On Monday I wrote about the 12 Thoughtless Things People Say When Someone Dies. Of course we want to know the right thing to say when someone dies, but what can sound like the right thing to us does not at all sound like the right thing to the person who is grieving the death of a loved one.
Here is a quick check list to help you judge whether the words you’re about to say are likely to bring comfort, or only more sorrow.
Am I minimizing the person’s experience?
The warning signs are phrases such as, ‘At least,’ ‘It’s okay because,’ or, ‘This isn’t as bad as.’
Am I blaming the deceased for dying?
This is hurtful even, or perhaps especially, when the death is from suicide or as the result of intentional risk-taking or recklessness on the part of the deceased. Sentences that begin with, ‘If only he hadn’t,’ or ‘Everybody knows (fill in the blank) is dangerous,’ blame the deceased for dying. You may be right, but now is not the time.
Am I saying I know God’s plans?
Even if you’re absolutely certain the two of you share the same religious views and beliefs, you haven’t suddenly acquired omnipotent knowledge. ‘God needed an angel,’ or ‘You’re being tested,’ or, ‘You weren’t meant to be (or have),’ are phrases that put you in the role of God.
Am I holding this person responsible for the death?
Sentences that begin with, ‘If only you had,’ or ‘You shouldn’t have,’ or ‘Why didn’t you,’ place you as judge and jury, not as comforter.
Am I proscribing how this person should feel or act?
‘You must be,’ or ‘You can’t,’ or ‘Now you can’ are phrases that attempt to redirect the person’s attention from his present emotions and activities.
We’ve all heard others make statements like these, and we’ve probably spoken some of them ourselves. I know I have. I cringe to think about the times my ignorance harmed someone. It’s when we are on the receiving end, when we are grieving or are very close to someone who is, that we truly understand how our words are interpreted. I can only hope that those I harmed with my words were smart enough to recognize that what they were hearing was not the truth, but nonsense spoken in ignorance.
Life Is Honest, Open and True: When we choose to live a life that is honest, open and true, we choose to always do the best we can with the knowledge we have. No matter what we may have said in the past, we did so based on the knowledge we had at the time. New knowledge obligates us to act, and to speak, in new ways. The next time you want to comfort someone grieving the death of a loved one, stay clear of these phrases and your words will be more likely to bring comfort than sorrow.