What Not to Say When You Console a Person in Grief
  Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

 Whenever I do a bereavement workshop, members in the group invariably share their anger and hurt over a few unthoughtful words a friend or relatives said to them in sympathy.  The "aggrieved" person knows that the speaker of those words didn't intend to hurt them but it rubbed him or her the wrong way anyway.  People struggle with the question of what is the right thing to say.  I am often told by relatives and friends of a person in bereavement words to the effect, "I haven't called on him/her, I don't know what to say."   Some of them ask me what should they say. In this article, I will identify the most common guffaws blurted out of sympathy and make suggestions as to how you can replace them with more empathic statements.   

Guffaw # 1.  "We know how you feel."  The problem with that statement is that it makes a pretty big claim.  You can only know how you feel but 
you can't know how the other person is feeling.  It may be appropriate thing to say for a person who is also in mourning at the time and his or her loss is pretty equitable. For everyone else, more appropriate response is, "I can't even imagine (or I can only imagine) what you must be feeling."  
Guffaw # 2.  "How old was your dad?"  Mourner says, "eighty-two."  Person in sympathy says, "He lived a pretty good while.  You should be thankful that you had him for so long."   Vow!  To say that is almost an enemy action.  It seems that the person in sympathy is saying, "Look. The man was old.  He lived a full life.  I'm off the hook.  I don't need to feel bad for you and you don't need to feel bad for yourself either."  The correct response, if the age is mentioned anyhow, is to say, "It doesn't matter how old your parents get.  You always miss them when they're gone."    

Guffaw # 3.  "You know he (or she) wouldn't have wanted you to feel this way."  Hey, Mr. or Mrs. in sympathy, what are you doing?  You are putting the person in bereavement on a guilt trip.  Furthermore, you are saying to the bereaved, "Next time when you cry and hurt, you should know that you're doing something against the wishes of your loved one."  That's a hard cross to bear.   It is best to avoid any such reference to the bereaved.  However, if the bereaved has remained withdrawn and isolated from other closely related survivors for a long period, it may be appropriate to say that the deceased person would've wanted his or her loved ones to get on with their lives.       

Guffaw # 4.  "You know you may not believe it now, but you'll get over it."   It appears to be the right thing to say.  After all, you're holding hope out to the bereaved.  You're only saying there is light at the end of the tunnel, how could anybody argue with that.  Right?  It can rub the bereaved in the wrong way.  The bereaved, in fact may be saying, "I will never get over it.   Nothing can ever fill the loss for me for the rest of my life.  As long as I live…."   To make a statement like that, you've to know where the bereaved is at.  If this statement is made prematurely, it will create resentment.  But let's suppose, the bereaved asks you, "will I always be hurt like this?"  It is all right to say, "I know you're hurting bad right now, but one day you shall overcome it."      

Guffaw # 5.  "It was just his (or her) time to go."  May be so, but saying it doesn't make it easy for the bereaved.  Person in bereavement can't see it that way, it's only outsiders who can think along those lines.  Those who are in mourning, have to protest against what just happened in their lives.  However, if you see that the bereaved is tormented over what he or she could have done to prevent the loss, it may be in order to say that there are things that are not in control of anybody.    

Guffaw # 6. "It was not meant to be."  This is along the same lines as guffaw #5.  Use the same discretion as mentioned in the above.  

Guffaw # 7.  "You're strong enough to deal with it."  Who says so!   Only the person in bereavement decides if and when they are strong enough to deal with it.  A person's strength shouldn't be weighed against how well they are dealing with their grief.  Mourning is about the loss one experiences and not about how much strength the mourner has.  An appropriate response may be to say to the bereaved, "May you get the strength to bear your loss." 

 We want to be effective in whatever we do.  So when we express sympathy, we want to see immediate results.  This builds up pressure on the person in bereavement.  It is as if we are saying to the bereaved, "I've sat here for the last thirty minutes, now you should feel better.  Don't expect anything.

The golden rule in expressing sympathy is observance of silence.  Remember that silence is golden, or divine if you prefer.  Whenever in doubt as to what to say or what impact your words may have on the bereaved, don't say anything.  Use the nonverbal language.  Holding hand, shaking hand, giving a hug or a smile with eye contact can "speak" adequately about what you want to express.    

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