What Not To Say To A Bereaved Family

14/08/2014 16:51 | Updated 22 May 2015

What not to say to a bereaved family

As a widowed mum, I am fiercely protective of my children's feelings and taking baby steps to control my own emotions stirred up by our loss.

Since my husband Neil died last year, six weeks after turning 44, I have learned a lot. Something I didn't expect to discover was how people's reactions could add to our pain. The thing is, we are so very angry at losing our beloved Neil and nothing anyone says is going to change that.

Sometimes the things people say can break my heart, even though I know they are well-meant. They want to soothe our sadness, offer empathy and support and can be so very kind.

But however compassionate the thoughts behind the comments, they don't resolve our anger. Not one little bit.

In a conversation where my daughters Melissa and Emily are present, we look to each other after someone has offered a choice comment, incredulous that they could be so insensitive.

Because Neil died at an age where it wasn't to be expected, I think this has compounded the problem, we're not of a generation that is supposed to know about these things...yet.

The bereavement care charity Cruse says it's hard for people to know what to say.

"Often, it's because they are worried that their words will seem inadequate, or will cause further distress. Many people worry that if they say the wrong thing, they will cause more pain to the bereaved person, and so it's therefore better to say nothing at all. Some people feel they will not know how to cope if the bereaved person cries or shows their feelings," says Amber Dowell, the charity's service manager for helplines and online development.

"Others don't want to be reminded of painful experiences of their own. Whatever the reason, the result is that many people will avoid someone who is grieving, or will act as if nothing has happened. This can be upsetting and isolating for the person who is mourning the death of someone they loved," she adds.

Sometimes I have to admit people can't win – if they say too little, say nothing, or even (and I have had this happen) walk in another direction to avoid me, I feel dejected. If they say too much: "Linda, I don't know what to say, you are living everyone's worst nightmare' then I'm in bits.

I get up every day now and tell myself to be positive, so when I'm confronted by those exact words in a post office queue of all places, I'm left flailing to understand why someone should bring me down with such a mighty bump.


I must stress I'm not angry with people for saying them – as they are seeking to comfort me – but they have the opposite effect. Platitudes pick at my grief like a scab.


Here, (In no particular order, as they say on X Factor) are the three things people say that sting the most.

'He's in a better place'

I've lost count of the times people with a religious faith have said this to me. On the outside I smile weakly and say nothing.


Inside I am seething that anyone could consider there's any better place for a dad than splashing along with his kids in a swimming pool or being there to hold their hand and watch them grow.


'You have such precious memories'

This comes up a lot and maybe in time I will begin to accept this more. For now, it makes me inwardly scream. Facing the reality that all I have left of my gorgeous husband is memories is absolutely the hardest thing to bear.

'It's what he would have wanted'

My daughters hear this a lot – mainly related to how they are getting on at school. They know what their dad wanted thanks very much and it isn't well-meaning but presumptuous observers assuming they can advise on something so personal to our family.

Mum of two, Lisa, 42, has a similar take.

Her partner Matt died in October 2006, having just turned 40. He had pancreatic cancer and was only diagnosed the day before. She had 24 hours to come to terms with the fact that the man she had loved with all my heart since she was 18 was going to die.

"I was 35 at the time and most of our friends were around the same age. I suppose it was the first death we all had to cope with, other than losing grandparents, and so few of them knew what to say.

I had lots of "Well, at least you had him for 17 years," a couple "He's in a better place now," and even one "I know how it feels, because I lost my rabbit recently".

"It's difficult for us too," I remember one saying. Really? As difficult as being widowed in your mid-30s with a three-year-old toddler and an 11-month-old baby?

"Having said that, I was enormously grateful to those who were there for me – in particular one who turned up at my house the morning Matt died and simply said "I have no idea what to say, but I am here for you." And she was. And another who rang every night at 7.30pm on the dot just let me talk, scream, swear and wail.

"It's nearly seven years now since Matt died and I have learnt to survive with a handful of wonderful people who I know I can rely on. There is such truth that you really do discover who your friends are in a crisis and that you don't need hundreds of them hanging around to get you through the darkest of times.

"My advice to anyone who knows someone who has been recently bereaved is to be their rock. Don't simply say "If there's anything I can do let me know" because they really don't know what they need. Instead, figure it out for them – if they're looking drained, cook them a healthy meal; if they want an afternoon nap, then take their kids to the park; if they need to talk, listen; if they need a shoulder to cry on, give them the biggest hug you can manage; and when it comes to important dates, be there for them.

"Please don't do what a friend of mine did and not get in touch on the first anniversary. When I asked why she hadn't phoned, emailed or even texted she said, without any hint of irony, "I didn't want to remind you in case you were trying to forget."

Cruse offers the following advice for people trying to find the right words.

Everyone's grief is different, so it's difficult to give a definitive answer on what are the right or wrong things to say. The best principle is to be guided by the person who has been bereaved.

Don't make assumptions. Some of the most hurtful comments can be those which make assumptions about how the bereaved is feeling. Assuming, for example, that an elderly and unwell parent will not be mourned, because 'it was their time', can be deeply upsetting for someone who is grieving.

It's important to remember that there is no timetable for grief, and that everyone grieves differently. Comments that suggest the bereaved person is grieving 'incorrectly', whether that's about 'pulling themselves together' or 'showing more respect' can be upsetting and unhelpful, and drawing parallels from one person's experience to another ('when I lost my husband, I was back to work in a month') can add unnecessary pressure at what is already an exhausting and emotional time.

Find more help here:


Suggest a correction