Over the past 10 months, I’ve learned just how much we fail at talking about grief as a society. Most of the time, the “comforting” phrases people rattle off only happen because that’s all we’ve been taught. Unfortunately, when you’re on the receiving end of these phrases after losing the love of your life, it can really grind your gears or hurt you in ways you never knew were possible.
Although this list doesn’t cover everything people have said to me since Emily died, I hope that sharing what not to say can help friends and family improve communication with the widows in their lives.
1. “Everything Happens for a Reason”
Why You Shouldn’t Say This: This phrase can be harmful in several ways. First and foremost, it implies that people are not entitled to be sad or experience pain because their spouse’s death was “as intended.” This can hinder the grieving process and lead to more pain later down the line due to unresolved grief.
Furthermore, telling a grieving widow that “everything happens for a reason” could cause them to place unnecessary blame on themselves for their spouse’s death. They may think, “If I’d done something different, my beloved may still be alive,” or “We did something wrong and were punished by my partner’s death.” These thoughts can increase distress and emotional pain.
What To Say Instead: Although this phrase is deeply ingrained in most of us since it’s so commonly used by society, we can replace this platitude with more helpful words.
Instead of saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” try these comforting phrases:
- “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to process.”
- “This is not your fault.”
- “I’m here for you no matter what.”
2. “It Just Wasn’t Meant to Be”
Why You Shouldn’t Say This: I have talked to several other young widows who have heard this phrase, and none of us found it comforting or helpful. It implies that the love a person shared with their late spouse was somehow not worthy of more years or that they were undeserving of love.
Also, just like with the notion that “everything happens for a reason,” saying a marriage “wasn’t meant to be” dismisses the widow’s grief. It implies that feeling sad isn’t logical because the relationship wasn’t solid. And, as most widows know, all of that is untrue.
What To Say Instead: Losing a spouse is one of the most challenging experiences any married person will live through. It’s also highly isolating, and many widows worry about burdening others.
So, instead of telling them their love wasn’t meant to be, try one of these suggestions:
- “You and your partner shared an incredible love. Their death doesn’t erase that.”
- “No one can ever replace your spouse, but know that I’m here for you, and I love you.”
- “I know you two loved each other very much. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
3. “God Doesn’t Give Us More Than We Can Handle”
Why You Shouldn’t Say This: Although some Christians find phrases like this comforting, many people do not. When you are processing a significant loss, the pain and sadness can often feel insurmountable, which can cause people to question their strength and ability to cope. They may even question their faith when presented with this response.
What’s more, this wording almost implies that God gave us the situation because we can “handle it.” That gives the impression that a grieving widow is deserving of their loss and that God caused whatever led to their death. Once again, this can cause a crisis of faith or at the very least, more pain and heartache.
What To Say Instead: While this phrase is problematic, there are other phrases with messages of faith that you can use to talk to someone grieving.
- “This will not be easy to work through, but God is with you every step of the way.”
- “I know your pain must feel immense. What can I do for you in this moment?”
Additionally, you can offer comforting lines of scripture that remind the person to pray, seek God for strength, or that God is with them even in difficult times.
4. “You Need to Move On”
Why You Shouldn’t Say This: When you encourage people to “move on,” “move forward,” or similar, they will likely interpret it as they’ve been grieving for too long or their sadness is annoying you. They may assume that they’re burdening you and others.
Also, phrases like this are a way of telling a person how to feel. When you try to change a person’s feelings or imply their feelings aren’t valid in a situation, they may feel crazy or invisible.
What To Say Instead: Instead of telling people to move on, you should use phrases that validate their feelings and let them know you’re on the side.
Say something like:
- “It will take time to work through this loss. It’s okay.”
- “I’m here for you during this time.”
- “Know that your feelings are valid during this time, regardless of what they are.”
5. “They’d Want You to be Happy”
Why You Shouldn’t Say This: Most widows know that their spouse would want them to be happy. We always want the people we love to be happy. However, most spouses would also validate their loved one’s feelings, comfort them, and want to be with them even when sad. They’d rather be with their spouse than dead.
However, that’s not the only issue with this phrase. Depending on the specifics of the spouse’s death, a widow may already feel guilty, like they let their partner down. When you say, “They’d want you to be happy,” you are essentially saying the widow has failed again because they are feeling something other than what the person they lost would want them to. It’s harmful.
What To Say Instead: The two things you want to avoid when speaking to anyone who has recently lost someone are invalidating their feelings and making them feel worse.
So, instead of telling them how their partner would want them to feel, you can provide words that validate their emotions, regardless of what they are.
No matter what, the most important thing you can do for a grieving individual is be there for them and hold space for them while they work through the loss of their spouse. Hopefully, you can communicate with them more effectively with these suggestions of what to say and not to say.