May 25, 2021

What Not to Say to Someone who is Grieving. Two Words To Avoid.

Knowing what not to say to someone who is grieving is almost more important than knowing the best and most supportive things you can say.  People who are grieving have many heightened emotions and may be extra sensitive to the words you choose.


Anger, when you are grieving, is not everyday anger.  It is so hot that you feel like you could burn someone if they touched you, and you maliciously wish they would.  It is a pot of water that can defy science by instantly going from cool and calm to such a fierce boil that it will splatter and threaten harm to anyone who dares to get within its radius.


In the days after my mom had suddenly died, I became well acquainted with this strange emotional state of anger.  I had never been much of an angry person, but the acute grief seemed to create this sensitive bubble around me.  If you touched it just the wrong way, I would either burst into tears or feel red hot anger rise from the ground and travel through me like a current of electricity.  Overwhelmingly, the things that triggered the sensitivity and anger were words.  I didn’t react with angry outbursts (people pleaser through and through) but rather kept score internally of verbal faux pas that filled me with rage. I wrote a hate-filled letter to someone (which I thankfully never sent), I made a long angry list of all of the terrible things people said to me, and I imagined spiteful diatribes that I would never have the courage to say out loud. 


At the time, the grief was so thick that I could never have seen through it clearly enough to identify what phrases were the most triggering or anger producing.  Back then, they all stung with the same intensity.  The lovely gift of hindsight helps me reflect on what was surely well-intentioned while ultimately and decidedly unhelpful.  Looking back, two words stand out as a lead-in to something that is meant to be helpful and yet rarely is.  


Any phrase, utterance, advice, expression that began with the words “at least….”


The day after my mother’s death, someone who I considered a friend called me.  They had heard the news.  I actually answered the phone and had a conversation despite my entire soul screaming that I did not want to talk to anyone.  My inner obligation to be polite was still on auto-drive.   


This friend expressed condolences in some way or another, perhaps asked how I was doing (I always hated this question), and then said, “Well, at least it wasn’t cancer.” 


Ummm... Fucking, excuse me?!  


I couldn’t manage to be rude, but I uttered something like, “I never had any warning, never had an opportunity to say goodbye.  I don’t exactly feel lucky.”  


The response was, “well, you have clearly never seen anyone die of cancer.  It is horrific and so much worse.”


Those few utterances are words that I will never forget.  Just thinking of them makes my heart beat faster.  


“At least she died quickly.”


“At least she didn’t suffer.”


“At least you were close.”


“At least you spent time with him that summer.”


“At least he is no longer suffering (struggling with drugs).”


Contrary to our emotional reflexes (learned by our society), we do not have to make someone see the bright side when they are standing in the dark.  We need to stand next to them quietly, radiate love into the darkness, but let them find the light switch when they are ready.  My most personally jarring experiences are when I have been grieving and trapped inside my personal bubble of sensitivity, but this is not limited to loss.  


More recently, my older brother was missing.  He was not only missing but he was considered an escaped federal inmate because he had walked away from his reentry program and not returned while he was technically still government property.  Only weeks away from being a free man, he walked out of those doors, and we went into another period of anxiously awaiting an unknown outcome.  It doesn’t matter how many times you have been through something, some things you can just never become an old hat with.  When his whereabouts have been unknown, my life consists of little sleep, high anxiety, and an imagination full of catastrophe.  This particular period felt even worse than some of the others.  This time, there was no happy outcome I could imagine.  He would either be found dead or be arrested and go back to prison for an unknown amount of time.  Every day I stalked the news reports waiting for whatever was going to happen.  I was struggling more than I let on.  


In the end, he was arrested.  He had committed another crime and been caught.  It made the newspaper and my social media page.  Despite this being the better of the two outcomes, it was not easy.  I was grieving for things that society doesn’t recognize as grief.  More than one friend responded, “well, at least you know he is safe now,” and then moved on.  To them, the subject was complete; the story had an ending.  The ending absolved them from digging deep for a level of compassion they would have if he died.  The statement “at least you know he is safe now” was true; I couldn’t argue.  But it wasn’t what I needed, and it left me feeling completely alone.


I understand why people use “at least” phrases in clumsy attempts to comfort people.  I even have great empathy for those who say this with all of the best intentions.  Grief is so uncomfortable.  We fumble and fidget and search for something to say.  Sometimes we land on positivity or on any attempt to spin a bad situation into something less bad.  In situations like this, well-intentioned sentiments can be painfully dismissive.  I would go so far as to say that they are an example of toxic positivity.  And I hate the term toxic positivity. It is not because I think it is bullshit but because it hits so close to home that I can’t even look at the term without instinctively wanting to look away.  I know I have been guilty of toxic positivity—more than I want to admit.  


Growing up with an older sibling struggling with drugs and mental health, I took on the role of trying to fix things for my family.  I would be the person who would try to soothe my family in times of crisis, to be present with calm and quiet energy, and I would instinctively want to point out the positives because I so desperately wanted our reality to be positive.  As an adult, I have learned that sometimes reality is tough, sometimes reality is sad, and there is no fixing it with a positive mindset.  I have used the words “at least…” in my life more times than I can count.  Avoiding these platitudes requires giving space to uncomfortable emotions without trying to fix them.  Validating instead of dismissing.  Acknowledging someone’s pain instead of reminding them that it could be worse.  It is so hard to do.  My best advice to you and myself is to be very cautious of starting a sentence with the words “at least” when someone is hurting for any reason.  Listen.  Acknowledge.  Be present.  


It is so difficult to know the right thing to say, but it is important to know what not to say to someone who is grieving. Some other important and common pitfalls to avoid are using platitudes in place of genuine and authentic support.  You can read more about that in our article- Platitudes for Grief.  Cry, Laugh, or Rage- Reacting to these Cringeworthy Phrases.

Going forward, I hope those words will give you pause.  We will not be perfect in our attempts to comfort others, but we can practice and be intentional about improving.  No one wants to sound like a jackass and silently release someone’s inner rage when all they were trying to do was show compassion.  


Feel free to share in the comments other phrases or sentiments that were said to you with the intention of helping that had the opposite effect.  Please, as always, comment and share respectfully.  


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