What Not to Say to a Widow, A Tutorial

First of all, no one knows what to say to someone grieving. None of us. Not the ones who are going through it and not the ones who have gone through it. Even therapists don’t always know what to say, and they get paid for that crap!

That being said, after going through last year, I have compiled a list of the things said to myself and my fellow sarcastic grievers (yes, that’s a term!) that made us all a little nuts when we heard them.

Though I say this is a widow tutorial, these are my 5 things never to say to anyone going through a loss, regardless of the type:

1) Be strong.  For me, this was the worst- I mean, DUH, I’m trying here.

This phrase actually gave me two panic attacks.  Those who are grieving don’t need to be reminded that we have to stick it out and that there is absolutely nothing we can change about the situation.

We ALL need to be able to be fall down and weep – and being strong has nothing to do with that fact.  Those who are strong are actually the ones who acknowledge their emotions and cry when they need to.  They don’t bottle it up.  They work through the pain.

2) Time heals all wounds.  When I heard this, my snarky inward answer was this:  Really?  Well, then I would like time to speed up then.  Thanks for reminding me I have to feel this gut wrenching pain for awhile.

Yes, time does heal all wounds, and we will figure that out when we need to – when we are looking back at our experience.  We will realize how far we’ve come on our journey.  Until then, we don’t need to be reminded.

3) There is a plan.  Oh – thanks!  I had no idea my pain was the part of a larger scheme of things.  How about weird crap just happens?  And we learn and grow from it?  Humans feel the need to control what happens in our lives  – and when we can’t control it we say “it’s part of a larger plan”.

Some may find comfort in that reasoning for loss, but others may not.  It is an individual belief system – one that I don’t necessarily subscribe to – but I have friends who do.  The point is, we don’t know if a person believes that or not, and it is not our place to convince them one way or another while they are in the midst of loss.

4) Everything happens for a reason.  See above.  No, they don’t.  Sometimes things just happen that suck. And again, some believe things happen for a reason – but it is not our place in the midst of their loss to project how we believe. This is not about us (the commenter) – it is about the feelings of the griever.

5) So, do you think you’ll ever love again?  Possibly my favorite.  Yes, we will (and many of us have! 🙂 ) , but for the love of everything holy, please don’t ask this question.  (Also – don’t ask a person if they’re getting another pet when their furry companion dies.  That’s just as bad or worse. Stop. Please.)

So, what do you say?  I loved hearing “I just don’t know what to say- I am so sorry for your loss”.  My answer was  – “Yeah, I don’t know what to say either – life is weird”.  And I meant it.  Life is weird, and there are no answers.

Before Jim died, I am SURE I said some of these things to people, so if you have said them, don’t sweat it, just use this as a reminder that what not to say to someone who is raw with emotion.

what do I say to someone who is grieving?

what do I say to someone who is grieving?

Everyone is different about what comforts them – so I may be off base for some, but hey, everyone grieves differently – some are more sarcastic than others ;).


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16 Comments on What Not to Say to a Widow, A Tutorial

  1. Melissa
    August 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm (8 years ago)

    So true, Hannah! Another common one that upsets many grievers (sarcastic or otherwise!) – is “(the deceased)…would want you to…” or “…wouldn’t want you to…” – most of the time, how do they know what the deceased would want, or not want, his/her friends and family to feel or do? And even if they might know, those who are grieving rarely need such a “reminder” – it’s hard enough, why add guilt?

    When my father died someone said to me, “I always felt like I should have been one of his daughters, so I know exactly how you feel.” No, sorry, no one knew exactly how I felt except me – and that changed from moment to moment sometimes.

    When my sister died a few years ago a commone first question was, “Do you have another sister?” I can almost imagine some attempt at kindness in that, but it felt like they were saying “I will feel so much better if I know you have another sister.” That sucked. The fact that we were a family of 3 sisters and a brother, and always would be, is a blessing that is not “more so” because of the death of one of us. It’s just a fact I’m grateful for.

    Let the person who is grieving have the time and space to grieve in their own way. Some people don’t share their deepest grief easily, so sometimes a silent hug or a jar of Nutella is better than anything.

