Completely Unhelpful Things to Say to Someone in Grief, Part 1

[This is the first of a series of posts on completely unhelpful things to say to someone in grief. See the others at the bottom of this page.] Since learning of my Dad's cancer, we have had some very well-meaning people say utterly unhelpful things to us in an attempt to console us, or encourage us, or... something. In no means do I intend to be hard on these people. In ministry, I've been with people in life's worst moments and the search for something to say is inevitably difficult. Rather than being resentful of their comments, or intending to be critical, I've started keeping a list for two purposes: the humor of it, and so that I and others can learn more helpful ways of being with someone who's going through a bad time.

Third Place: "I have a cousin who several times in the [same body part as your loved one] has had to have a [different procedure than your loved one], and is doing just fine." Well, good for them. This is more rare and just as unhelpful as closely related comments, which consist of people's tendency to describe the worst thing they have ever heard of happening to someone in a similar situation to what you're describing. When we were preparing to move to Guatemala, we would often hear something like, "My brother-in-law's cousin went there in 1962 and got gangrene and he had to have several amputations." Or with medical issues, "Wow, you'd better get a second opinion, because a guy at work had that and he was gone a week later."

People do say these things out of genuine concern, either to point out something that may be a danger we haven't thought about or to try to assure us that things may turn out better than we're expecting. At least in the comment above, the person is trying to be positive. I really was glad to hear that their cousin was doing fine, but it was not relevant to my situation, and didn't serve to encourage me like they'd hoped. Whether it's the positive or negative form of the comment, whatever happened to the person that you've heard of (whether they got better or came to a horrific end), they are not the same person, nor facing the same situation, and therefore probably will not have the same outcome as the person I'm talking about.

Second Place: "Sometimes you just have to have a good attitude about these things." I'm not sure how to have a good attitude about losing someone that I love, but thanks for the suggestion. If I give the benefit of the doubt here, I'll say that the intent was to point out how much the way we choose to look at a situation impacts us. For example, it's my choice whether I will only think about the sad parts of losing my Dad or whether I will think about how grateful I am for his life and example and continue looking for ways to treasure the time we have left together. I've had to learn to pay attention to how much the way that I approach this situation mentally makes a difference.

I guess that may be what they meant, but it came across as if the person was telling me, "Buck up and get over it. Everybody goes through stuff." Not helpful.

First Place: "I know what it's like. I've sat in your seat twice. Actually three times." The biggest lesson I've learned in dealing with people through this is our tendency to try to communicate to someone else that we know what they're going through, but how that is never true. Although you may have lost someone, even in a similar way, you have never lost the person I am losing just like I never lost the person you did. None of us have really ever sat in another person's seat, walked in their shoes, etc. Even within a family, everyone has their own relationships with everyone else. My brothers' relationships with my Dad are similar to mine, but not the same. We all have different memories, experiences, etc., so none of us are in one another's seats.

I certainly can't condemn any of these comments, because I haven't done any better in trying to console people. Especially with this grand-prize winner, because I know that I have said to people at times, "I know what it's like to go through that." We want very much to assure people that they aren't alone and that there is life on the other side of awful situations, but the reason that I, or anyone, is in grief, is because the person we're losing is like no one else. Our relationship with them cannot be replaced, and so the well-intended comparison to someone else's situation just isn't the same thing.

Not all of the comments we've received have been unhelpful. The things that actually give comfort are simple and go something like this: "That stinks, Daniel." I realize that another person cannot fix the situation, and I don't expect them to do so. What I most need is for others to acknowledge that the situation is hard and sad, that I won't always be able to function as if it isn't happening, and that even though it can't hurt them in the same way it hurts me, they recognize that it stinks. These kinds of comments, along with people just continuing to be present, check in with us, and continue being our friends as they always have been are what helps, and I hope to learn from them. Other ways that people have done this are:

  • My pastor saying that he has never experienced such a profound loss as when his father died. That wasn't putting himself in my place; rather, he just recognized how hard it is.
  • My old basketball coach still calling to check in on me 15 years after I played for him. He doesn't have any answers- he just genuinely wants to see how we're doing, and after I give him an update, he gives me someone to talk about sports with.
  • People who have known my Dad for a long time coming to see him, tell old stories, and by their presence let us all know how much he means to them.

See these other posts on completely unhelpful things to say to someone in grief: