Things You Should Never Say to Someone Grieving


Nearly a month ago, one of my dear FB friends lost a member of her family– her precious sister, Ameera, who happened to have Down Syndrome (also called Down’s Syndrome, or Trisomy 21). In the past weeks, my friend’s been disillusioned, angered, and often hurt by the remarks she and her family have received about the passing of their beloved daughter, sister, friend, or, as Neveen says, “their angel.” Some seem to actually believe that Ameera’s passing is less significant, less felt, less mourned, because she had Down Syndrome….as if (as Neveen says) “her life span has been exhausted.”

Neveen’s family were blessed to have Ameera for 33 years. Neveen’s family photos are brimming with fun, laughter, humor, and so much love.  Ameera’s genetic disorder may have bonded her family together in a closer, protective fashion than some, but I suspect that she, like her siblings, was just lucky to have been born to a beautiful, safe, happy, and loving home — a home now remarkably incomplete without her. Nothing. No-one, will ever take her place, or fill the empty void in her family’s hearts. And it saddens me that her family, in any way, should be made to feel that this terrible loss is in some way less than the passing of any other loved relative, or friend.

The reality of any disease, any disorder, or any diagnosis which shortens an average life expectancy, does not shorten the value of the life itself.  While Ameera was born with a chromosomal abnormality, her life was anything but abnormal.  Her syndrome did not define her life, anymore than my Rheumatoid Arthritis defines mine. She did not live a life of suffering. She was not uncomfortable. She lived, laughed, loved, and the absence of her laughter and love will be felt forevermore by those who obviously adored her.

Maybe those who adored Ameera knew what to express to her family after she passed. Maybe some who didn’t know her as well, still knew that all the family needed was love and support. But, in Ameera’s passing, there were too many who got it wrong, simply wrong. And, sadly, this happens too often.

So, today I wanted to post a few pointers on “what not to say when someone’s grieving.” Am I an expert? No. Have I sustained many losses? Yes.

By the time I was 16, all of my grandparents had already passed away, but my first “real” gut-wrenching loss was my father.  He died of an MI (myocardial infarction), suddenly and without warning. I don’t believe you ever really recover from this type of loss — sudden, brutal. My next loss I felt deeply and physically when I miscarried my first  baby boy.  My mother died from cancer and complications from a CVA (cardiovascular accident)  over a decade ago, and I miss her still — sometimes as if she’s just died yesterday. By far my greatest loss, though, was my husband who  died from Pancreatic Cancer just three years ago.

So, from my heart, which is missing so many parts of my family, my loved ones, I offer this list:

DO NOT SAY OR SUGGEST THAT THE GRIEVING FAMILY IS IN ANYWAY RELIEVED. No matter how much someone has suffered, whether from cancer, a stroke, an accident,  a disease, it is never a relief when they’re gone. The separation from our loved ones tears our hearts asunder. We are not relieved when we can no longer hold and hug them again.

DO NOT SAY OR SUGGEST THEY ARE IN A BETTER PLACE. This is especially true if you do not know the grieving families stance on religion, or what faith they follow, or not follow as may be the case. The only place that Neveen’s family wanted for Ameera was right there beside them. As for my husband, his place was by my side, watching his children grow  up, and finally seeing the Cubbies win a world series.

DO NOT SAY GOD WANTED THEM Again, refer to the previous bullet. For me, this was probably the one that angered me the most. In the wake of losing a beloved father, mother, sibling, partner, friend, the “wanting” is simply unbearable. These words can do so much damage.

DO NOT SAY OR SUGGEST ANY “AT LEAST” STATEMENTS.  At least he was old, at least she didn’t suffer, at least he saw his first grandchild….these do not offer a grieving person any comfort. While it’s true that your loved one may not be suffering anymore, this does not offer any comfort to a grieving soul whose heart is breaking.  When you lose a  loved one, you’d do anything for one more moment.

SAY SOMETHING. I understand some people have yet to face the death of a family member or friend, and so they may not understand what to do, or they feel extremely awkward, uncomfortable, lost for words. But a friend’s grief trumps your discomfiture, always. Reach out and acknowledge that the loss has happened. It’s ok to say, “I’m lost for words; I don’t know what to say.” Anything.  Believe me on this, ANYTHING (except the previous “do-nots”) is better than nothing. Friendships will be tested, maybe lost in the wake of your silence.

DO SOMETHING. Don’t ask what can I do to help? In the midst of grief it’s very hard to handle any decisions, even the smallest ones. Don’t expect a grieving person to give you a list of things that need to be done. Just do them. Send flowers. Mow their yard.  Deliver baked goods. Clean their house, their vehicle. Drop off small surprise packages. If they’re struggling financially, and you can afford to, give them money. I did not not take one person up on the offer of “let me know what I can do to help,” but I was forever grateful for all the surprise meals delivered to my door, and the cards, flowers, and thoughtful sentiments that arrived when I needed them the most.

As ironic as this may sound, grief is for the living. Grief is no longer about the person who has passed. In the rawness and pain of death and separation, it is the living who need comfort.

Categories: Loss, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

10 replies

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s loss. You offer great advice that everyone should heed–especially recommending that folks not use “as least” statements. It’s sad how so many people can’t recognize that fact.

    Hope all is well in Lexington!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

  2. I’ve cried a lot the past few weeks, but the tears today came because someone I’ve only known for such a short time understood so much more than people I’ve known all my life. Love to you my friend.

  3. I’ve cried a lot the past few weeks, but the tears today came because someone I’ve known such a short time understood so much better than people I’ve known all my life. Love to you my friend.

  4. You are so right. I am sorry that your friend had to go through that at such a tough time.

  5. Really thought you hit the nail on the head with this one. It is so hard for me to believe everyone can’t see it this way. Many thanks for articulating my views.

  6. This is really well written and precise. People do say some incredibly stupid things when they don’t know what to say. They think they are being helpful when they are really being so incredibly cruel.
    When in doubt, “I’m so sorry.” works really, really well.
    I also greatly appreciate that you said the young lady “happened to have DS.” Too many people are willing to write someone off as a diagnosis and nothing more. She was a person, a true and lovely person. She had DS but she also probably had lovely eyes, a ready hug and maybe a wicked sense of humor. She was well loved and will be well missed.
    When my father died, my brother was in Korea. His colleagues, instead of asking how he died, as folks tend to in the states, asked, “Did he have a good life?” My brother said that was a true comfort. Our father did have a good life. The question made us think about how many brave and wonderful things our father did. I personally let go of the horror of his death and focused on what he did to make my own life so good.
    I now, when in proximity to one grieving, try to ask for a good memory about the person lost.

    • Ukechick,

      Thanks so much for this beautiful comment. I love the story of your Dad, and the Korean reaction to his passing. How comforting that would be. And I love the advice about passing it on, and asking those grieving for a “good memory” of their loved one. I will always do this in future.



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