  2. Barbara
    August 20, 2014 at 9:40 pm (8 years ago)

    So well said. But above all, don’t become paralyzed and say NOTHING. Think before you speak, be thoughtful, empathetic and kind. And, if you have the opportunity to be live and in person, a hug speaks volumes, sans words.

    • Hannah
      August 21, 2014 at 4:19 pm (8 years ago)

      Agreed! Even saying “I don’t know” is ok.

  3. karen armstrong
    August 21, 2014 at 12:40 am (8 years ago)

    Dearest Hannah,

    You hit the nails on the box, so to speak. #5 has been said to me since before George was even dead.
    I DO NOT WANT ANOTHER PET. Maybe someday, but not now. People can look you straight in the face & say this over & over…..”it will help you get over George”
    Are they nucking futs. Who says I want to get over the best friend, companion, & listen to me cry & moan & groan when no one else was here to do it?
    I know this might sound sick…..I don’t care, I’m typing it anyways, I want to feel this pain & I want to remember him. He was a part of my life 24/7 for 13 years. His kindness surpassed those of “loved ones” during deaths, during my surgeries, during so many trials & the good things.
    HE was, GEORGE was. He was the one that was here.
    Not those that are saying….”get another pet” “it will help you”……no I am going on a trip 9-3 through 9-17……should George had lived. I wouldn’t be able to do this…there was no one that would have boarded him for 14 days.
    Because he chose to leave when he did, I have a wonderful gift for my 60th b.d. next week, & then a trip to see Grandkids …..& daughter.
    Now I will be able to go up to Madeline & camp out before winter sets in or Two Harbors …..I will get to visit my lake.
    Your word Hannah were all right on & I am so THANKFUL & pray I never said any of those to you……time does not heal all wounds. Scars are left as reminders that you went through something that changed your life ……..hopefully in a magical way. Thank you for not forgetting our beloved pets.
    Hannah you are a woman wise beyond your eyes.
    Love with hugs always

    karen in Haugen.

      August 21, 2014 at 10:32 pm (8 years ago)

      Karen, as a woman of a few years – who happens to also be a grief and general counselor – I want to honor you for saying “I want to feel this pain and I want to remember him.” Wonderful words of wisdom! Having suffered some severe losses myself and helped countless others in their grief/bereavement, I know, with no doubt, that the only way out, is through the pain. We emerge with a new wholeness that deepens and respects what we’ve been through, who we’ve lost from earthly life, and above all, the love we shared. Good for you, girl, for not letting anyone tell you how to grieve.

      • karen armstrong
        August 26, 2014 at 11:41 pm (8 years ago)

        Dear Melissa,
        THANK YOU….a thousand times & then some. I have looked over the past comments to dear Hannah (who I so want to meet in person soonish) thankfully I wasn’t one to say those idiotic sayings that we think are necessary.
        Having had the honor to work in Hospice….it is a gift for me to be there at that last breath. Even my George looked up to me as the vet placed the needle in his left under thigh & gave me that reassuring look that all was going to be okay. I told him how thankful I was for him & thanked him again for what a gracious spirit he had with me……then the tears & I told him how MUCH i loved him & always would. The Vet then proceeded to tell me what would happen, when it was happening & I would feel him as he left. I did Melissa it was just like my baby Brother before he took his last breath(2002 @45)he opened his eyes & looked right at me & I felt him leave, right into my heart. George did the same. I am at a point where I can’t even watch the videos of other people’s cats ……maybe someday. Tomorrow I will begin my 60th year of life…….I have more questions than I have answers, yet I am hopeful. That is as good as I can get right now. Thank you for your words, they truly touched my soul.
        With kindness your way,
        karen in wisconsin

  4. Cheryl Drevlow
    August 21, 2014 at 1:25 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Hannah!
    Well said.
    Those same things bothered me when my son died. Having two other sons didn’t change my grief at my first born dying.
    “It’s part of Gods plan” – you’ve got to be kidding. My God would never do this. He helped me get through it, but he is not a puppet master pulling strings like that.
    “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” falls into the same category.
    I couldn’t handle it! God didn’t give it to me. He did help me survive it.

