8 Things Not to Say to Someone Whose Partner Has Died
We all want to say the right thing when someone close to us loses a spouse or partner. But sometimes, despite our best intentions, what we think is helpful can actually prove the opposite.
What Not to Say to Someone Whose Partner Has Died
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband to a sudden heart attack in 2015, she soon realized the cliche condolences she had said in the past to grieving people she knew, were “all wrong.”
So what is appropriate and what is not when speaking to someone who’s lost a spouse? We spoke with widows and widowers who shared the least helpful — and the most helpful — things said to them after their spouse died.
“How Are You?”
It’s an innocuous question used in everyday greetings, but to someone who is grieving a loss, “How are you?” can be an unbearable burden to answer. Do you give the rote answer, “Fine, thank you?” Or is this an invitation for you to be honest and share with them your truth?
“A lot of people come up and say, ‘How are you?’ — and what are you supposed to say? ‘I didn’t sleep for 14 hours. I drink too much. I’m not doing great, actually,'” says Abigail Carter, who lost her husband Arron Dack in the bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
A better phrase to use with someone who is grieving is, “How are you today,” writes Sandberg in her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.” It acknowledges their loss, while inviting them to share their true feelings.
“Let Me Know If There’s Anything I Can Do For You”
This is a common condolence cliche that’s actually the opposite of helpful because, as Sandberg points out in her book, what grieving people want or need can feel like an imposition.
What they really want can be impossible, such as “Can you invent a time machine so my kids and I can go back and say goodbye to Dave?” Sandberg writes in her book.
Instead of asking, just do. The widows and widowers we spoke with all talk fondly of people who showed up with food, others who mowed their lawn, still others who invited them out for events and meals.
“I’m so grateful to the friends who have had me to dinner repeatedly… and those who invited me immediately to lunch and just let me cry or talk or whatever it was,” said Shannon Griscom, who lost her husband Andy to cancer in 2015.
“He’s in a Better Place”
Condolences with religious overtones can be tricky. Unless you know for certain that your friend believes the same as you do, it’s best to leave God out of your comments.
“I definitely got some of this,” says Sara Snedeker, who was widowed at age 28 when her husband Gabe died of a heart attack. Snedeker, who considers herself spiritual, but not religious, found it unhelpful when people used her husband’s death to lure her back to the church.
“It made me less inclined to talk with them about my experience. It closed more doors than opened doors,” Snedeker says.
Whether you’re leaving your condolences on Facebook or in person, avoid these common religious phrases
- “God needed another angel”
- “There’s a reason for everything”
- “He’s with God now”
- “She’s an angel watching over you”
- “She’s at peace now”
What you can say instead: “My deepest condolences.” Or “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
“I Know How You Feel”
“I know how you feel,” is one of those common phrases well-intentioned people say to others who have recently lost a loved one. But the widows and widowers we spoke with prefer it unspoken. Because even if you have the shared experience of losing someone, you can’t assume your experience is universal.
“The process of grieving is as unique as every personality that exists,” says Snedeker.
So what to say instead? “I can only imagine how you are feeling right now.” Or, “I don’t know how you feel, but I know how I felt when I lost my husband, and I want you to know I am here for you if you want to talk.”
“It Was Her Time”
This is one of those condolence cliches well-intentioned people say that can backfire on them.
The widows and widowers we talked to agreed this is a no-no and such a statement can seem like a slap in the face for a grieving person to hear.
To the person who is left behind, no time is the right time for their best friend to die.
“He Had a Long Life”
Death, of course, is inevitable, so some well-intentioned people may judge a death late in life to be somewhat of an achievement. These are the sorts of thoughts to be kept to oneself, our widows and widowers report.
Griscom recalls a friend who asked her how old her husband was when he died. When she told him, “86,” her friend replied, “Well, he had a pretty good run.”
That was not comforting to Griscom, because, as she points out, “It’s never enough time for the person who’s left. I didn’t want to hear that.”
Avoid these similar condolence cliches:
- “You have your memories.” As Griscom points out, “That’s not what I want. I want the person.”
- “At least he lived a long life, unlike my husband.”
What to say instead: Ask the person to share a story of their loved one.
“You’re So Strong, I Don’t Know How You Do It”
“I don’t want to hear, ‘you are so strong,’ because I’m just holding it together. It’s sort of like ‘well then you can take this and we don’t have to worry about you,'” says Griscom.
Carter, who had two young children when she was widowed, agrees, “People would say that to me and I was like, ‘Well I have kids jumping on me at 6 a.m. I don’t have a choice.'”
Better: “I know you are holding yourself together, but I know how awful it must be inside.”
“You’ll Find Someone Again”
Sometimes, we think we are comforting someone by telling them they’ll find love again, but it is definitely not something to say in the days or weeks after someone’s partner has passed.
Snedeker, for example, said she still felt married for quite some time after her husband’s death. As for Carter, her first thought when people said she’d find someone someday was, “But I don’t want to find someone. I want my old one back.”
It may take a widow or widower a year or more to even consider dating. Some never do. To make an assumption that someone is not whole unless they are partnered up can be insensitive.
Do you have other condolences that you’d like added to this list? What would you like others to know about what to say or what not to say during this time? We’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments below.
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