Feeling wary about expressing even heartfelt sympathy is understandable, but the worst thing a person can do is fail to acknowledge the death affecting a bereaved person. Pretending that the grief isn’t happening will only make your loved one feel alone in a dark time. That said, do try to steer clear these misguided tropes if at all possible.
1. "Everything happens for a reason," or "It was God’s will."
These are two very similar phrases that people commonly utter when they aren’t sure what to say. Meg P. heard them both a lot when her daughter Johanna was delivered stillborn at full-term following an umbilical cord accident. Well-meaning friends and family routinely said things like "God wanted her in Heaven more than here," or "Everything happens for a reason."
Meg P. recalls, "Basically, lots of things that pinned tragedy on God’s will." For someone who is reeling from shock and sadness, statements like this are counterproductive. "This phrase seems philosophical, but it can also be invalidating to someone who has just lost a loved one," Koger says.
2. "Try to be strong for the kids."
Life goes on even in the midst of tragedy. However, that doesn’t mean that people have to march on unaffected. Melinda J. of Australia recently lost her father, and she said that "Try to be strong for the kids" really hit her in the worst way.
"In such a situation, it froze me because I felt as if I was denied the right to come to terms with my feelings, even if they mean devastation, plus my motherhood got somehow involved," she explains. "As if, being a mother, I was supposed to be denied as a daughter."
3. "He's in a better place," or "She’s not suffering anymore."
Jennifer M. of Americus, Georgia, heard these a lot when her sister died of cancer. "Most of the people saying that she was in a better place did not even know her. She was spiritual but not religious, and their idea of where she was going was not the same as hers," Murphy explains.
Indeed, statements like these, while intended to provide comfort, can be dismissive of the tragedy, says Rachel Nithya Karat, a psychologist at Allo Health. "It's important to respect the grieving person's beliefs and refrain from making assumptions about their perception of the afterlife," she explains.
4. "Everything will be okay," or "Time heals all wounds."
Anyone who has been through a serious loss knows that eventually the scab of grief usually starts to heal, but it is rare that everything goes completely back to normal. “Nothing will ever be the same,” says Ashley F. of Lawrenceville, Georgia, whose mother passed away in 2020.
Vered D., of Memphis, Tennessee, concurs: “At that moment of intense loss you don't want to think about the future or about the fact that eventually, you will move on, at least to some extent.”
5. "Let me know how to help. I'm just a phone call away."
No matter how well-intentioned this is, it places a burden on the bereaved to think of things they need help with. Instead of offering ambiguous help, be more specific.
Suggest setting up a meal train for a couple of weeks so that they don’t have to worry about making dinner, or providing food for the post-funeral reception. If they have to travel for services, offer to mow their lawn, check the mail, care for pets and offer other practical support of that nature.
All of these gestures lighten their load and make the grief a tiny bit easier to bear. Koger suggests putting together a care package of helpful or comforting items, like tissues, a journal and a candle.
6. "At least she lived a long life."
Death is a loss at any age, and while it may be extra tragic when a young person dies, it’s still very normal and expected to grieve deeply when a beloved older person passes away.
"Although it's true that a long life is often seen as a blessing, this phrase may minimize the grief someone feels after losing a loved one," says Karat. "It's better to acknowledge the pain they're going through rather than trying to find silver linings."
7. "He wouldn’t want you to be sad."
No matter how true this statement probably is, it still isn’t very helpful. "This is invalidating the person's grief, [and] while it may be uncomfortable to see someone in active grief, it is not their job to make you feel comfortable," Koger says. Tara H. of Sacramento, California, said that, after losing her father, statements like this left her "feeling rejected, alone and unseen."
8. "I know how you feel," or "I know when I lost my [insert loved one here]; my experience was —"
The knee-jerk reaction to empathize with someone by relaying your own personal experiences can be difficult to resist. While this might make some people feel like they aren’t alone in the experience, it can also minimize what they’re going through.
"Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss, everyone’s grief journey is unique and deeply personal," said Ramiro S. of Argentina. Instead, focus your sympathy on the person who is actively grieving and how you can support them.