    I did so appreciate the outpouring of care, and love we received. I loved the people (many of them kids) who took my kids under their wings and spent time with them when we were so full of grief that we could hardly exist, let alone help our surviving sons get through it.

    I don’t mean to judge or condem things people said because they were trying to help, and I appreciate that a lot. I’m just saying that some seemingly innocent remarks can be hurtful, but the concern meant to be expressed is still meaningful. It helps to have someone just listen or hug, or bake cookies or casseroles, or ask you to lunch to talk.
    Don’t avoid someone who is grieving because you don’t know what to say. Just give a hug, or say hello, I’ve been thinking of you.
    As time goes on, we don’t want to avoid talking about our loved ones, or feel that everyone has forgotten them. Warren Nelson wrote a song that said he’d rather feel the pain than forget (about the person who died) That is so true.
    I couldn’t have gotten through this without friends, community and just people who cared enough to show it in some way.

  5. Andrea Kotula
    August 21, 2014 at 3:06 am (8 years ago)

    Hannah, I’m so sorry for your pain. Hopefully your words will be a wake-up call for some. I remember at the time hating it when people told you to be strong or complimented you on how strong you were. Or told you what an inspiration you were. I don’t think I said any of the things in your blog post, but if I did I apologize. I may have told you to have courage, which I think is all we can expect of people who are grieving. To be able to put one foot in front of the other as best they can because the only way out is through. Love to you, dear Hannah.

  6. Stephanie Daigle
    August 21, 2014 at 4:36 am (8 years ago)

    Thank you Hannah for these wonderful words. I have admired your work you’ve shared here on FB long before the Shoep image was taken and have been following along and though I have so admired you for years now, never have I been so full of admiration as I am now. You totally nailed it. I lost my brother and 3 days from the day we laid him to rest went my mother, and my dad was on his way right behind them. I can add to your list, never say “it’s ok to be sad for a time and mourn as long as you don;t do it for too long”. They all left in a year, how long is too long? Love to you for all you do and for this post.

  7. Stephanie Daigle
    August 21, 2014 at 4:38 am (8 years ago)

    I’m sorry, I meant 3 months not 3 days, I didn’t catch the typo until after I hit post button.

  8. Christine Walker
    August 21, 2014 at 1:30 pm (8 years ago)

    People try to comfort the best they can, even if at times it is awkward, it is usually sincere. To wear your grief like a blanket of smug superiority when they don’t meet your standards is hubris. No one owes you compassion. If you lost someone and there was no expression of sympathy , you would think differently.

    • Melissa
      August 21, 2014 at 10:39 pm (8 years ago)

      I believe compassion is never owed, but always required.
      If we can’t extend compassion, we’re a sorry lot. How can we learn except by experience? I’m grateful for Hannah’s ability to bring up tough subjects, and I’m grateful not to have to experience everything in the world before being able to learn helpful and not-helpful responses – by other people sharing their experiences.

  9. D Nichols
    August 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm (8 years ago)

    Christine – I am not sure how you see a ‘blanket of smug superiority’ here when Hanna specifically admitted, “Before Jim died, I am SURE I said some of these things to people, so if you have said them, don’t sweat it, just use this as a reminder that what not to say to someone who is raw with emotion.”

    What I’m taking away from this is, “If you’re trying to convey sympathy and comfort to someone who is grieving, here are some phrases that you may want to avoid, as they can actually cause more pain.”

    Hannah, thank you for this… I really appreciate the reminder that something sincere can convey love and support more than platitudes.

  10. Alison
    August 21, 2014 at 3:28 pm (8 years ago)

    A great tutorial! No one can understand until they have found themselves walking in sorrow and loss of their own, for it is a long grieving process of the heart, no matter how the mind tries to cope and rationalize. Years ago when my sons were kidnapped, no one could really comfort or console. To this day, no one does, because it is a “living death” with them out there somewhere. People now know me only as a single person, yet it is still so emotional but private for me. I never stopped being a mom just because they are gone.

