CW: This article contains a discussion of death.
When my father died two weeks before I started my senior year of high school, I was fortunate enough to have many friends to surround me in a time of intense grief and distress. Fortunately, I can say that at the darkest time in my then 17-year life, I was absolutely enveloped by love and support. However, sometimes what my friends were saying just didn’t sit well with me. As much as they were trying to comfort me, what they were saying fell flat and I had a really hard time reconciling their support with the discomfort that I felt. Eventually, I realized that the disconnect was due to a lack of real understanding—losing a parent is something that drastically changes your understanding of the world to a point that is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced this kind of loss. Death is such a taboo in our culture, so when it comes around, people aren’t equipped to deal with it gracefully. My friends were responding the only way they knew how and it’s something for which I’m so grateful. Therefore, the purpose of this article is not to criticize those who lovingly stand by friends but instead to give a list of phrases that aren’t as comforting as they seem and provide some alternatives to them.
Don’t say: “I’m sorry.”
This is a big one and very socially acceptable to say to someone who is grieving a loss, but honestly, to your friend, it can sound insincere and unoriginal. To apologize for something implies that you have caused the distress, which I sincerely hope is not the case when it comes to a friend’s parent’s death. You didn’t kill their parent, so don’t apologize for it.
Instead, say: “My heart hurts for you.”
While empathy in this situation is difficult, an expression of sympathy that expresses how saddened you are by the news can be comforting. You have every right to be sad about their loss and saying that you hurt for them lets them know you’re there, but also that you understand, at least on some level, the depth to which they are hurting. Your grief is going to be different from theirs, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide it from them.
Don’t say: “They loved you.”
I’m going to be blunt about this one, but honestly, your friend doesn’t need to be reminded that their parent loved them—they already know that and they don’t need you telling them. The fact that they loved your friend didn’t change the fact that they still died and I can guarantee that reminding your friend of the love that they can no longer experience is not at all comforting, no matter how kind and considerate you are trying to be.
Instead, say: “You made them proud.”
In your friend’s darkest time, reminding them that they have worth and will do things worthy of a parent’s praise can be a really comforting thing. There are days where your friend won’t have any desire to do anything, let alone get out of bed, and a gentle reminder like this can be really motivating.
Don’t say: “I remember when my grandma died…”
Every loss is different, but I want to point out that losing a grandparent is in no way comparable to losing a parent at a young age, the exception being a grandparent that raised you. I’m in no way trying to minimize the pain of losing a grandparent, but I firmly believe that losing a parent is more painful and more debilitating in most cases. The hurt is different and the difference is hard to explain. You may think you’re being helpful when you relay your message of how you overcame your grief, but your friend may see it as a minimization of their loss. This time with your friend is not about you and your loss, it’s about them and their loss, so please treat it as such.
Instead, say: “How are you?”
Asking your friend how they are offers the possibility of a conversation about how they feel and what they think and may open channels for you to give advice if they ask for it. Listen to your friend, be respectful, and be prepared to hear something other than “I’m doing well”. Sometimes all your friend will want is to talk to someone outside of their immediate family—it will give them some distance from overbearing relatives and a third party with which to talk. If your friend asks you for advice, offer it, but don’t shove it down their throat. Sometimes, they won’t even know what they want, so be prepared to just listen, hug, sit in silence, or grab tissues for tears.
Don’t say: “They’re in a better place, now.”
Whatever your religious background, you’ve probably heard this phrase before. And while you may genuinely believe this about your friend’s parent, it can sting big time for your friend. Being in a “better place” is not here with their family, it’s not at soccer games and family game nights, it’s not in front of the television yelling about the Yankees, and it’s not kissing their children goodnight, so be cognizant of how this sounds to a friend who is coming to terms with never seeing their parent again.
Instead, say: “Let’s go get ice cream.”
Sometimes, distractions are absolutely necessary for your friend. Offer to take them out to ice cream or lunch and talk about other things. Or don’t talk at all. Your friend may have a lot of things to say about absolutely nothing or they may have nothing to say, but want to be with someone. Either way, being available to go and distract them from the chaos that is going on at their house is a really valuable thing. This doesn’t, however, mean that you should never talk about it with your friend.
Don’t say: “Be strong.”
Just, no. This statement, whether it’s “be strong for yourself” or “be strong for your siblings/mom/dad/etc.” is one of the most naive things you can say. Telling them to be strong after the death of a parent is code for telling them that you don’t want to see the breakdowns and the sheer, unmediated emotions that come with the grief. It’s more selfish than it is comforting.
Instead, say: “Acknowledge how you feel.”
Your friend might be inconsolable or they might be numb with shock. Either way, encouraging them to allow themselves to feel what they feel can be both comforting and sympathetic. Letting your friend know that you don’t expect them to always have it pulled together can let them be more open and authentic with you about their loss.
Don’t say: “Time heals everything.”
This is just not true. No one heals after the death of the parent. The pain becomes more manageable, but it never goes away, so telling your friend that they’ll eventually “get over” their parent’s death can seem brutal to them. Besides the obvious dismissal of how deeply they’ve been hurt, that statement makes it seem like you’re not interested in being around someone who gets sad months later.
Instead, say: “I don’t understand, but I want to be there for you.”
Opening yourself up and admitting your shortcomings as a friend can be one of the most comforting things to someone that’s grieving. They feel absolutely lost and lonely, and while you can never give them their parent back, you can give them someone to talk to and be with when they need it. Sometimes just sitting with your friend can be the best thing for them. Just be honest about what you know and don’t know about their situation and be a good friend.
As someone who has lost a parent, I can tell you how difficult it is to go through that experience at a young age. I hope that my advice is helpful for those of you who want to remind their friends of how loved they are in this time of need. Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that you need to be there for your friend and support them. Trust me, it means more than you know.
Image credits: Short Term 12, Sarah Lloyd