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12 “Polite” Ways You’re Talking About Grief That Are Actually Hurtful

Updated: May 20, 2024

Grief can be hard to talk about. Here's what to say when you don't know what to say.

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When words of comfort aren’t comforting

“The phrase that is the hardest for me to hear these days is: ‘How are you doing?’ Everyone is asking me this, and what can I say to answer that?” says Esther G., who recently lost her twin sister. “How am I? I’m surviving day by day, and that’s it.”

Esther’s grief is immense right now, and her friends understandably want to love and support her, but their words don’t always come across as supportive or comforting as they mean them to be. “I know they are just trying to be nice, but when people ask me how I’m doing, it doesn’t feel like they really want to know the answer,” she says. While that may not be true, they maybe struggling to find the right things to say when someone is grieving.

“Many people were never taught etiquette rules around grief or how to talk about death, which can lead to some unfortunate mistakes,” says Gina Moffa, LCSW, a grief and trauma therapist in New York City and the author of Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss. “Remember, first and foremost: People who are grieving need to be engaged with tenderness and compassion.”

As someone who has experienced unimaginable loss and has also been in the position of wanting to comfort someone else, I can attest to the fact that this is not easy. So I spoke to Moffa, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dave Rubin, MD, PhD, and people who’ve suffered recent losses to find out how to express your condolences the right way. Ahead, you’ll find common phrases to avoid—and better alternatives that offer true kindness and support.

What to avoid when talking about grief

First things first: “Even when you go into it with the best of intentions, there are some mistakes people often make when talking about grief,” says Dr. Rabin. Here are a few important blanket guidelines, according to Dr. Rabin and Moffa:

  • Don’t use platitudes. Think: social media memes or common sayings like “sending thoughts and prayers” or “everything will work out for the best.” These types of impersonal messages can make the sufferer feel dismissed and unheard. Instead, aim for compassionate connections that are sincere, heartfelt words individualized to that person. “Think about what you would like to hear,” adds Dr. Rabin.
  • Do tailor your statement to the relationship. Acknowledge the relationship that the grieving person had to the person who has passed on. For instance, someone who has lost a parent may need to hear something a little different than someone who lost a high school friend.
  • Don’t stay silent. Saying anything from a place of good intentions is usually better than saying nothing at all. “Silence makes the grieving person feel isolated and alone,” Moffa says.
  • Do admit you are nervous. It’s perfectly fine to say something like, “I don’t know what to say right now, but I’m so sorry for your loss.”
  • Do apologize if necessary. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen. The key is to acknowledge them, offer an apology and do better next time.

With that in mind, here are 12 things people often say that are intended to be polite but aren’t—and what they wish you’d say instead.

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About the experts

  • Gina Moffa, LCSW, is a grief and trauma therapist in New York City and the author of Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go: A Modern Guide to Navigating Loss.
  • Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist, a neuroscientist and the co-founder of Apollo Neuroscience.
Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Saying their loved one is in a better place

When my baby died, one of the most common—and most painful—things people said to me was that it was OK because she was in a better place now. While I understood that they meant well and were likely trying to reassure me that my daughter was not just OK but also safe from all the bad things in the world, my grieving mother’s heart couldn’t imagine any place better for my daughter than with me, in my arms. The fact that they thought any place was better (or that she was somehow better off without me) was devastating.

“Avoid telling the grieving person how you think they should feel,” Dr. Rabin says. Telling someone not to feel sad or hurt isn’t going to take away those painful feelings; it’s just going to make the person feel invalidated. In addition, regardless of your personal beliefs, you can’t know where the deceased is and you should avoid speculating. These types of statements are often more about making the person saying them feel better, he says, adding, “When someone is experiencing intense grief, it may make you feel uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t try to ‘fix’ it or explain it.”

Say this instead: “Tell me about him/her.” Grieving people often need and want to talk about their lost loved ones, Dr. Rabin says. Giving them that space and a listening ear is a gift. You can include some lovely thoughts of your own about the deceased as well, in both conversations and condolence messages. One of the kindest comments I received at my daughter’s funeral was from a sweet friend inviting me to talk about my memories of my little girl.

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Offering help in a vague way

Someone is hurting, and you want to help—that’s a beautiful, kind instinct. The problem, Dr. Rabin says, is when people say let me know if you need anything and then stop there. “When you are grieving, it can be hard for your brain to focus on other things, even things you might need,” he explains. “Saying this to someone puts the burden on them to figure it out and then reach out—they usually won’t.”

Say this instead: “Is it OK if I bring you dinner on Tuesday at 6 p.m.?” Try to tailor your offer of help to a specific need that person has. For instance, a mom with young kids may appreciate it if you take their turn in the carpool or offer to babysit. An elderly single person may appreciate an invitation to eat with you in your home more than a delivered meal.

Sasha V., who recently lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease, appreciated the meal train that her friends set up for her. “I didn’t have to figure anything out, and I just knew dinner would be delivered to me every evening for a week,” she says. “While my mother’s death wasn’t a surprise, it still knocked me down. Having that daily touchpoint with my friends, along with the food, meant so much to me.”

