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longgone's avatar

Are the things people routinely say to lessen grief actually making it worse?

Asked by longgone (18292points) November 3rd, 2018

I’m referring to the comforting words that leave a backdoor open, some chance of seeing the deceased again some day. For example, people have told me “I’m sure he misses you, too” or “She’s in a better place now.”

Statements like that seem to imply that there is no real loss. That it’s temporary, and only lasts until your own death. Because if my loved one can still miss me, or be happy in their better place, how are they really gone?

I think that can be comforting in the moment, and I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. However, I’ve noticed a feeling of calm when I did the painful work of actually accepting loss, instead of telling myself a soothing story.

What do you think?

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13 Answers

janbb's avatar

I agree with you. Saying things like “She’s in a better place now” presupposes that the mourner believes in an after-life which may or may not be true. I think quiet empathy without pushing one’s beliefs is much more helpful.

Jeruba's avatar

I think it’s a real test of our own compassion when we recognize the good intentions of people whose awkward words and gestures don’t help us at all. We know they mean well. We know that when your dog dies and they say “At least it’s not a child,” they don’t mean to diminish the authenticity of your grief. We know that when your father dies a lingering, miserable death and they say “At least he’s no longer suffering,” they intend to be comforting.

Any remark that begins with “at least” is apt to be a cold revelation of someone’s misguided comparisons. You can’t rate grief on a scale. Grief is grief. But when others mean to be kind, we have to see beyond their clumsiness and even thoughtlessness and give them credit for trying to be there for us.

And hope they’ll do the same for us when we mumble the wrong words in an effort to express sympathy.

I usually stick to “I’m sorry” and, if true, “I’m here if you need to talk.” When I took a friend out to lunch after her daughter had committed suicide on Thanksgiving Day, what she wanted most was someone to listen. All I really had to do was be there quietly. Most of us can do that, I think.

Yellowdog's avatar

Agreed. Even though I am a minister, when my beloved Joy died, I questioned whether or not there even WAS anything on the other side of death, and how I could never know or never do anything about it.

I didn’t mind the soothing stories, and eventually came to terms with it. I am a believer again, I am happy to say. But I needed to acknowledge and contemplate my earth-shattering loss, and reflect on her life and what we were together.

JLeslie's avatar

I never read the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but the author, Rabbi Kushner, from what I understand, was inspired to write it after his teenage son died.

He realized that so much of what people say to those who are grieving is not comforting or helpful. That he himself as a Rabbi had said some of the very same things to comfort others, and now having lost his son had a very different perspective.

Words of the dead being in a better place are empty for me since I have no firm belief in an afterlife. Words based in religion like “God has a plan,” or, “ I guess it was his time,” make me very uncomfortable, and sometimes quite annoyed or angry.

The deaths that were saddest for me I had a mixture of loss and feelings that I wished I had done more for the person, or spent more time with the person. The guilt and regrets could not be made better with being told they are at peace now, or that they are in a better place. Some people did help me by sharing their own stories. Some people see that as the other person making it about them, but I felt as though they empathized and it helped me.

Mostly, I just keep in mind people have good intentions, it’s hard to know what to say. I’m sure I’ve said things to people in difficult times that might have been the wrong thing to say. Just as I would want people to know my intention was to help, I give the same courtesy to those trying to help me.

Jaxk's avatar

I can’t imagine how or why anyone would take offense to words of sympathy or condolences whether or not they conform to your own religious beliefs. Death is difficult for anyone grasp. If someone says something in an effort to express condolences, take it as it was intended. We can haggle over our differences some other time.

Jeruba's avatar

@Jaxk, can you really not see why a parent who has lost an infant would mind being told that God loved her baby so much that he wanted the child back with him? or that the parent should celebrate the accidental death by drug overdose of his 22-year-old because now the young person has graduated from the troubles of earth and is having a joyous reunion with his heavenly father?

kritiper's avatar

I suppose it depends on the source of the grief and who you’re talking to.
So assume the worst, or least possible, logically, and hope for the best, illogically.

Yellowdog's avatar

Even if one has hope in eternity beyond death, those times known in this world are a bittersweet memory and will never be again.

ucme's avatar

It’s all bullshit at the end of the day, same as the service being held in a church when the deceased & the immediate family are not in the least bit religious.
I personally dislike sorry for your loss” the most, so asinine & has become the default cliche.
What is really wrong though is instead of people being genuinely respectful, the first thought is not to offend, if you can’t think what to say then just say that rather than cherry pick meaningless insincere sound bytes.

seawulf575's avatar

I think, as you said, those things are said in compassion and not meant to hurt. And if you don’t believe, they can sound ludicrous. I think from that aspect, the ones offering the sympathy need to be aware of your beliefs. But I do think that it is something that might offer you at least a distraction while your mind adjusts to your loss. And think about it: if you have a loved one die and someone said “well, they’re gone for good. Sucks to be you” it would be considered heartless AND it would focus you on your loss, potentially adding to your depression.

Jaxk's avatar

@Jeruba – Of course there are things that could be said that are insensitive. I wouldn’t expect a comment like “worms need to eat too”. We all handle these things differently and an expression of sympathy should be taken as such. The sentiment is more about how it is received than what was said. What seems to be the issue here is saying something with a religious connotation, if your not religious. I’m sorry but death has a religious connection and it’s not insincere to acknowledge that.

raum's avatar

Death has a religious connection to people who are religious.

Dutchess_III's avatar

It is so, so, so very hard to know what to say to people who have gone through that.

However, I’ve had a couple of acquaintances who lost their adult children to suicide. Each told me that after a year some people were saying it was just time to get over it. I can not fathom anyone saying such a horrible thing.

I can’t imagine, though. Would it bug me, as an atheist, or even if I still believed, for someone to say about one of my children or grandchildren, “She is in a better place now.”? Yes. I think that it would. This place was perfectly fine.

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