When was the last time someone tried to “fix” you by offering unsolicited advice?
- Was it when you were pregnant? Or a new parent?
- When you lost a job? Or were nervous about a new position?
- When you received a new diagnosis? Or a loved one did?
- When your romantic relationship ended? Or when you confided your insecurities?
- Or maybe when you shared a loss and spoke about your grief?
Have you got an example in your head?
Now, how did it feel to be the recipient of this well-intentioned but unhelpful advice?
Were you angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad or anxious?
Did it leave you feeling judged, criticized, ashamed or not good enough?
Whatever moment came to mind and whatever you felt in that moment I’m betting the advice that tried to “fix” you didn’t help.
That’s because this kind of advice offers short-term, band-aid “solutions” that don’t honour your unique experience and miss the real issues. They often push the griever into silence and isolation and farther away from the healing that only happens when we honour the pain.
So why do we do this?
Why do we rush to share advice before it’s asked for? Why do we repeat empty cliches even when we KNOW they’re not helpful? Because I know we’ve all been on the receiving end AND I know we’ve all offered advice before it was asked for.
I have a few theories:
- We don’t know what to say so we blurt out the first thing that comes to mind because silence feels damn awkward.
- We stop listening and rush to show we “get” what they’re going through.
- We haven’t healed our own grief or pain so we don’t know how to hold space for someone else because their grief reminds us too much of our own pain.
- We’ve also been taught to use our brain to solve problems, but when your heart is broken, your brain can’t ‘fix’ it.
What NOT to say to someone who’s grieving…
I know we’ve all heard some variation of these statements below but let’s talk about why this advice can do more harm than good. After I share what NOT to say, I’ll give you a few ideas on how to show up with empathy so the griever feels seen and heard rather than judged or ignored.
1 – I know what you’re going through…
This is often a well-intentioned attempt at compassion. The listener is trying to let the griever know that they’re not alone and they “get” it. But it doesn’t honour the griever’s unique experience which is always going to be different from the listener’s. The conversation becomes about the listener and leaves the griever feeling unheard and likely frustrated. Remember that what works for us might not work for someone else.
2 – You think that’s bad?…
Usually, this rhetorical question is followed by an account of someone else they know who obviously has it MUCH WORSE THAN YOU. It’s one-upmanship (or is it one-downmanship?) of emotional trauma. It creates a disconnect and implies that the griever should be grateful that this is all that happened to them.
When the listener responds by comparing losses the griever is left feeling like they don’t matter. It minimizes the griever’s experience. And by changing the subject the listener signals they clearly don’t want to talk about it. If you want to create a connection start by acknowledging their pain or validating their feelings.
3 – Why are you telling me this? Can’t you see it upsets me?
When the listener says things like this they’re making it clear the griever (and their uncomfortable emotions) aren’t welcome. It also implies that the griever is somehow responsible for or to blame for the listener’s emotional reaction. This is NOT true. We are always responsible for regulating our own emotions.
4 – Snap out of it. Pull yourself together. Get over it already. It can’t be that bad. If this is the worst thing to ever happen to you – you’ve got it made!
These statements are all straight-up dismissive and yet I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard them. These tell the griever that they’re overreacting, their feelings aren’t valid or there’s something wrong with them for feeling this way.
It often perpetuates the “be strong” myth or the myth that vulnerability is weakness. It belittles the griever’s emotions and refuses to give them permission to cry, be sad, or be angry.
5 – I’m so worried about you. I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.
This is another attempt at compassion gone wrong. It’s sometimes accompanied by advice to replace what was lost. Or keep busy. When someone shares their grief it isn’t helpful to hear fear, doubt, or despair expressed back. Nor does it help if the listener psychoanalyzes the griever or their situation offering explanations instead of just sitting with them in their pain. The griever needs empathy and encouragement not an explanation that ties everything together with a perceived neat little bow.
6 – If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
Other variations of this include…
- everything will be okay
- just have a little faith
- you’ll see everything happens for a reason
- God never gives us more than we can handle
- when God closes a door, he always opens a window
- stay positive!
- just give it time
- this is an opportunity to learn and grow
- count your blessings or practice gratitude
When someone shares their grief it isn’t the time to preach your spiritual beliefs. If you think there’s something that is truly helpful and comforting – check first. Ask if it’s okay for you to share a spiritual truth that got you through a hard time. And if the griever says no – respect their no.
Okay, so what DOES help Tammy?
1 – LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
And be fully present when you listen. If you start thinking of a time you experienced something similar or a story of someone who experienced something worse (it’s natural, we ALL do this) just brush those thoughts aside and refocus your attention on the person who is grieving.
Listening is the most powerful thing we can do (especially right now when everyone is talking). It helps the griever to know they’re seen and heard, they’re not alone, and their feelings matter. Just be a heart with ears.
2 – OFFER HELP
- Cook some food
- Just sit with them
- Walk the dog
- Babysit the kids
- Give ‘em a hug
- Go for coffee
- Mow the lawn
3 – CHECK-IN
Grief comes with its own timeline. Be patient. Keep showing up. Text, email, put a card in the mail (these ones are good), phone or knock on the front door (but not all at once or you’ll look like a stalker 😉 ) Let your loved one know they’re not alone and you’re in this together.
4 – WORDS YOU CAN USE
Sometimes when someone shares their heartbreak with us we’re left feeling…speechless. And as we stumble to say something (anything) we find ourselves repeating unhelpful cliches even though we know they feel empty.
Try saying this instead…
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
Take a page from Glennon Doyle. “That sounds really hard, and, I know we can do hard things.”
“May your grief move through you with grace.” My friend shared this one with me, she loved that it didn’t tell her how to feel or what to do about it. It simply acknowledged her grief and blessed it.
We all know how it feels when well-intentioned folks give unsolicited advice trying to “fix” us. And we’ve probably all given unhelpful advice too.
But grievers aren’t broken and they don’t need to be “fixed”. Grief and the spectrum of emotions that accompany it are a natural response to any type of loss or change. Instead of trying to use our heads to heal our hearts (which rarely, if ever, works), we need to show up with empathy, open hearts, a willingness to listen deeply and sit with them in their pain. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Maya Angelou quotes…”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
p.s. If you’re struggling with the emotional Coronacoaster we find ourselves on, my new online course can help you to find your ‘calm in the chaos’. Click here if you’d like to learn more!