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Saying you know exactly what they’re going through

Hanna S. recently lost her father—an experience that she says turned her entire world upside down. “We had a difficult relationship, and his death was unexpected, which made the grieving process very complicated,” she says. “So when people would say to me, ‘Oh, I lost a parent too—I know how you feel,’ it was like: No, you can’t possibly understand how I feel—I don’t really even understand how I feel!”

“The truth is, you don’t know how they feel—you can’t,” Moffa says. Many people say this as a way to try to empathize with the other person’s feelings, which is a beautiful thing, but even if you’ve suffered a similar loss, your experience will be different because every person’s history, relationships and personality are different. For instance, someone who had a great relationship with their father will feel a different type of grief after his death than Hanna is experiencing. Plus, saying this makes the conversation about you instead of figuring out what the other person needs. This can even turn into a grief competition where the way you share your experience can make the other person feel like they are grieving “wrong” or not enough—or it can put them in a position where they then have to comfort you.

Say this instead: “I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I am here to listen.” If you have been through something similar, it’s OK to bring it up briefly as a way to connect. For instance: “I remember that when I lost my father, it was devastating. I felt like I was forgetting everything, and I could barely get through my day. Would it be helpful to talk about how you’re feeling? I’d love to listen.”

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Asking how they are

This statement itself isn’t necessarily wrong or inappropriate, but rather it’s the context in which you say it. If you say it in passing, when you don’t really have time to listen to a meaningful answer, it comes across as uncaring or clueless, Dr. Rabin says. If you know someone is grieving, then obviously they’re not doing great, but if you ask this question in the usual way, it will likely prompt them to answer (and lie) with an “I’m fine.”

“If you really want to know how I’m doing, I’ll tell you, but don’t ask me in the grocery store,” says Esther. “Let’s sit down and have a real conversation.”

Say this instead: “How are you doing? You’ve been in my thoughts since we heard the news. Would you like to get together and talk?” or “I love you, and I’m thinking about you.” The key is to check in, in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive and gives them the ability to reply when they’re up to it. For instance, sending a thinking-of-you message via text or social media may feel less overwhelming than stopping them in the store or bringing it up at work.

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Praising their strength

After my daughter died, I went through a really intense period of grief and mourning, not just for the loss of her but for all the future dreams and plans I’d had for her. Her death changed the entire future I’d planned out for myself and my family, and losing those hopes and dreams was heartbreaking. During that time, I heard things like: “You’re so strong,” “You’re such an inspiration in how you are handling this,” or “Just keep going; you’ll get through this!”

I’ll be honest: I didn’t feel strong or like an inspiration—I felt like crying or punching someone. What I heard in their words was: “You seem fine doing this on your own, so I won’t worry about helping you. Also being ‘strong’ is the right thing to do, and being ‘weak’ looks bad, so keep up that strong front even if you’re not feeling it.” Whether they meant that or not, that’s what I heard. And it stung. While you may see “being strong” as a positive, it can feel like a burden to those who are grieving.

Say this instead: “I am here to support you and hold you up. You don’t have to be strong right now.” Giving the grieving person permission to not “fight” or “stay strong” can be an immense gift, Moffa says.

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Looking on the bright side

There are a lot of variations on this theme:

  • “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • “Count your blessings.”
  • “God always has a reason.”
  • “There’s always sunshine after the storm.”
  • “When one door closes, another one opens.”

While these platitudes may technically be true, they’re cold comfort when someone is deep in the pain of grief. For me, they felt meaningless at best and like toxic positivity at worst. I had no idea what was on the other side of this ocean of grief and pain—and I wouldn’t be able to know it until I’d gone through it. Rushing that process was impossible. For Esther, whose sister was murdered, these statements evoked anger. “What good could possibly come from this? How dare you?”

Say this instead: “This all just really sucks, and I am deeply sorry you’re going through this.” In the aftermath of tragedy, the only person who can or should ascribe meaning to it is the person going through it themselves, Dr. Rabin says.

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Asking how their loved one died

“My father and brother committed suicide within one year of each other. It was the worst year of my life,” says Felicity F. “I came to dread this question. I understand it—they were both on the younger side, my brother especially—so it was obvious they didn’t die of natural causes. But answering this question made me have to relive it.”

It’s normal to wonder how someone died—in fact, it’s often the first thing we think about after hearing someone has passed. Knowing the cause of death can be reassuring to those still living or act as a warning. For instance, many people asked how my daughter died because it isn’t normal for babies to die, and I think some of them were trying, in a way, to make sure their own little ones didn’t suffer the same fate. Asking this question can also feel like a way to connect and offer the bereaved a chance to talk about what they are experiencing. But it came as a shock every time someone asked me (and they asked me a lot). Eventually, I practiced a scripted answer that would both satisfy their curiosity and shut down further questions.

While it’s a very natural question, asking how someone died or how long they suffered can be painfully intrusive or re-traumatizing. “Do not ask this question,” Moffa says. “If they want to talk about it, they will bring it up.”

