Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stupid Things People Say About Grief

I’m a writer who lost a spouse. I’m not a therapist or a counselor, but I paid attention to my grief. I’ve also listened to a lot of people talk about losing a husband, wife, parent, sibling, child, or a stillborn baby, and there are many commonalities to grief when death rips your life apart. For simplicity sake in this post, I’m going to use the example of losing a wife, but adapt what I say to your own situation.

This is for MK.

Many people have not lost someone close. They haven’t experienced grief, so they say things that make those of us who are grieving feel worse. They make us not want to share anything with them. What we need is compassion, not sympathy or empathy.

People want to help. They want to take our pain away and make us feel a little better. Yet many people feel uneasy around grief and have no idea what to say, so they say nothing.

The following are common things that even caring people say to those who are grieving. If you’re inclined to say them, please don’t. Just ask how we are doing, and listen.

She’s in a better place.
She’s out of pain.
It’s better this way.
It will be okay.
Really? It will never be okay with me that she died. None of this helps me deal with my grief. My wife is gone forever, and that will never be okay.

Time heals all wounds.
Grief is not a wound that will heal and then you will be all better. You can’t kiss this boo-boo away.
Grief is also not an illness like the cold or flu that will go away on its own. It hangs around until you deal with it.

It’s time that you get over this.
You do not get over grief. Grief will always be with you because you will always love the person who died.  You will remember them and their love, so you will remember your grief. But you will learn to live with it. Grief will become one part of your life instead of being every single moment of every single day.

Grief must be teaching you something that you needed to learn.
If I needed to learn it, then so do you. Get in here with me.

I know what you’re feeling. I understand what you’re going through.
No, you don’t, not even if you lost a spouse. I know you mean well, but you don’t know where I am in grief until you sit down and listen to me share.

It’s been a month. Maybe you’re not grieving right.
Grief will last as long as it lasts. People grieve in different ways and at different speeds.

It’s God’s plan.
I like what CS Lewis said when people told him that he should be happy because his wife was now in God’s hands. Lewis said that he thought she was in God’s hands when she was alive, and look at how she suffered with a horrible disease. Some people say that suffering is part of God’s agenda; others say that God is indifferent. But helping someone who is grieving is a matter of compassion, not theology.

You have to move on.
Why? Why do I have to move on? What you’re saying is that you want me to talk about something else. What you’re saying is that you’re uncomfortable hearing about grief and death.

Here are a few basic understandings that I’ve learned.

Grief will last longer than a month.
For some reason, uninformed people think a month is the amount of time that it takes to recover from grief. I felt this way before Evelyn died. Maybe we base this on how long it took us to get over a girl or boyfriend when we broke up in high school.

Maybe we feel that a day is unrealistic and a week seems too short, so a month is a nice chunk of time for a full recovery. It’s not.

When a spouse dies, you lose someone who you expected to spend the rest of your life with. You’ve set up a home with the other person as an integral part of it. It takes time for you to take this life apart and start a new one.

If you lost a child, you also lose your dreams for him or her, your expectations of being a parent, and you lose watching your child grow up. If you lost a parent when you were young, you missed her or his love and guidance at a time when you needed it most, as well as every day since then. You missed getting to know your parent as an adult.

Throw out the month for recovering and use these ballpark figures as a rough guideline. Some people will move though grief faster, some slower, especially if an act of violence was involved.

Your first six months of grief will be marked by shock, disbelief, anger, depression, and despair.

Your second six months will have some of that, but also a great deal of numbness and uncaring about anything and anyone, including yourself. You will begin to enjoy the simple physical pleasures of life again, like being able to taste food, and the warmth of sunlight will bring you comfort instead of pain.

During the first year, you hit all the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays for the first time without your spouse, and all the memories of how you celebrated them in the past come back. In addition, now there is no one special to celebrate your big events in ways that only she could.

In your second year, you wish you could get on with life, but you may not have any idea about what you want to do, or have any energy to do it, so you don’t do anything. Moments of joy return and go away. You will cry, get angry and depressed again when you see the clothes and cherished possessions of the one who died.

In your third year, you begin to construct a new life and move on, but memories continue to return and you cry again.

