “(S)he is in a better place.”

Why not? This is like telling a girl who misses her boyfriend while he’s away on a family vacation to relax because “he’s in a better place.” Well, that’s fine and dandy for him, isn’t it?

But, what about the rest of us, down here on earth? While this may be a comforting reminder when someone has been sick for a long time, most often, a grieving person wants nothing more than the lost loved one by his or her side. No matter how fabulous this “better place” is.

Instead, say: “I am sure (s)he misses you as much as you miss him/her. Don’t be afraid to continue communicating in your own way.”

DON’T SAY: “Think of the good times.”

Why not? First of all, this cliché is overused. Second of all, a person in grief may be so exhausted, confused and downtrodden that he or she simply won’t have the energy to forcefully drag any good memories from the brain.

It takes effort to be positive during hard times. While I fully believe good memories are powerful forces in healing, I know firsthand that in times of sadness, they can be hard to come by.

Instead, say: If you knew the deceased, share a memory or a story that might put a smile on your loved ones' faces. If you knew the person well, maybe go out and purchase a little journal and write down a few memories.

Give this to loved ones as a gift that they can use to continue recording their own good memories when they feel ready.

DON’T SAY: “It’s all a part of God’s greater plan.”

Why not? Even as a self-identified spiritual person, this is the last thing I wanted to hear. Even if it is a part of the plan of any sort of higher power, a person in grief will think, “But what about my plan?!”

Not only will this fuel anger at God for creating such a ridiculously cruel plan, it will also fuel anger at you for reminding the grieving person of it.

Instead, say: When my mom died, our church minister said something that stuck with me. He told me, “I believe God grieves with us.” If your loved one is a person of faith, saying something along these lines may be a great comfort.

DON’T SAY: “If you need anything, let me know.”

Why not? This will be offered approximately five billion times (give or take a few). The problem is that it’s vague and often empty. People say this all the time without any intention to do anything in particular to help someone through the grieving process.

Instead, say: “I was thinking, I could (fill in the blank with something specific — bring you lunch, drop off take-out, lend you a bunch of funny DVD’s, compile a slideshow of your favourite photos, etc.). Would this be okay, or is there something else with which I can help?”

I don’t write this list as a complaint. I write this list because I believe we all could benefit from an open dialogue regarding the ways in which grief and loss affect our lives. The discomfort we feel when dealing with the universal topic is unfortunate because it is in times of loss when we need the support of those we love the most.

Most importantly, remember this: This is just based on my own, personal experience. Like I said before, no two people grieve identically.

Every person needs to find comfort in different ways. These are just the ways in which I have personally felt most comforted and the ways in which I have had best results comforting others. Of course, that does not mean these are collective statements that will work with everyone.

There are no magic words that will make everything suddenly okay during a time of loss. The best thing you can do when comforting a friend is follow your heart, be open to emotions, validate feelings and support him or her in the ways you believe are best.

Simple kindness will go a long way, and truth be told, sometimes the greatest comfort of all is the shoulder of a familiar friend to lean on in silence.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It