The 7 most unhelpful things people say to someone who’s grieving

Writer’s note: This was written in spring 2016, shortly after my dad’s diagnosis. This post is based solely on my experiences, so I don’t want to say I’m speaking for everyone who’s lost a loved one. I also know most people had the best intentions. I felt this was important to bring up because they might not consider how their words affect those who are going through a hard time. I feel like there can be a lot of cop outs when it comes to comforting someone who is grieving when ultimately you just need to be able to listen and be real with them instead of relying on cliché sayings. 

I remember when I found out my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was on a cruise with my grandparents. Our ship was somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean when we got the call we’d been dreading.

My parents’ voices were clogged. They’d been crying. I couldn’t speak for a while, but when I finally could, I talked to my dad.

“Dad,” I said, through choked sobs. “There’s still so much I want to talk to you about.”

My head was swimming with thoughts about who I would go to for financial advice or to edit my English papers or to help me send professional emails to potential employers or to talk me through my first purchase of a home or to explain to me how rugby works or to read my articles and tell me he’s proud of everything I’ve accomplished.

Nobody can understand what that moment was like. I don’t mean that in an “I’m-so-complicated-and-tortured” way. I’m just being honest.

Family photo at the Bahamas

One of the most comforting things somebody said to me after my dad’s diagnosis came from one of my sorority sisters who’s had her fair share of struggles in life.

“People don’t get it,” she told me. “Even if their dad had the same disease at the same time, it wouldn’t be the same. They still wouldn’t understand exactly what you are going through, how you’re dealing with it. And that’s OK.”

From the moment my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my family has received all kinds of reactions from people. Some people have gone above and beyond to comfort and be there for my family. Others don’t know what to say or do. And that’s OK — grief is a hard thing to comprehend.

That’s why I’m writing this. This post isn’t meant to be critical of people who have said these things to us. It isn’t meant to be holier than thou or bitter or discouraging. It’s an honest piece meant to help the average outsider understand how to help someone work through their grief. (Hint: Sometimes, less is more.)

In addition to listing the most unhelpful things people say, I’ve written why these particular phrases wound the aching heart and good alternatives to them.

1. “Don’t worry — God’s got a plan!”

OK, but God’s plan involves my dad being terminally ill and to be quite honest, I’m not a huge fan of God’s plan right now. And it’s OK to be angry at God. God made us with these beautiful, human emotions that we are completely allowed to feel. God shows me compassion when I’m angry. God is hurt when I’m hurt. I don’t doubt God’s power and love and mercy, but that doesn’t mean I like God’s plan — especially one that brings me so much sorrow. And telling someone who has a lot to worry about that they shouldn’t worry just makes no sense.

Instead, try saying: “I’m praying that you and your family rely on God during this hard time.”

2. “Everything happens for a reason.”

If you say this, you’d better have a reason handy. Sure, I’m a completely different person than I was six months ago. So are my dad and my mom and my brother. We’re all more kind and compassionate and thoughtful and grateful and loving. We have more perspective and try not to get so caught up in the little troubles of life. But gaining those qualities is in no way justification for what my family is going through. And honestly, some events in life are just inexplicable. I think we just have to be OK with that.

Instead, try saying: “I’m sorry about what you’re going through.”

3. “I knew so-and-so who had (insert disease here – in our case, pancreatic cancer) and now they’re totally fine!”

Like I mentioned above, even if your dad had the exact same disease at the exact same time, it still wouldn’t be the same. We’re two different people with different experiences and different dads.

More importantly, not all cancers are created equal. My dad is among 85 percent of pancreatic cancer patients whose only option is chemotherapy, and that will only extend life. The other 15 percent are in a lucky group that can have surgery to get the tumor removed and most likely have a full recovery. Right after Dad’s diagnosis, people gave us false hope because their “brother’s girlfriend’s cousin” was in complete remission after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We appreciated the good intentions of those who put us in touch with such people, but ultimately, it just left us frustrated and more sad than before. It meant we had to say, “There will be no remission” over and over and over again.

Instead, try saying: “What kind of cancer/disease does ___ have?” Then, confirm with the other person that it is the same before putting them in touch.

I love this photo of me and Dad. It reminds me of memories with him on the beach and simpler times.

4. “How are you?” (Not in the regular, nonchalant way — in the “This is the biggest amount of sympathy I can summon and put into these three words” kind of way.)

This. Is. The. Worst. Acquaintances at school — who I’m sure meant the best — would stop me on the way to class, gently touch my arm, look deep into my eyes and ask this question as if I were the only person in the world with grief. Half the time, I wanted to respond saying, “Well, I was great until you asked. Now I’m reminded that my dad has a four-month prognosis.”

Instead, try saying: “Hi.” (Sometimes, the best way to treat someone who is grieving is like everything is normal.)

5. “Give it time — that will help.”

Maybe. Maybe not. The more we sink into this new normal, the more unsettling it is that I expect Dad to feel sick all the time, unable to eat. The more unsettling it is that I don’t know how much time I have with him. The more unsettling it is that our new normal involves too many conversations that start with, “When Dad dies…”

And for people who grieve over a lost relative, sometimes it gets harder after time passes. The more time passes, the longer it’s been since you’ve seen them, heard their voice, their laugh. Time isn’t always on our side.

Instead, try saying: “If you ever want to talk about it, I’ll drop what I’m doing to listen.”

6. “I understand what you’re going through.”

There are few people in this world who understand what we’re going through. Those few people would probably not say this. So you probably shouldn’t, either. It doesn’t make us feel better. Contrary to popular belief, misery only sometimes loves company.

Instead, try saying: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I am so sorry.”

7. “Can I bring food to your house? What do you want? When can I bring it? What do your kids like? How many people will I be feeding?” (Translation: Being super high maintenance about bringing someone a meal, though you probably have great intentions.)

If you want to take food to someone who is going through a hard time, don’t ask. Just do. Text them. Say, “I’m bringing fried chicken to your house tonight. When is a good time for me to drop it off?” Bring more than you think you need because leftovers are a beautiful thing. Drop it off when they tell you to. Don’t linger. Smile, because you have done something right. (Shoutout to the person who did this for us when Dad was having a particularly rough weekend.)

Instead, try saying: “Enjoy the chicken, and please don’t bother writing me a thank you note.”

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