Three years ago, I lost my dad to suicide. There were some sentiments that I was told over and over. Some I found offensive, some were just ridiculous, but none have I ever since repeated.
We have all said stupid things — I know the following words left my lips before I knew what it was to grieve. But I learned some things while navigating what I consider “Part Two” of my life — that is, my life with grief. Knowing what not to say has been helpful to me, and my hope is that it may be helpful to you too. So the next time you find yourself across the table from a grieving friend, here are some phrases to avoid.
1. “Were you close?”
There is no good answer to this question. Either the answer is a) yes, and that is unfortunate.
Or, worse, the answer is b) no. Then what? The truth is, option B can be just as unfortunate. Grief brings with it many complicated feelings. And your friend’s relationship with the person they lost can make those feelings even more arduous. It is not important whether they spoke every day or hadn’t seen each other in years. What is important is to care for your friend’s needs.
2. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Someone plastered a big fat motivational picture of this phrase on my Facebook wall after my dad died. I guess it was supposed to be inspiring. I promptly deleted it. Everything does not happen for a reason. While there is often good that can and will come out of bad situations, positive side-effects are not the catalyst for tragedy. This statement is not true, nor does it make your friend’s loss any easier to endure.
3. “You seem to be doing okay.”
In some ways, this sentiment is the poorest choice of verbal support. Because we are not mind readers, we can never truly know how someone is doing. If we are entrusted with a friend’s grief, then we must show respect. In order to do that, we should not make assumptions about how she is feeling.
We cannot summarize one’s feelings in a statement such as this. While from our vantage point, our friend may seem to be handling everything well, we can’t really know what goes on behind closed doors unless we are invited in. We can always appreciate a grieving person sharing what she is comfortable disclosing, but we must refrain from making assumptions based on what little we know.
4. “You will never be given more than you can handle.”
Similar to number two, this is another untrue, unhelpful statement. Many people are given much more than “they can handle,” whatever that means. We are not created to handle pain on our own. We are made to live in relationship with one another and take part in one another’s lives — in victories and in trials.
When we see a friend struggling under the weight of grief, or life in general, it is our job to reach in and lift her up. Which brings us to the final sentiment that, maybe more than all the others, should be removed from our vocabulary of clichés…
5. “Let me know if you need anything.”
This is the piece I hope you take with you: it is hard for a grieving person to ask for help. So do not wait for her to make that request. Instead of offering these well-intentioned words, do something. Do not wait to be asked. Act.
So, what does that look like?
It looks like reaching out, whether with a book, a loaf of bread, or just an embrace.
Shannon gave me a care package with tea, tissues, a journal, and a necklace.
Gretchen filled a box with candy and had all of my friends sign a card.
Karen had coffee with my mom every morning for seven weeks.
Jennifer made sure we had plans on my dad’s birthday and the anniversary of his death.
Jill wrapped her arms around me, held me tight, and didn’t say a word.
You don’t need to become best friends with someone hurting if you weren’t friends before. Use discretion depending on your relationship with a person. Maybe it’s just making a meal. Maybe it’s a note. But remember too, maybe it is being at that person’s house every day for seven weeks.
The fact of the matter is that grief does not end after seven weeks, or six months, or a year. Once grief enters your life, it sticks around. Make a note in your phone, and, after one year, two years, and for years to come after a loss, remind your friend who has not forgotten her loss that you have not forgotten either.