What You Say To Someone Who’s Grieving

What You Say–And Don’t Say–When Somebody Tells You Their Troubles
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

Be careful what you say to people who are going through a really rough time.  They may have lost their job, or are getting divorced, or have a terminal illness, or their child just died.   You may have had a similar experience, and you may be tempted to tell what you felt and learned.  As a general rule, you shouldn’t.  Resist the temptation to try to match pain for pain.

I learned that when my daughter died after a terrible fight with cancer.  Until then, I was all too willing to share my experience, hoping that by sharing, I was helping.  Most times I wasn’t, and didn’t know it.

During that time, well-meaning people would come up to me and say things like,”My mother died of cancer, so I know just what you’re going through.”   I was hurting inside, and was thinking “No you do not know what I’m going through.”  I did not want to hear about somebody’s mother or father who had died, or about some son who had been killed in Iraq.  I’m sure those were excruciatingly sad moments, but I did not want to hear them just then.

I hated those comments, even though I knew that the people who made them were trying to be kind and understanding.  It was selfish on my part, I know, but I felt special and unique for a while, even though I knew that I was not unique–that millions of others throughout history had experienced grief-stricken moments.  But I didn’t want to hear about them.

I did feel a special kinship at that time with a friend about my age who had lost his son who was close to him just a few years ago. But that friend didn’t ever say those words, “I know what you’re feeling.” He could have, but didn’t. Instead, he said simply, “I am so sorry. If you ever want to talk about it, just let me know.” That was enough.

So resist those good-natured impulses whenever you hear that somebody has learned really bad news.  I won’t say you should never tell your story. There may be some situations when sharing your experience will be helpful. But for every time that your comments help, there will be ten times when you will sound preachy, or wiser-than-thou, or you may sound like you’re saying, “You’ve got problems, wait till you hear about mine.”

In the movie “Middle of Nowhere,”  Dorian ( who’s played by Anton Yelchin) tells Sarah (played by Eva Amurri):   “I hate it when people try to match each other’s pain.”


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