    I just reread “The Little Prince” because of a quote Zelda posted about her father’s passing (Robin Williams tragic death). It reminds us that “what is essential is invisible to the eyes”, it cannot be measured in words, or in time of grieving, for that person will forever be a part of who we are, a cherished memory in our hearts and mind, for the joy that was unique. There will always be a crack in our heart with loss, of a loved one, or a pet. Time moves us on, but we will never be quite the same.

    The best thing one can do for another in time of loss is to be present in the Now, doing random acts of kindness, helping to “distract” or get “busy” with something for a little while, listening.

  11. Jack Fids
    August 21, 2014 at 9:59 pm (8 years ago)

    There are 2 major issues to deal with in situations like this …
    The sudden loss of ones mate & the solitude one faces alone .
    almost everyone focuses on the immediate loss because it is the most obvious .
    Rightfully or wrongfully I separated our acquaintances friends into 3 groups..
    The ones who needed more comforting than I did
    The ones who wanted to offer me comfort
    the ones whose comments were such that after they made them I decided to cut them loose .
    I consoled those in the 1st group by saying that her suffering was minimal & her departure quick & that she deserved the comfort of “going home” more than I did .
    To those in the 2nd group I listened patiently, accepted their heartfelt emotions & well thought out words of comfort & reminded them that I was built to endure all that I would encounter in the lifetime .
    Those in the 3rd group received a deep look into their eyes while I held their hand & acknowledged their presence…. then I parted their company with determination …. permanently .

    I repeated these words so many times :
    ” I am glad that she went first, I would have paid ANY price to keep her from the pain & despair I had to go thru !” And reminded myself of the wealth of happiness we shared, trying to not focus on the solitude I faced .
    People forget that when you marry it is for the sole purpose of becoming a single entity & to that goal, you must give up the “Me” in order to become the “We” . When your mate departs you have to start all over, finding the “Me” once again, you don’t lose half of your life, you lose EVERYTHING & all that you worked to achieve . You don’t “pick-up where it left off ” you start on a new path with a different life & a refined sense of purpose .
    I also had one advantage most never acquire, long before Marcy matriculated we had “The Talk” about one of us leaving before the other .
    She told me then, “If I go before you, the most important thing to me will be for you to find peace & happiness ! My Spirit could never be at ease where ever I am knowing you are suffering . Find peace & happiness, knowing that it will put my Spirit at peace & make me happy too !”
    Of all the things we gave each other THAT may have been her ultimate gift to me . It gave me permission to live & never feel guilty about her not being by my side or that I survived & she didn’t.
    One of the easiest ways I found initial happiness was to connect with others who had certain specific qualities she had, those which made my heart sing & gave it peace & hope . I did this thru selective social media relationships . I was lucky enough to discover a small person in a small town with a multitude of Marcy’s attributes who had the grace & ability to afford me that comfort I sought in them, while allowing me the latitude of being myself & finding the new path my journey was taking .
    I will be eternally indebted to you Hannah, for your friendship, strength & the character you posses .
    It would have been much harder & taken longer without all that you afforded me, you are priceless in my book . 🙂

  12. Alison
    August 24, 2014 at 2:05 am (8 years ago)

    Just had to add a comment that this weekend seemed to present several items related to your theme. One was a blog on the Today Show “Sacred Sacrifice” lessons care providing for her mother dying of brain cancer. It was a mini tutorial in itself with emotions and insights gathered.

    Then Hallmark movie “The Color of Rain” ( a true story /book) focused on two families in grief from the loss of a spouse. The widow with 2 boys had had a bit of time to “prepare” (if there is such a thing) because it had been a long terminal death from cancer. The widower with 3 kids had lost his wife 3 weeks after brain cancer was diagnosed. It covers grief experiences on many levels, and a lot of the well meaning responses of support from community, yet also the inadequacy of efforts and comments. Eventually the 2 families merged into “a Brady Bunch.”

    Bottom line, is one can never be prepared for loss or how grief envelops one’s life and turns it upside down. It takes faith and courage to take a day at a time and to heal. You go from a couple to a single being and we grieve and grow. No two people will experience it in the same way, you have to be kind to yourself and accept that people mean well, but feel inadequate to say or do the right thing.