A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

10 Things You Should Never Say to a Widow

It’s easy to blurt out the wrong thing when trying to comfort a mourner. Whatever you do, avoid these awkward, even hurtful phrases.

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Don’t say: “Everything happens for a reason”

This phrase won’t help someone who’s lost his or her life partner feel any better. “Among the most annoying of platitudes are the ones that suggest you needed out-of-order death to learn something,” according to Megan Devine, grief advocate and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK, on huffingtonpost.com. Suggesting that the spouse’s death was part of some preordained plan implies that the widow shouldn’t be devastated by it, as if the loss were a call to self-improvement. Yikes! It might be more helpful to read up on these 22 things a funeral director won’t tell you.

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Don’t say: “He’s in a better place”

“This phrase makes assumptions—about life, death, and the widow’s viewpoint,” Kathleen Rehl, author of Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows, wrote on blueleaf.com. It presumes spiritual views that the bereaved may not share. “The place she wants him to be is with her no matter how much pain he was in,” according to Bobbi Emel, a psychotherapist focusing on resilience, writing for lifehack.org. It imposes the idea that the widow should feel her spouse’s death was a blessing.

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Don’t say: “It could be worse”

Loss can’t be measured on a scale, so the idea that the couple could have had fewer years together or the deceased could have suffered more is not helpful. “This line tends to invalidate your grief and makes you feel selfish or ungrateful for grieving,” Deborah Murphy, a widow and owner of Grieving Angry Widow blog, wrote on netdoctor.com. Having suffered such a life-changing loss, the bereaved shouldn’t be made to feel her grief is excessive.

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Don’t say: “I know what you’re going through”

Every person, marriage, and experience with death is unique, and you can’t ever hope to understand what a widow is feeling just because you got divorced or lost a parent or a pet. “Don’t use comparisons of your pain and your experience to the person who is grieving,” according to Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say on legacy.com.

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Don’t say: “You’ll feel better in time”

“I’ve learned from widows that grief doesn’t have a finish line,” according to Kristin Meekhof, social worker and author of A Widow’s Guide to Healing, on Psychology Today. “The husband’s death will always be a part of her.” The pain may change over time but it may not diminish. “It’s not a broken leg; it won’t simply go away after enough time has passed,” writes Brownlee. As hard as it is to watch a friend grieve, this phrase comforts the speaker, not the widow. This choir sings to people who are passing away and it’s just beautiful.

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Don’t say: “You’ll find someone else”

Telling your widowed friend she’ll find someone else trivializes her loss. People are not replaceable. “The pain of losing a spouse is immeasurable, and the idea of sharing that intimacy with a new person can be upsetting,” Rehl writes. Your widowed friends will determine for themselves if and when they’re ready to date again.

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Don’t say: “It’s time to pull yourself together”

Mourning periods are different for each person and there’s no set limit on grieving. “Everyone grieves differently and it may take longer than you’d expect,” according to Caroline Doughty, author of If There’s Anything I Can Do … How to Help Someone Who Has Been Bereaved, on widowedandyoung.org. Being told that they’re not recovering quickly enough only makes mourners feel worse, saddened by their loss and ashamed of their grief. Consider these surprising exercises to hone your empathy skills.

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Don’t say: “You should clean out his stuff”

“Recovery from grief involves healing a broken heart, not a broken brain,” Allison James, a certified grief recovery specialist, wrote on griefrecoverymethod.com. While mourners may know these logistical things on some level, they’re not necessarily emotionally ready to process them. Don’t be a “back seat griever,” and make pronouncements about what’s best for the mourner. If you’re being judgmental without realizing, follow these tips to be less judgmental.

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Don’t say: “You’re not alone”

In so many ways a widow is indeed alone. “There can be a room full of family and close friends and yet not one person is experiencing exactly what she is feeling at that moment,” writes Meekhof. The loss of the spouse leaves a hole in the heart that no one else can fill.

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Don’t say: “Call if you need anything”

“Your intention sounds caring,” Rehl writes, “but this puts the burden on her to reach out to you.” She also might feel uncomfortable asking for assistance. “Your friend won’t be able to ask for help unless you offer something more concrete,” according to Doughty, like dinner Thursday or gardening help Saturday. Regardless of what you say to a widow, it’s important to acknowledge her loss. Don’t just avoid the topic. Relay a good memory of the deceased. Ask if she wants to talk. Your widowed friend wants very much to hear from you, but with an offer to listen with an open mind. If you do want to say something, check out these 10 things you should say to someone who is grieving.