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David Baxter

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Ten Most Careless Statements Made to Grieving People

Dr. Linda E. Jordan, Manager
Duke Community Bereavement Services

Will Rogers once said, ?It?s not what you don?t know that scares me; it?s what you know for sure that just ain?t so.? Nowhere is this folk wisdom more applicable than when we try to comfort the grieving. To be sure, no one has ever taught us what to say. We generally parrot what we heard from adults when we were growing up. The difficulty is that most of our statements have some elements of truth in them. However, the message behind the message is not true and is often very hurtful.

The statements I offer for your consideration in this article are those taught to me by grieving people over the last 10 years. I hope they will help you be more sensitive to those you are truly trying to help.

Most Careless Statement # 1:
I know how you feel. No one knows how somebody else feels, not even if that one has had a similar loss. The twin of this careless statement is ?the same thing happened to?? and then launch into a tragedy that happened to someone else. The sentiment of wanting to identify with the pain of grief is a worthy one, but the fact is such statements most often alienate the grieving person. Each loss and grief is unique to the person who has had the loss. No one knows not even members of the same family.

Most Careless Statement #2:
S/he lived a long life. And your point is? The message behind this statement (although seldom intended) is that the mourner should grieve less because the deceased is old and the mourner has had many years with him/her. But in reality, that longevity adds to the importance of mourning the death. Whether the deceased is a parent or spouse or other significant person (whether the relationship was affectionate or contentious), the fact is that longevity often means deep bonds, and survivors lose, not only their pivotal person, but also a part of their own identity.

Most Careless Statement # 3:
Let me know if there?s anything that I can do. A person in grief often has no idea what they need or even how they will get through the next hour. For heaven?s sake, don?t add another chore to the bereaved. In reality, this statement is most often made to make comforters feel better, not the bereaved. If you really want to help, take the initiative. Find out what things might be helpful and ask if you can do them?grocery shopping, babysitting, cutting the lawn, or making a meal.

Most Careless Statement # 4:
S/he is in a better place. Well, the dead do not need comforting. They are indeed in a better place. Who is not in a better place are the survivors. They are hurting. Please remember that you are there for those who are left behind. This is only one of a plethora of religious platitudes intended to help the bereaved ?buck up.? Others include ?everything happens for a reason? and ?God doesn?t give us more than we can bear.? Such statements are meaningful if the bereaved make them. It is not O.K. for comforters to impose these interpretations.

Most Careless Statement # 5:
It was a blessing. This effort to comfort survivors generally after a long illness dismisses the intense sorrow of death. Surely death can be accompanied by a sense of release and relief when survivors have had to watch someone they love suffer, but that final letting go hardly feels like a ?blessing.? In terminal illness, death steals not only the deceased, but the survivor?s vocation and identity as a primary caregiver. It is one thing for survivors to make this statement; it is an assault for others to make it to them.

Most Careless Statement # 6:
You?re holding up so well. What are survivors suppose to be ?holding up?? This meaningless praise and its twin admonition, ?you?ve go to be strong? are ?not so subtle? messages to grievers that we are thankful that they are not making us uncomfortable with their emotional outbursts, especially tears or anger. Often people in grief feel they have to turn in an ?academy award? performance every day in order to make others around them feel O.K. In addition, they have to endure a multitude of insensitive remarks. There is something fundamentally wrong with grieving people taking care of those not grieving.

Most Careless Statement # 7:
At least you still have one parent left (or other children). Variations on this theme are intended to comfort the bereaved by pointing out the supportive persons they have left, but in reality it discredits the uniqueness of the deceased or the power of the loss. Parents, children, siblings, grandparents, friends are not ?interchangeable.?

Most Careless Statement # 8:
I thought you?d be over this by now. After a defined period of time (usually several months), we expect the grieving person to be ?their old selves? again. I was standing in line next to a widow of two years when one of her friends actually said this to her. It is hard to believe, but nonetheless true, that we expect a person to move through grief like a fast food meal. Meaning and fun will return to life, but survivors will continue to miss the deceased in various ways and at certain times for the rest of their lives. The person who needs to ?get over it? is the one who expects grief to be a 24-hour virus.

Most Careless Statement # 9:
God needed another angel in heaven. This list must include the well-intended but careless statements that we make to children when a death occurs. Think about it. The message we send is that if you are special and good, you will be rewarded by death. Although we don?t mean that literally, it is no surprise that children who think concretely will be confused and afraid and can reasonably opt for alternative behavior. Another euphemism that is often used to explain death to children is ?S/he has just gone to sleep.? This statement may even lead to sleep disorder. If this person went to sleep and quit breathing, what will happen to me if I go to sleep? Adults often try to soften the reality of death by using analogies, but children need to know what death is and what happens when a person dies.