We think that every early death is wrong.
We’ve come to expect that everyone will live into their eighties, and we think that it’s a tragedy when anyone dies before then, especially children. Yet the death of parents when they are in their eighties is also traumatic, even after they had good and amazing lives, because people who were good and amazing and central in our life are gone. This is a loss, and we grieve more than we thought we would.

In our society, we don’t like to talk about death or grief. When someone dies, most of us haven’t learned what to say or do for those who are grieving. So we send a card, maybe bring a casserole over, and we keep our distance.

We don’t like tears, strong emotions, or sorrow. But emotions are good because they let us know we’re alive. Loving others is good. And grief is good because it guides as we make our way from death back toward life.

There are no words that will take the pain away.
I don’t expect you to have words that will erase my pain. There are no magic words. I’d rather have silence than platitudes. What are the platitudes? See above.

What people who are grieving need most are your presence and a listening ear.


For what you can say and do to help those grieving, see my post: http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2014/09/im-listening-what-you-can-say-and-do.html


  1. I agree with all of these. I especially find "Grief must be teaching you something you needed to learn" to be repugnant. That would NOT be a good reason for my son to die.

  2. Anna, I agree with you. It is so wrong to even suggest that you learning a lesson is more important than someone's life.

  3. One other comment I find downright creepy- God needed them in heaven. Thanks again, Mark, for this post. Barry

  4. Barry, I forgot about that one. Creepy is right! Some of these things I just block from my memory because I can't believe that people have actually said them.

  5. Appreciate your insights, Mark. There are so many things not to say . . . it's a long list! I try to remember the value of silence, of being with the other and sharing a gentle touch (or sometimes, depending on the person, a big hug). I'm glad Barry mentioned the "God needs him/her" response to death. Grrrrr. I've heard that in funerals. Sigh.

  6. Because of your hospice work, Larry, you probably know even more. On Tuesday I'll post some ideas for what people can say and do that help those who grieve.

  7. Here's one- "if there's anything I can do for you, just ask." Then when you suggest something concrete that they can do for you, they are no where to be found.

  8. I have heard some of these, but obviously not in the same context you have. I have dealt with a lot of emotions surrounding my children who are autistic, and the things they can't do and will never do that other families get to enjoy. I have become the go-to guy for everything autism-related, and sometimes I just want to talk baseball with someone or grab a pizza. Sometimes not talking about something is exactly what I need.

    Take all that for what it's worth. I loved Evelyn and miss her every day. I wish I could tap her special ed knowledge, she would have been a terrific resource, but most of all I just wish she was still here for her, not for anything she could give me. Life is forever marked as pre- and post-Evelyn.

  9. Though all of this, I keep thinking of how naturally Evelyn handled grief. It tore her up inside, but her great compassion for others kept pushing her on. And every time I hear of a special needs child, and hear of how things are going with you, I wish she were here with her insights. And definitely yes - wishing she were just here because she so loved life.

  10. Lost my beloved wife on the 9th of March, 2016. Experiencing what you have written.

    1. Oh Thomas, my heart goes out to you. Just five weeks into the chaos! This is such a hard place to be. Be kind with yourself. And if you have someone who is willing to just listen, take them up on the offer. Don't go through this alone. You're not alone.

  11. I'll skip the platitudes. Am glad you shared your views, have learnt much from that. Am now sharing mine. I am an Indian, and culturally we are taught from very early on that all who are born must go. That teaches us that grief is not for a select few, everyone's turn will come. We shriek, cry, show our anger at God--who we believe in--, keep ourselves busy with rituals, talk about shared memories with the departed, and grief-- of everyone gathered there. It provides for a catharsis, rubs in the finalty, closure if you prefer to call it that, though there is never any closure. And yes, we do indulge in the platitudes you have listed, because for many that shows concern, caring, sharing, motivating. Silent grieving, in our culture, amounts to bottling up grief. Like Tennyson's Home they brought her warrior dead. Recall the line, "She must weep of she must die". In one's grief one will be alone. But nobody born is ever spared of grief! My very warm wishes to you for bearing with me and my homily.

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom, Vitaya. I love hearing how other cultures grieve.