Last week, I visited my 81 year old widowed Aunt following the death of her boyfriend, also age 81. She was expectedly quite distressed following his sudden death from heart failure. In spite of having been widowed for over 20 years, and having three children and grandchildren and lots of friends, she felt very alone. She reminded me that even at age 81, she still needed to be held and loved and neither her children nor grandchildren could fill that role in quite the same way.

She was distressed about the way people responded to her following his death. I remembered my own experience as a young widow, at age 31, and the insensitive things people said to me, intending to help subside the pain, yet unaware of their own insensitivity. I suggested that perhaps people didn’t know how to repond to the bereaved, they didn’t know what to say, or what not to say, and maybe we should create a list that might help people as they try to comfort friends and family following the death of someone close. Together we composed the list.

What not to say to someone who is grieving

You have to get on with your life

We put this statement at the very top of the list. When a loved one dies, the survivor does get on with their life from the moment of death. Just surviving is getting on with life. This statement is usually a reflection of the listeners discomfort with grief, and the grief process. When someone close dies, we get on with life from moment to moment. The task is not getting on with life, the task is learning to live with the life they got.

You have to get out and stay busy. What are you waiting for?

My Aunt heard this comment only days following the funeral. This is an example of the rush to health. Grief takes time. A major bruise has just occurred to the body, and like any bruise it takes time and care nursing it back to health. If one breaks a leg, staying off of the leg and going a bit slower makes sense. Most people would tell a friend or family member following a broken leg to slow down and take it easy. A broken leg is visible. Emotional wounds can’t be seen in the same way, and yet they are very much there. While there is a place for staying busy, the time to be s low and take one day at a time is the days immediately following the loss. The body needs time to heal.

Are you going to move?

It really doesn’t help t o have to try to figure out whether or not a person plans on moving immediately following the death. It’s a decision that usually doesn’t have to be made immediately. Staying in the same place, or deciding to change residences shouldn’t occur until the person has some time to think clearly. Death is a source of instability for the bereaved. It’s an unintended upset. The home is a safe haven, a place of stability. It’s not a helpful question becuase it just adds another layer of confusion to a grieving person’s shaken world.

Showing pictures of family members

If you have been a couple and are suddenly uncoupled, listening and watching other couples participate in family activities and events, adds to the lonliness one already feels. People who have experienced a major loss, have increased sensitivity to family activities.

If he had lived, you would have had to take care of him, and it would have been very difficult for you.

This may or may not be an accurate statement, but I know few people who find this helpful to hear following a sudden death. The focus of the comment becomes on hat might have happened, rather than what did happen.

Helpful comments following the death

What can I do to help you get through this?

This comment demonstrates sensitivity to the grieving person’s pain. It shows you care about them and what happens to them. It gives them an opportunity to define what it is they need from you, to get through this trauma. It helps them focus on what they can do to survive.

It’s terrible now, but it will get better.

This comment gives a sense of hope. Hope is what keeps people alive. It keeps people looking forward to a brighter day. The comment empathizes with the current pain, and lets the grieving person know that the desperate feelings one has now, will not last forever, to the same degree of intensity. It really does get better. Time does help heal wounds.

It’s normal to feel the way you do.

A grieving person frequently feels that they are going crazy, because of th intensity of feelings and the depth of them that occurs with the loss. Telling the person the feelings of sadness and confusion and memory loss may all be normal for loss. As a social worker, I thought I had all of the knowlege about coping with loss, and in spite of this knowlege when my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt like I was going crazy, when it was just a normal part of grieving. When I paid the same bills twice in the same month, I was convinced I had gone nuts.

I am here for you.

This lets the grieving person know that you care about them, and what happens to them. There is comfort in letting somebody know that they are not alone.

The gift of listening

The greatest contribution you can give a person grieving is to listen to them. Listening is truly a present for the bereaved. Sometimes not having any words to offer is comforting. Frequently there just aren’t any words. Sometimes the greatest ability you have to show genuine care and concern is to listen. It’s such a simple gift, the gift of listening.

After listening to my Aunt, and compiling the list, I had to wonder how does an 81 year old lady find a boyfriend again? I think the best thing to do is to tell a little white lie about her age, and find a younger man, which brings me to one of the greatest gifts one can give oneself to do the best to keep a sense of humor.

Tammy Stoner is a licensed clinical social worker and developer of a treatment model applying teddy bears called the Teddy Bear Technique? to help process grief and loss. More information can be found about the TeddyBear Technique? at

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