Last month I wrote about the power of responding to people in grief with memories.
So many of us don’t know what to say to a grieving person and even if we do manage to say something as simple as “I’m so sorry,” very often our discomfort makes us feel the need to keep speaking and, if we’re not careful, our rambling can lead us into dangerous words.
One of the worst things we can say to someone in grief is a phrase that starts with “At least …” For example,
At least he had a long life … (most families will tell you that it still wasn’t long enough for them).
At least you had time to prepare yourself … (almost anyone who has lost a loved one to a prolonged illness will still tell you that even though they knew the death was coming, there was no way to prepare for what it would feel like when their loved one actually died).
At least you have other children … (this one I really can’t handle, anyone who can say something like this really has no business speaking. And yes, people have said this).
These phrases diminish the significance of the loss and the grief of the survivors. It’s like saying, “you shouldn’t be that sad” and it’s a pretty devastating thing to say.
If you’re interested in the science of why these “at least” phrases are so terrible, look no further then this brilliant short by Brené Brown:
Sadly, all of those “condolences” have been spoken and will continue to be said. But, if you’re reading this, none of these will never be said by you.
So, my advice to anyone nervous about speaking to a grieving person is:
First, of course greet them warmly, and perhaps ask if you could share a memory with them. (You always want to be sensitive to their grief, and if they are worried about crying in public or feel overwhelmed they may turn you down or ask you to wait but I don’t think that would be most cases). Most people will want to hear their loved one’s name spoken, hear that they are remembered and they will welcome your memory.
Second, tell them what you remember. Details are precious gems and may illicit tears but they are such good and welcome tears. The presence of tears, generally indicate that you are sharing something very special and wanted.
Third, let them respond and listen to them. It is possible you are the only person who has brought up memories or even spoken the name of their loved one. You may be a safe place if you’ve come to share memories and don’t let any “at least’s” slip out ; )
Being a safe place for someone is one of the very best things you can ever hope to be.
It’s completely true that for many of us, the idea of speaking to grieving people can be intimidating. The fear of making things worse excuses us from saying so many things when, the truth is, if you are speaking out of a genuine place, there is nothing you could do to make their loss worse.
Many grieving people report feeling isolated in their grief, noticing others avoiding them and finding no one who will talk about their loved one with them.
And so, I hope that the next time your path crosses with a grieving person, you won’t shy away but will instead open yourself up to the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful person with someone else who is missing them.
– Have you ever frozen or freaked out about what to say to someone who is grieving?
– What do you say to friends of yours who have lost someone?
Molly, I love the practicality and the simplicity of how I can avoid the pitfall of trying to make things better by minimizing someone’s pain. While a noble intent, it carries I intended pain filled results. Thank you for giving us the gem to tuck away so that we don’t mess up next time.
I am glad that you mentioned the phrase “at least”. So many people think they are offering wonderful advice to those who are grieving. They have no idea how cutting phrases such as, “at least you still have your mom”, “at least you can have more children”, “at least you are young and can marry again”. These phrases that they think are helpful in fact remove the importance of the loved one they are currently grieving.
Great tips to help us all be more of a comfort to those who need us.
This is wonderful advice for someone who is unsure how to talk with someone about the loss they have experienced. I am a great listener and try to let the grieving person do the talking. I find that they want to remember their loved one and tell you about the life they lived. It’s a comforting feeling for myself, to be there and just listen. Thank you for sharing these tips with everyone!
Outstanding blog and great nuggets of advice. I especially like the advice of sharing a favorite memory about the loved one. It really shows how much you care. In my experience, I have come to learn that those who have lost a loved one want to share the memories. It’s a safe place for them and makes the life lived relevant even without the person being their physically.
Thank you for the practical reminders and advice.
Hi Molly –
This is another great blog by YOU! I actually had our insurance agent contact me this week about “what do I say to a widow who is my client.” Your advise is spot on! I always will try and express a true heart felt condolence. I do my best to share my thoughts about the person who died, what they meant to me or why their life was so significant to us. Sometimes I will not saying anything, until I feel the time if right. I try and gauge every situation differently. Thank you for your heart felt blog, this is a great reminder to all of us.