Clichés to Avoid When Talking to the Bereaved

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Sasha J. Mudlaff, M.A.

“It was God’s will”
“It’s a blessing”
“God needs him/her more than you do”
Human beings do not have the omniscience to determine the will of God, and most bereaved will not care anyway. Such  statements paint God as a cruel and vicious force that would tear a person away from those who loved him/her without any consideration for the survivor.

“I know just how you feel”
Each person is unique, and every relationship is also one-of-a-kind. We cannot possibly know how someone else feels when a death occurs because that is a relationship we will never experience.

“It has been three weeks since he/she died. aren’t you over it yet?”
There is no way to put a time limit on grief. It is generally agreed that the grieving process takes six months to two years, although some may grieve for longer or shorter periods of time.

“Be grateful you still have other children”
A grieving parent will always miss the child who died, even though there are other children present. It does not take away from the love given to the living children; it simply reflects the loss of that particular relationship.

“God picks the most beautiful flowers first”
This implies that those of us who are still living, including the bereaved, are not beautiful in the eyes of God. It also shows, again, that God is uncaring about the pain inflicted on the survivors.

“We are never given more than we can handle”
The family and friends of someone who completed suicide would argue this statement. Sometimes, the world and all its attendant problems are too much to bear. Inability to cope is not necessarily related to a lack of faith, strength, or other intangible. The bereaved are in real pain, and they need reassurance and support, not covert criticism of their coping skills.

Dini Korul (about 52-54 years old), a victim of superstition-driven violence. In May 2011 her son Bobby Korul died at the age of 22 from a stomach infection. After Bobby’s funeral five his friends came to Dini’s house, accusing her of being a sorcerer, who had caused the death of her son. They took her out and dragged through the village to a pigsty, where they set a fire and made red-hot iron bars. Cutting her body with bush knives and burning with hot iron bars they forced her to admit that she was a witch. After numerous refusals they burned her vagina with the red-hot iron and were about to kill her, when women from another village called for help. Dini survived and spent over 10 month in the Kundiawa hospital. Her daughter paid for her treatment more than 900 kina (about 450 USD) and never received any help from the local authorities. Being expelled from the community forever, Dini had nowhere to go but to her village, where she still lives now. She almost does not leave the house during the daylight, living with a fear that she could be exposed to the brutal "punishment" again. Wormai village, Simbu Province.

“Time will heal”
Moldy oldie! To the bereaved, each day can seem
like an eternity. Besides, how do you know that “time
will heal” them? Time alone doesn’t heal, but what
one does with their time can help the healing process.
Alternative – “You must feel as if this pain will never
end…”

“Life goes on”
“Life has dealt you a terrible blow. I know it will be
hard for you in the months to come to live with this
pain.”

“You must be strong for your….”
“You’re the (wo)man of the house now”
“You’re being so strong/brave”
These types of “Be Strong” statements can be
interpreted to say “Don’t cry in front of me!” Children
and teens can take statements like these literally,
which may cause them to repress their grief feelings.
Alternatives – “Make sure you’re taking care of you…I
can’t imagine how hard this must be”

“You’ve got to get a hold of yourself”
To onlookers, some grief behavior seems very
strange, but we must remember that each person is
different and will handle grief in their own way. What
works for one may not work for another. Support their
need to cope with their grief, and don’t be judgmental
about how they choose to do it.

“You’re holding up so well”
Avoid statements that encourage keeping feelings
inside — this takes more energy than expressing one’s
feelings. “Let your feelings out”, “Don’t feel you have
to be strong for/in front of me,” are possible
alternatives.

“You’re not your old self”
Remember that one is never the same after
experiencing the death of a loved one.

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“I just don’t understand your behavior”
Alternative – “I know you are doing the best you can under the
circumstances.”

“You should be over this by now”
The time it takes for one to work through his or her grief is highly individual.
There is no set time in which one should “get over it.”
Alternative – “I know it will take a long time for you to
feel better, and I want to help you as much as I can.
Teach me how.”

“No sense in dwelling in the past.”
It is important for a bereaved person to nurture
memories of the loved one. We cope with loss by
allowing the memories to live on.

“If I were you, I would do it this way…”
“I cannot tell you what to do because I am not you,
and I don’t know exactly what you’re going through.”
“I’ve had a similar experience, so I have an idea of
what you must feel. What I learned/helped me is….”

“It’s a blessing”
“God needs him/her more than you do”
“It was God’s will”
These types of statements, although good in
intention, do not help the one who’s grieving to feel
any better. In fact, it may prompt the person to feel
guilty about their grief feelings.

“If there is anything I can do, just call me.”
The grieving person probably will not call you. You
must take the initiative and be specific so that they
know your offer is genuine and not cliché!

Do not assume that the grieving person knows how you feel. The worst thing you can do is to do or say nothing in acknowledgement of their loss. It is also true that there are no perfect words! Suggestion: – “I don’t know how to tell you how awful I feel/sorry I am about your loss.” It is okay to talk about the person who died. In fact, the grieving person will probably really appreciate that you brought it up. We often assume we will upset the grieving person if we bring up their loved one’s name, so we wait for them to say something first. However, not bringing it up often causes the grieving person to feel as if no one cares.