Around 7,500 people die each day in the U.S. That’s one person every 11.5 seconds. By your 50s and 60s, you’ve almost certainly had personal experience with death, such as the loss of a parent or other close family members or personal friends.
Considerable’s recent article entitled “The 5 worst things to say after someone dies” provides some practical advice when you hear that someone’s died, because it is hard to know what to say to their family. Let’s review some of the expressions to avoid when someone dies, along with alternatives:
“You’re so strong.” Complimenting a grieving person sets up expectations for behavior that are tough to live up to. They may also be busy making funeral and burial arrangements, so it looks like they’re handling the death well. Instead, say “I can see you’re hurting. This is really hard.” Rather than noting the grieving individual’s toughness, acknowledge their pain. Simple, empathetic statements such as “This must be terrible” or “I miss them, too” can validate their feelings and let them know it’s all right to mourn.
“At least she isn’t suffering anymore.” We know navigating death is scary and stressful, so we often try to look for a silver lining. We try to think the best for the person who died. However, nothing you say will fix things. Instead, be comfortable being uncomfortable, which means watching someone hurt. When you say “at least,” you’re really telling somebody this is how they should think about it, and you don’t really have the right to do that because grief is private and personal. Instead, say “I don’t know what to say — I just want you to know I care.” The most important thing is just being there.
“Call me if you need anything.” This is an invitation to call somebody. Vague, open-ended offers to help might feel right in the moment, but really, you’re putting the burden of communication on the bereaved party. Similarly, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” does the same thing. It makes the grieving person ask for help. The alternative: “I’m coming over to take you out to lunch.” You can find a specific, practical need and address it for them.
“How are you?” Ugh. This is a superficial question that usually elicits a rote response: “Fine.” “Good.” “Taking it day by day.” Rather, try, how are you feeling today?” This question allows people the opportunity to actually talk, without giving you a platitude.
“It’s been a year already.” There’s a societal expectation that we must move on from death quickly, but there’s no timeline for grief and heartbreak. What to say instead: “I know you still miss her. I do, too.” Don’t gloss over grief, as time moves and passes. Instead, acknowledge that your loved one may still be in pain months or years later. Then, do your best to support them through milestones, like an anniversary or birthday. Remember special dates with a note or a phone call.
When in doubt, just be there. Show up and shut up. Do more, say less.
Reference: Considerable (July 8, 2020) “The 5 worst things to say after someone dies”