Most Careless Statement # 10:
You?re the man/woman of the house now. This effort to encourage adult behavior in children can actually burden them to the point of denying them space to grieve. Children innately feel responsible for adults. This is especially true when a parent dies. They are so fearful of losing the remaining parent and often so overwhelmed by the chaos that death incurs that they not only lose a parent to death, they lose their own childhood. Sadly, children are praised for over-functioning. It takes real intention to allow children to be children?encouraging age-appropriate grieving patterns and maintaining age-appropriate behavior.

Now that I have made us all anxious about making our usual but careless statements, I want to provide some general direction for making thoughtful statements. Alison Krauss says it well in her song, ?You say it best when you say nothing at all.? If we are lucky, grieving people will not remember what we say. They seldom do unless it is hurtful. What they do remember is our presence. Nothing we can do or say can take away the pain. But there are a couple of things that grieving people always mention as being very helpful:

Please know I care. This statement makes no assumptions, and when made genuinely, it can be life giving. This means respecting the grievers need for privacy and maintaining periodic contact in the months to come. This care means that sometimes you sit and listen. This means accepting all emotions, suspending all judgment, and resisting the tendency to give advice or ?fix the problem.? Sometimes it means that you do concrete things that you know can be helpful without being smothering or fostering dependence.

? I remember? Over and over again grieving people report how much it means to them to be able to talk about the deceased. They long to hear stories about their loved ones. Your memories about the deceased can really be a comfort and even provide stories that the mourners did not know before.

On the other hand, the bereaved need someone to listen to their stories (often more than once or twice). Never worry about repetition. Each time a story is told, it is serving a purpose for integrating the grief into life. Remembering the deceased on special days can also be a real gift. These memories may bring tears and fresh evidence of grief, but they also promote healing.

Last year, I went back to an area where I had lived 30 years ago. I stayed with a woman whose family had been particularly important to me. Her husband had cancer and died shortly after I left the area. I sat down with her over morning coffee 30 years later and told her a story about him that I had never told her because I didn?t know then what I know now. What an amazing moment!

I believe in amazing moments. I believe that community matters. I believe that sometimes we screw up, but sometimes we are better than we know how to be. I believe that grief provides a major formation of our character. I believe we can and do make a difference.

Found at Holly's Blog. If anyone knows the original source, please let me know so I can give full credit to the author.

Updated source information:
Articles About Grief

Microsoft Word document:
Ten_Most_Careless_Statements_Made_to_Grieving_People2.doc
 

ThatLady

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That's some great information for people to have. It's always so hard to know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. I've had many classes in death and dying and the grieving process, and I still find myself at a loss for words, at times.

Sometimes, the best thing to say is nothing. A gentle touch, a hug, just being there can be the greatest gift you can give. The person who is grieving will give you clues as to what they need. Often, it's just a shoulder to cry on, and someone to listen. Sometimes, it's just the knowledge that there is someone there who cares that gives the greatest comfort.
 

Holly

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Hi ThatLady,
I personally have found in Canada, if you do not say something many think you do not care.
It is so hard to know, I think it is individual thing, the comfort levels of each person.
How we all deal with grieve is very different?
You made some unique suggestions, I have to remember them!
Thank you, Holly
 

ThatLady

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Holly said:
Hi ThatLady,
I personally have found in Canada, if you do not say something many think you do not care.
It is so hard to know, I think it is individual thing, the comfort levels of each person.
How we all deal with grieve is very different?
You made some unique suggestions, I have to remember them!
Thank you, Holly

It's true that each person grieves differently. As I said, people will give you clues as to what they need if you just remain alert to their needs. For most, the simple words "I'm so sorry" are enough while the loss is still fresh. Those words and a gentle touch will often be all the person is able to bear. Some need more, some even less.
 

Peanut

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Wow. That is interesting. I have to say that I am very surprised, especially about one of the things not say in particular (which I know I have said in attempt to avoid some of the other things you shouldn't say). I know to me all that really mattered was that people cared. It wasn't as important what they said, just that they said something. I will also never, ever forget my friends that showed up to the funeral. It made me realize that it is important to go to funerals of friends' loved ones...it makes a big difference to see friendly faces.
 
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I think another difficult thing to hear when you have suffered a loss, especially the loss of a child, is "I don't know how you are going on. I couldn't go on if it were me." Or something like that. Even if it is well meant it's like saying because you're going on breathing you love your child less than they do. :(
 

ThatLady

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I agree, Janet. That could be a very hurtful thing to say. Sadly, people often have no idea WHAT to say when confronted with another's grief. They say the first thing that comes into their minds, and it's often not the best choice. I guess we just need to realize that people are fallable beings and rarely mean to hurt. :(
 
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I definitely agree with you. I think most people don't mean to hurt. Most people mean well.

