What can you say when a friend loses a loved one? It’s hard, because nothing you say will bring back the person who died. You want to help but you’re tongue-tied and feel awkward. You don’t want to risk saying the wrong thing so you don’t make contact at all. And that’s too bad, because this is a time your friend needs your support. If you are close to this person, you, too, may be feeling a loss. And it might be a comfort to you to help comfort your friend. But there are things better left unsaid, even when they’re well meant.
Here are some things to avoid. Don’t say:
“I know how you feel.” You might, but the natural reaction to this is, No you don’t. Everyone is unique in this world, so whatever your friend is feeling, that’s unique, too. When you say, for example, that you lost your mother, too, you are trying to be empathetic, which is a good thing. But your relationship with your mother is not the same as your friend’s relationship with his mother. When you compare your loss to his, he may feel like you are minimizing his sorrow.
“You shouldn’t feel bad…” Maybe your friend is grieving his father who died at age 94. It’s tempting to try to cheer him with the fact that his father lived a long life, so he shouldn’t feel bad. But that’s a mistake on two counts. First, you can’t tell another person how he should feel. He feels how he feels, and there’s no right or wrong, should or shouldn’t. Second, your friend has still suffered a loss, regardless of how old his father was. It’s a time for sorrow. Let him experience it without feeling guilty about how he should feel.
“It’s God’s will.” Unless you are very close to your grieving friend, it’s best to leave religion out of your remarks. People often say, “It’s God’s will” when a death is untimely, as if it’s an explanation for something that makes no sense. Especially when children die before their parents. But it can make the suffering person feel as if God targeted him for punishment. Or that God turned against him. Likewise avoid the bromide that “God never givers us more than we can handle.” Chances are it will make your friend wish he weren’t quite so competent at handling death and suffering.
“Things work out for the best.” This could generate a really hostile reaction. How dare you suggest that this death could be good? It’s insulting, even though you’re trying to look on the bright side. But at the moment, your friend probably doesn’t feel that everything works out for the best. Sometimes things are terrible, and your friend is undergoing a painful experience. You can’t fix it, so don’t try. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. We don’t all have to deal with loss. And maybe things won’t get better, at least not in the immediate future.
Grief is a personal process that encompasses a wide array of feelings. Let your friend know you are sorry for his loss, even though that seems like a trite thing to say. If it’s from your heart, that’s what counts. Next time we’ll talk about what you can say to comfort your grieving friend.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: http://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.