How to Talk to Grieving People … Never Saying “At Least…”

Last month I wrote about the power of responding to people in grief with memories.

So many of us don’t know what to say to a grieving person and even if we do manage to say something as simple as “I’m so sorry,” very often our discomfort makes us feel the need to keep speaking and, if we’re not careful, our rambling can lead us into dangerous words.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 10.13.08 PMOne of the worst things we can say to someone in grief is a phrase that starts with “At least …” For example,

At least he had a long life … (most families will tell you that it still wasn’t long enough for them).

At least you had time to prepare yourself … (almost anyone who has lost a loved one to a prolonged illness will still tell you that even though they knew the death was coming, there was no way to prepare for what it would feel like when their loved one actually died).

At least you have other children … (this one I really can’t handle, anyone who can say something like this really has no business speaking. And yes, people have said this).

These phrases diminish the significance of the loss and the grief of the survivors. It’s like saying, “you shouldn’t be that sad” and it’s a pretty devastating thing to say.

If you’re interested in the science of why these “at least” phrases are so terrible, look no further then this brilliant short by Brené Brown:

Sadly, all of those “condolences” have been spoken and will continue to be said. But, if you’re reading this, none of these will never be said by you.

So, my advice to anyone nervous about speaking to a grieving person is:

First, of course greet them warmly, and perhaps ask if you could share a memory with them. (You always want to be sensitive to their grief, and if they are worried about crying in public or feel overwhelmed they may turn you down or ask you to wait but I don’t think that would be most cases). Most people will want to hear their loved one’s name spoken, hear that they are remembered and they will welcome your memory.

tumblr_mi7l5knO4H1rknnujo2_r1_1280Second, tell them what you remember. Details are precious gems and may illicit tears but they are such good and welcome tears. The presence of tears, generally indicate that you are sharing something very special and wanted.

Third, let them respond and listen to them. It is possible you are the only person who has brought up memories or even spoken the name of their loved one. You may be a safe place if you’ve come to share memories and don’t let any “at least’s” slip out ; )

Being a safe place for someone is one of the very best things you can ever hope to be.

It’s completely true that for many of us, the idea of speaking to grieving people can be intimidating. The fear of making things worse excuses us from saying so many things when, the truth is, if you are speaking out of a genuine place, there is nothing you could do to make their loss worse.

Many grieving people report feeling isolated in their grief, noticing others avoiding them and finding no one who will talk about their loved one with them.

And so, I hope that the next time your path crosses with a grieving person, you won’t shy away but will instead open yourself up to the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful person with someone else who is missing them.

 

|| what do you think?

– Have you ever frozen or freaked out about what to say to someone who is grieving?

– What do you say to friends of yours who have lost someone?

 

Molly Keating

About Molly Keating

Hi, I’m Molly and I write for the blog here at O’Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who’s deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try.
Work at O’Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.
I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.

This entry was posted in Community, Perspective and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Anne

    Molly,
    Connection is so needed. Grief is often lonely. No matter what, you can’t be with people all the time. And people, even those who love you and loved the person who is departed, move on.
    Life is fluid. Sometimes the grieving person gets stuck…maybe not completely stuck, but still not 100% moving on.
    Recognizing that in others, when the cloud is settling, when a hug may be all that is needed, is a gift. And words are not always necessary. Sometimes just the hug, or a simple “how are you doing?”, but willing to embrace the response. Not much time out of your day, but a true empathetic response and no “At Leasts!”
    Anne

  • Chuck Ricciardi

    Molly,

    Thanks for this blog, I have always felt that one of our biggest educational duties as funeral director is exactly this. Educating people on how to be with and communicate with people who are grieving. Sometimes even the wisest amongst us does not know what to say, but your presence can speak volumes. Having walked the walk many moons ago I have heard it all. Sometimes the ignorance is palpable, but I try to categorize it as just that. Well intentioned but completely missing the mark. As our team just learned in training.” It can be possible to talk to much, but never possible to listen to much” No need to compare deaths or because I have gone though it I know exactly how you feel comments. Just understand that they are in pain and nothing we will say can take that away. So let them know you know they are in pain, let them tell the story or just be with them in silence.

    Chuck

  • Becky Finch Lomaka

    This is something that we all need to hear over and over again. Often we are so afraid that we will say the wrong thing that we end up not saying anything at all.

    As Brene Brown so brilliantly illustrates, empathizing and not just sympathizing speaks volumes and helps the grieving person feel safe and cared for. The grieving person may not remember exactly what we say, but they will remember that we were there for them.

    Thank you, Molly, for sharing this important conversation with us.

  • Shayna Williams

    Molly,
    What another great blog! I believe that we need to remembered things like this when dealing with grief. I know that people feel storage or afraid of speaking about grief because the thought of saying the wrong things comes in their minds. Thank you for the reminder of how to deal with the discussion of grief.

    Shayna

  • Joe Lavoie

    Molly as usual A very profound blog that will make you think. The best advice I can give is be a rock for the grieving family and just comfort them with your presence sometimes its not what you say or how you say it , sometimes its just being there that will comfort them and a thoughtful memory. Thanks so much Joe Lavoie

  • Jeff Turner

    Molly, I love the practicality and the simplicity of how I can avoid the pitfall of trying to make things better by minimizing someone’s pain. While a noble intent, it carries I intended pain filled results. Thank you for giving us the gem to tuck away so that we don’t mess up next time.
    Jeff

  • Carrie Bayer

    Molly, this is incredibly well said! I cringe when I hear the “At least” statements & I realize people think they are looking on the bright side of the situation but there really isn’t a bright side. I heard “At least” each time I lost a pregnancy & I was taken by surprise each time, though I knew to expect it. Thank you so much for sharing these incredibly wise words. XOXOX, Carrie

  • neil

    Hi Molly –

    This is another great blog by YOU! I actually had our insurance agent contact me this week about “what do I say to a widow who is my client.” Your advise is spot on! I always will try and express a true heart felt condolence. I do my best to share my thoughts about the person who died, what they meant to me or why their life was so significant to us. Sometimes I will not saying anything, until I feel the time if right. I try and gauge every situation differently. Thank you for your heart felt blog, this is a great reminder to all of us.

  • Fitz

    Hi Molly,

    Outstanding blog and great nuggets of advice. I especially like the advice of sharing a favorite memory about the loved one. It really shows how much you care. In my experience, I have come to learn that those who have lost a loved one want to share the memories. It’s a safe place for them and makes the life lived relevant even without the person being their physically.
    Thank you for the practical reminders and advice.
    Fitz

  • Erin Fodor

    Molly,
    This is wonderful advice for someone who is unsure how to talk with someone about the loss they have experienced. I am a great listener and try to let the grieving person do the talking. I find that they want to remember their loved one and tell you about the life they lived. It’s a comforting feeling for myself, to be there and just listen. Thank you for sharing these tips with everyone!

    Erin

  • Lori

    Molly,
    I am glad that you mentioned the phrase “at least”. So many people think they are offering wonderful advice to those who are grieving. They have no idea how cutting phrases such as, “at least you still have your mom”, “at least you can have more children”, “at least you are young and can marry again”. These phrases that they think are helpful in fact remove the importance of the loved one they are currently grieving.
    Great tips to help us all be more of a comfort to those who need us.

    Lori