I'm sure I have said some of the things listed here. It is hard to know what to say.
 

just mary

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This is a good article. I was trying to think of the things I've said in the past and I hope I didn't say anything too careless. My co-worker just suffered a loss and I talked to him about it, I didn't say much but maybe that's okay. I'll try to remember this article the next time I know someone who is grieving.

Thanks.
 

Sky

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I've seen this list before and to some degree it bothers me. I guess....I just feel that sometimes in our society we are WAY to critical of people. Especially when it's people who only mean you their best. Think about it. We as a society realize that funerals are hard and finding the right words of comfort is simply not an easy thing to do. Even here in this forum we all seem to agree that everyone grieves death differently! I guess myself personally.....I try not to read so much into what a person offers me in words of comfort when I'm grieving. I'm more touched by the fact that they took time out of their lives for me and came to the funeral home/funeral or that they stopped by my home to see how I was doing. Especially when it's a neighbor or not so much a close friend or family member but a more casual of aquintance. We all know how awkard it can be to find the right words to say...we are discussing as much here. So yes. I try not to fault someone for having a hard time knowing just what to say. I'm just grateful they said anything at all. Who am I to judge them at that point I figure? In my opinion we are very shallow people when we judge our friends and family becaues their words of comfort were not good enough for us. These people made the effort to be there for us and yet all we can do is take our emotional grief out on them? Oh this is just such a huge pet pieve for me. The one where we say don't say "I know how you feel". URRR!! I REALLY hate that one. I really think that is just digging way to deep you know. Just looking for problems that don't have to be there. It's like you are looking for a reason to be upset so you don't have to deal w/ your grief at hand. You can choose to be upset w/ the person instead for saying they know how you feel. Come on. We all know damm well the person does not mean to literally imply they know exactly what you are feeling as though they are you going through it. We all know the sentiment to be implied. Why do you have to go so deep like that?! Just take it for the kindness meant and leave it at that. But nope. Can't do that in our society. Have to rip people apart instead. Have to look for the small things and pull people down. We can't just see things for how they are....the good intentions that people have and just leave it at that. We'd rather cut people down instead. That's exaclty what that list does.

No. I'm sorry. When I go to a funeral....I mean....give me some credit. I don't walk in and set out to hurt anyone and play the fool. I do my best by those I love. I feel out the person I'm there to support, so to speak. If I don't know them that well....of course I don't act like I know them or their loss personally. I don't offer things that sound personal. I say something more like "my family would like to extend our sympathies to your family and we keep your family in our prayers". Sometimes depending on how well I know the person...but maybe I don't know their loved one who is passed...I ask if they can share a fun memory of them with me. I mean....I guess I just try to judge each situation before I offer up words! Obviously if I'm there w/ cousins and so forth because we lost a grandparent.....we do say things to each other like we know each other's pain. Yes. When it comes right down to it...we are each grieving differently. But then again....we offer the sentiment of "I know how you feel" to each other....we mean that hey....I get it...you are hurting...so am I ...I know what you mean...this hurts like hell...it's ok because I hurt too...not for the same reasons because you had a different bond w/ grandpa then I did and we have different memories...but hey...it's ok...we can talk and share because I know...I hurt too"..........you know....it's like one simple phrase and we connect....we get what the other one means with out having to say more. So do you see what I mean? You judge the situation and the people and those little blunt statements can take on whole new meanings and they dont' always have to seem so cold and thoughtless.

I don't know. Sorry for my rambelings! I saw this post and this subject is one that always got me thinking.....................
 

ThatLady

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A lot of the problems are the result of the different stages of grieving, Sky. If the loss is recent, the grieving person may still be trying to work through the anger stage of grief. If that's the case, they will get angry at people who say some of those things to them. It's not that they're mean, unfeeling people. It's just that they haven't moved out of the anger stage of grieving yet, and that's what happens during that stage...people get angry.

Once people have had the opportunity to move through, and resolve, the various stages of grief, they become less critical of what others might say, and what they, themselves, feel. They're better able to cope with their loss and go on with life as normal, unless they get "stuck" somewhere along the way and are unable to resolve their grief. Some people get stuck in the anger stage, others in the guilt stage. It takes time and patience to help them work through these issues.
 

David Baxter

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I guess the article can be read two ways. Although I realize the wording may seem a bit harsh, I saw it more as advice to people on how to better comfort friends and family members, rather than criticism of their attempts to help. I do know that at times of loss in my life, I have heard some of those same statements and my reaction was rarely negative because I know that most people meant well and that people have difficulty finding the right words at such times. If you read it as "instead of this, try saying this", it may seem less judgmental.
 

