Ready to hear a shocking statistic? Through 43 years of research we’ve found that out of the 141 things a person might hear after a loss, only 19 of them are helpful. Only 19! That means the majority of comments are not helpful and even harmful!
You probably know this from experience. Have you ever tried to talk about your painful feelings only to be met with a comment that stops you in your tracks? Maybe someone intellectualized, dismissed, or judged you.
How did you feel when that happened? Did you feel like you didn’t want to keep talking, like something was wrong with you, or that you should pretend to feel better?
- After a breakup you might have heard, “Don’t feel bad. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
- If your dog died someone might have said, “He was just a dog. You can always get another one.”
- Maybe you lost a child and a well-meaning friend say, “You’re young. You can have more children.”
When people make unhelpful comments to someone who’s hurting, it’s not because they are mean-spirited, it’s because they just don’t know what to say. None of us learned about Grief Recovery in school. When someone is grieving, well-intentioned friends and family try to help by repeating what they heard following their own losses or what they’ve seen in movies. They rarely stop to think about what they’re saying. They simply do what they think is best, which oftentimes means intellectualizing grief, rather than keeping it the emotional experience that it is.
It’s natural to want to help someone you care about, so what statements can you take out of your vocabulary to be more helpful to your friends and family when they’re heartbroken?
One of the biggest is, “I know how you feel”.
Even if you’ve experienced a parallel loss you can never know exactly how someone else feels. That’s because every relationship is unique. You only know how you felt when your loss occurred. Instead try saying something like,
“I can’t imagine how you feel.”
Another is, “Don’t feel bad”. As if someone can magically stop feeling bad. The implication is that there is something wrong with their feelings. Would you ever tell someone to not feel good?
Here are some other negative comments people hear following a significant emotional loss.
- Be grateful for the time you had together
- Grief just takes time
- She wouldn’t want you to be sad
- Stay strong for your wife/husband/kids
- You must move forward and go on with your life
- Everything happens for a reason
- You can always have other children
- You never get over the loss of a child
- Grief is your new normal
- God needed another angel in Heaven
- At least he’s no longer suffering
- Throw yourself into your work
- He’s at peace now
- I know exactly how you feel
- She went to be with God
Although some of these statements might be intellectually true, emotional pain isn’t intellectual. It’s emotional. Simply put, intellect can’t fix grief. Each of the above statements perpetuates the myth that normal feelings need to be fixed, lied about or avoided. Sadly, that keeps people stuck in their heartache.
For example, while it might be true that an elderly mother is no longer in pain after she dies, and that might provide some comfort to her family, that doesn’t mean that her family won’t (or shouldn’t) still be heartbroken.
So when listening to a devastated friend, remember that having a supportive person to talk to can be the difference between him or her feeling heard and loved or feeling more isolated and alone.
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