Updated: Jan 28, 2022
Based on some of the things that were said to my middle brother and me at both funerals, we decided that one day we’d write a book entitled “Stupid S*** You Don’t Say to the Grieving
This blog is a little different from others I have written because I have asked
a friend and mentor Dr. Ken Hollis to contribute to this blog. While sitting in
Dr. Hollis'office grieving the loss of my granddaughter, I began to talk about
the well-meaning but hurtful advice, words of condolences, and words of sympathy that people say to the grieving family at funerals. Dr. Hollis and I started to discuss a book idea that he has about the stupid s**t people say to those who are grieving. This rolled over in my mind and I decided to make this the topic of this blog to go with my grieving series.
I hope this blog will help to comfort those of you that are grieving and in a way that does not cause more harm. If you are not the one grieving, but instead you are supporting someone that is going through the grieving process then this blog will help you to understand the mindset of someone that is in emotional pain.
Please, be careful what you say
By Dr. Ken Hollis Ph.D., LMFT
Like many of you, at this point in my life, I’ve had a great deal of experience with grief. Professionally, as a pastor of 35 years, I’ve ministered to more grieving families and conducted more funerals than I could possibly count. Personally, I’ve preached the funerals of numerous aunts and uncles, both parents, and my youngest brother who was the victim of violence.
My most intense period of grief occurred in 2012. My mother died unexpectedly in June, and three months later, my youngest brother was murdered.
I preached both funerals. Based on some of the things that were said to my middle brother and me at both funerals, we decided that one day
we’d write a book entitled “Stupid S*** You Don’t Say to the Grieving”. This is part of our list.
Don’t say “I know exactly how you feel”. You don’t! Grief is an intensely personal experience, everyone’s grief is unique
Don’t make it about you! This is a continuation of “I know exactly how you feel”. I lost track of the number of people who used my mother's and brother’s funeral to tell me about someone they lost. Remember that you’re there for the person who has just lost a loved one; they’re not there for you!
Don’t say anything that begins with the phrase “at least”. I hear this a lot! “At least they didn’t suffer; at least you have other children; at least they’re in heaven”. For someone who’s grieving, the phrase “at least” sounds like you’re minimizing their loss
Don’t talk about how everything will soon be back to normal because it won’t. When you lose someone, your life will never be normal again, because that person was part of your “normal”. Grieving people are learning how to build a new normal without the person they lost being part of it.
Don’t blame God! As a minister, this is extremely personal to me. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve heard say, or the number of people who said to me, “God has a plan; God has a purpose; God has a reason”. To the person who’s grieving, you just told them that God killed their loved one. It’s really hard to tell someone that the same God who caused the death of their loved one is the same God they should turn to for comfort. (God’s role in death is a deep philosophical and theological question, and much too intense for a blog. However, whatever you believe about God’s role in death, be careful that you don’t blame God).
Here is what I’ve learned about grief
You can’t explain death, so don’t try!
Hugs are powerful!
The best words are “I love you, I’m praying for you, and I’m here when you need me (of course, if you’re going to say those things, you actually have to pray for them and you actually have to be there when they need you).
Meet practical needs! Nothing you say is going to help as much as providing meals, picking up kids, or mowing their yard.
People will need your support long after the funeral is over, so keep checking on them. Nothing is more powerful than the constant presence of a loving friend.
Sometimes silence is better than words
By Cheryl Gilbert LMFT
Some deaths seem to fall in the order that makes sense. The deceased was elderly or someone that had been sick for a long time, while some deaths seems so wrong, so backward and out of life’s order that it adds an extra layer to the grief the loved ones feel. I have had this experience three times in my life. The first with my son who died after 23 days of a beautiful life, my lifelong friend whose death was so sudden that we were all stunned, and my granddaughter who died at the age of 17 months after a horrific accident. Sudden and tragic death can leave the loved ones in a desperate and confusing state and the support of friends and family are a necessity to get through the loss.
It's difficult for the loved ones as well, because they are often left feeling powerless about what to say or do to help the grieving. Family and friends who are wonderful well-meaning people, would come up to me and say the most hurtful words that left me stunned such as:
“at least he was just a baby”
“you are young you will have more children”
“God needed her/him more”
“Heaven needed more angels”
“at least you did not have time to get attached”
These are some words that were actually said to my family and me as we were grieving.
As I stood there thinking words I cannot repeat, I had to hold back my anger and focus on my grief. I had a close friend tell me “I was there for a whole month what more can I do?” I was shocked to hear her say this and that she thought that a month is enough time to get through the grieving process.
How you can Really help the grieving
When dealing with people that are grieving its imperative to be careful and think out the words you say. The brain of those who are grieving is functioning differently than those that are not going through the grief process. It takes time to heal from such pain so your patience in a must for those who are helping a grieving friend or family member.
I recommend the grieving family get a one-year pass. A year to cry whenever they need, a year to say what they are feeling even if that may not make sense, a year to fumble through life. There's no magic that happens at the year mark, but it seems most people start to move through the grief a little easier at this point.
Other ways to support the grieving family:
Offer a sincere “I am sorry” and leave it at that
Don't try to rationalize the death
Check-in on them after the funeral and offer to help them with whatever they may need
Love them through the grieving process unconditionally and with no expectations of a specific timeline
Be there with them through their pain even when that means you have to be silent and listen as they express their anger and grief
Give them space they need to grieve
Recognize that everyone grieves differently and be patient with them during this process. The grieving process is as individual as we all are. There's no right way or wrong way to grieve.
If you feel like you or your loved one is feeling suicidal or starting to move from grief to depression, locate a therapist to talk to.
If the cost of counseling is a concern, you can reach out to the funeral home as most of them now have free counseling or grief groups. You can also check out your local churches or colleges for low-cost counseling centers and if you used Hosparus they offer free counseling as well.
No matter how you grieve or how long it takes for you to grieve a therapist can help move you through the grieving process and do so without judgment.
Thank you for the privilege of being a part of your day
Cheryl Gilbert is an LMFT in the state of Kentucky. To find out more about her click here.
Live. Life. Balanced.Today is a blog written by licensed marriage and family therapist.
For more information about counseling go to www.LifeInMotionKentucky.com
Dr. Ken Hollis is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has 35 years of pastoral experience and currently serves as the Program Director of the Master of Marriage and Family Therapy program at Campbellsville University. He and his wife Dodie have been married for 40 years. They have two adult daughters and three grandchildren.
Melissa Smith, Cheryl Gilbert, and Life In Motion would like to give a special thank you to our guest writer Dr. Kenneth Hollis.
You have mentored, guided and supported us to become who we are today.