Sky

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Please forgive my post. As you get to know me on the boards you will come to know I'm dealing with cyclothymia. For a long time now I have had this well under control. Just recently I was triggered however and I find myself in the last couple of weeks here in a "cycle" as I call them. For those not familiar w/ cyclotymia....our moods cycle. Now I'm not sure what the average cyclothymic person deals with....but speaking for myself....my moods don't cycle from day to day....I cycle rapidly all day long. It's like being on a rollercoaster. Usually I'm stuck in anger mode for the most part and rollercoaster back and forth away from that mood. But I could be in any given mood.....say a half hour....sometimes I'm lucky and can hold there a couple hours. And as far as when a mood swings....just like riding a rollercoaster in either direction up or down....it can be a gradual climb to the next mood or I can arrive at the next mood BAM!

At any rate.....when I posted in reply to this thread yesterday it's fair to say I was aggitated. Still am this morning...but thinking with more of a clear head. I also deal with racing thoughts. Mix that with aggitation or anger and I'm hard to deal w/. When my thoughts are more calm and clear I can slow down and take a step back...even when I'm aggitated about something. But when I can't get a handle on my racing thoughts....I just go off. Something bothers me....I'll go off about it and speak my mind. I apologize for posting at a time when I should have stayed off the boards and allowed myself to cool down and gain a cooler head and perspective. I know this about myself and yet I still sat down and posted. Again. My apologies.

For the most part I agree with having this information out there. I agree with my self to some extent in that I do feel our society is too judgemental and I think we are a bit too quick to judge people. Sometimes I do think we are a bit unforgiving and we are so critical we forget that hey....at least the person made the effort to be here in support of us today and it's not about what they tried to say but the fact that they care and want to be here in comfort for us. But I can see the point "thatlady" has made that in being critical ....it's the stage of grief where the critisims are coming from....sometimes.

But having said all of this. I do agree the list is good to have because critical society or not....it's good to educate yourself. If you realize that at a funeral you feel like you just never know the right thing to say....having a resource like this available can be helpful.

I know. I must sound like a nut because I'm contradicting myself from yesterday. Well. Like I explained. I was not in a good place to be posting yesterday. Personally I do have some problems with the list, but I guess what I'm trying to say is I can see where it can be a helpful tool for some people. ;)

.........well........I guess.......I can see these from a few angles....I can see pros and cons to this as I guess my post shows. I don't have one firm view on this one.........thank you with bearing with me..............
 

David Baxter

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No apology is necessary, Sky. When I posted that article, I could see both sides of it but I still thought it was worth posting, if only to help people to better help others in their lives.

But you're absolutely correct that read a certain way the article seems critical of people who are doing their best. I think your post did us all a service by raising this as an issue.
 

ThatLady

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Since this directly involves my field of work I, too, understand how the article might be taken two ways. It's often necessary for me to intercede with families to help them develop more workable ways of dealing with themselves, and each other, during trying times when a loved one is lost. Rather than criticize the things some people might say, it works better to try to teach them better ways of expressing their sorrow and empathy.
 

Sky

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I do agree it's best to educate people...on both sides. Not only those that are seeking to offer comfort and support...but also those that will one day be seeking to receive comfort and support. Help them to understand why things are said, etc. It's not only good to educate those giving but it's also good to help educate someone on how to receive words of comfort. So often we only think about how to get through our grief once it happens to us. We find ourselves hit with a loss and realize we are totally unprepared to handle that loss. Maybe we can look to educate ourselves and prepare ourselves on how to receive comfort. I realize you can't really know how you are going to react to a loss until you actually experience it. But maybe you can at least educate yourself in this area. If you better understand others around you and why they say the things you do....it will help yourself go through the process when it happens. You'll be better prepared to handle comments when they come from those that were not prepared and ill equipped at giving but yet still well meaning with their love and prayers. You can understand better that even though they didn't say the best thing, they meant well. And you will be better prepared with a response during your most difficult time. Education can be good on both sides of the difficult issue.
 
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I just wanted to say that I have never thought less of anyone who said something like that to me in times of grief. I know people mostly mean well.

Most people on both sides are just doing the best they can, coping the best way they can. :(
 

ThatLady

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That's so true, Janet. The time of grieving is difficult for everyone, the person who has lost a loved one as well as those who care about the person who has suffered the loss. Everyone wants to do the "right thing", but it's very difficult to know just exactly what that is.
 

Halo

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David Baxter said:
If you read it as "instead of this, try saying this", it may seem less judgmental.

This is exactly how I read it. I was thinking that it was a good tool to store in the back of my brain for the next time that I am faced with this issue. I read it like David said...instead of this, try saying this. I did not see it as being critical of anybody.
 

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