Say this instead: “If you want to talk, I want to listen. And if you don’t want to talk, I’ll just sit here quietly with you.”

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Saying that the loss will make them stronger

This platitude is so popular, there are whole songs written about it, and it’s one of the most popular loss quotes. But what makes it so powerful is the same reason you shouldn’t say it—this is something that only the person who is grieving can learn for themselves. In the moment, it may feel like their grief is “killing” or overwhelming them, Dr. Rabin says.

Or perhaps they don’t want to be stronger. Saying this can come across as invalidating. “It was so strange to me that people would assume that this grief that was tearing me apart inside was somehow making me stronger,” Felicity says. “It’s been a couple of years since they died, and I am stronger—but that’s because I put in a lot of hard work in therapy. I wouldn’t say that their deaths made me stronger. It was me, doing the work, that has made me strong.”

Say this instead: “I can’t take this from you, but I can help you carry it. Want to hang out Saturday? We can stay in and talk or go out and get coffee as a distraction—whatever you want that day.”

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Telling them not to cry

It’s natural to want to soothe someone who is crying and help them feel better. “When we see someone crying, the instinct is to help,” Dr. Rabin says. “Unfortunately, many people see ‘helping’ as making the crying stop.” Offering a reason to stop crying—like telling them that the deceased would want them to be happy—isn’t helpful and can invalidate their normal feelings of grief. Crying is a healthy and normal way of processing emotions, and it should never be discouraged or shamed, he says, adding that the “boys don’t cry” stereotype is incredibly damaging. Plus, who are you to say what their lost loved one would or wouldn’t want? And even if their loved one wouldn’t have wanted them to be sad, this time is about supporting the person grieving.

“I would start crying at the strangest times, and I think it made people really uncomfortable,” Hanna says. “So they would say this to me to cheer me up. It didn’t work. Also, the joke’s on them: They didn’t know my father. He was a narcissist and probably wants us all to be sad forever now that he’s gone.”

Say this instead: “It’s totally OK to cry—let it out. Would you like a tissue or a hug?” Crying can feel very vulnerable or even shameful, so offering to be with someone while they cry is an incredibly powerful gift. You don’t have to fix it, stop it, explain it or even understand it; your presence in that difficult moment is what’s comforting.

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Focusing on the future to mitigate the loss

After my daughter’s death, it was astounding how many people would tell me, “Don’t worry, you’re young. You can still have more kids”—as if one child could replace another. My daughter was her own person, and I missed that person. I also think people were trying to keep me focused on the future so I wouldn’t sink into depression. But it ended up having the opposite effect because at that time, I didn’t know if I would ever have kids. If my experience taught me anything, it’s that childbirth is a roll of the dice and sometimes the odds are against you (and that’s depressing). Plus, our daughter had a rare genetic disorder, and I was afraid that other future children might inherit it too—a risk I wasn’t sure I was ready to take again.

Say this instead: “This is a huge change for you. How are you feeling about it? Do you want to talk about it?”

Polite Ways You Are Talking About Grief That Are Hurtful

Telling them to get over their grief

“The other night, a show came on that my brother and I used to watch together, and I burst into tears,” Felicity says. “And my husband, who I know loves me very much, handed me a tissue and said, ‘Babe, I think it’s time to move on. It’s not healthy to cry over a TV show.'” From the outside, grieving people can appear to “regress,” and that can be worrisome to loved ones who want them to continue to heal. Felicity’s husband was trying to be loving, but it stemmed from a misunderstanding of the grief process.

“The ‘stages of grief’ is a bit of a misnomer, and it makes some people think that grief has a beginning, middle and end, when the truth is that a person can go through the stages in any order and multiple times,” Dr. Rabin explains. “Grief can come in waves and emerge at surprising times, even years later, and that’s all normal. It doesn’t mean they’re stuck.”

Say this instead: “I can see you’re upset. Want to tell me what happened?” or “Take as long as you need here. Your feelings are normal and valid.” What’s healthy or normal for grieving is up to the person experiencing it to determine, not outsiders.

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Worrying about what other people might think

Felicity says her husband was very concerned about how her “tidal wave of grief” would appear to other people and that it would possibly embarrass her. He encouraged her to mourn in private or “save it for therapy” rather than talking about it at church, the kids’ school or in their friend group. “He gets really embarrassed when he cries in public, so I think he was trying to spare me from people staring or whatever,” she explains. “But while I appreciated his concern, it made me feel like I was doing something shameful or bad by being sad.”

One of the best gifts you can give your kids, friends and society at large is to normalize grieving, Moffa says. “Grief is tricky to talk about because we have not been taught as a society how to deal with grief and loss,” she says. “It brings up the idea of mortality, and let’s face it, most people are inherently afraid of death.” But death is normal. Loss is normal. And grieving it together is also normal.

Say this instead: “I want to be here with you in this moment. You’re not alone.” Grieving together is a powerful form of support. If you’re looking for more guidance, especially for someone who’s close to you, you may want to check out these grief books.

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