1. Platitude

A platitude is a remark, especially one with moral content, that has been used too often to be received as interesting or thoughtful. While it can be helpful to say “I’m sorry” when one has done something wrong, many grieving people have shared that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always feel appropriate, and can even imply a guilt that is unneeded, even when the intent is to show sympathy. Other platitudes can be “Good things come to those who wait,” “It was meant to be,” or “Forgive and forget.”

Respond With Empathy Instead

Don’t try to fix a grieving person or give them advice. As much as we would like to believe that our advice would instantly heal or comfort their feelings, the most helpful responses come from the heart, not the head. Communicate that you can hear the pain and sadness they are feeling, without telling them what to do. This can sound like, “I can’t imagine what you are going through… please know that you are not alone…”  “My heart aches thinking about what you are going through… I wish I could take away the pain…” Simply being there, listening, and also reflecting back the feelings you hear them tell you can be enough to help them feel heard, embraced and loved.

2. Quick Fix

The quick fix or replace a loss is a common response in our society because we are usually geared toward problem-solving. These statements could sound like, “You’ll find someone else” or “You’ll get a new job.”

Acknowledge And Validate Instead

Acknowledging and validating is the best way to show love and caring. This can sound like, “Goodness… I can’t imagine what that is like… How are you handling all of that?” (said with genuine care and curiosity).

It can also be comforting to ask about a range of emotions they might be feeling. As we are able to reflect their feelings in a non-judgmental way, they can feel the relief of being ‘heard.’  “Are you feeling devastated, confused, relieved?” “I can hear how deeply hurt you’re feeling,” We can follow-up with “The Optimist”.

2. The Optimist

The optimist is a sister to the quick fix. While optimism is a healthy practice in life, using optimism as a response to grief can leave a person feeling that the depths of their pain were glossed over, unheard or ignored. An example could be trying to make it better by sharing how it could have been worse: “At least you have other children,” “You can get a new dog,” or “Think of all the time you had together…”

Reflect And Validate Instead

When someone says, “I am feeling devastated,” you can say “You’re devastated. That makes sense.” You can also say, “I wish I could make it better but I know I can’t.”

4. Story “Stealing”

Often when a person is trying to be caring and relate to a person experiencing grief, they say, “I know exactly how you feel” and proceed by telling them their own story of loss or painful change.  No two losses are the same. Each person’s feelings are unique. Even if it looks the same from the outside, everyone grieves differently. While the intention of sharing one’s story is to help, comparing the losses can sometimes come across as disrespectful, or even insulting if any measure of the loss is perceived to be different. Just remember… it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Acknowledge Their Uniqueness And Share Common Humanity Instead

This can sound like, “I can’t imagine what you are experiencing…” (pause and let them share). Then, “I recognize that each of our experiences is unique… just know that you are not alone.” By responding in this way, they know they are not isolated in their feelings, and we’ve successfully acknowledged their uniqueness.

As you may have noticed, what all of these phrases have in common is that they fall on the “fixing” end rather than on the “acknowledging” end of the spectrum. They’re aimed at trying to make it better, rather than at trying to understand, to embrace or to listen. To show compassion to someone in pain, it’s important that we’re able to help them feel heard, understood, and validated.

We’ve all at one time or another responded with a platitude, a quick fix, as an optimist, or as a story “stealer”. Be compassionate toward yourself; most of us struggle with finding the “right thing to say.” Remember these four ways to respond and you’ll enable a grieving person to truly feel heard and having them embrace and accept the fact that all feelings are normal and natural.

Here Are A Few More Tips For Responding Compassionately

  • Listen deeply.
  • Be present.
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings and try to recognize their perspective as what is true for them.
  • Validate the person’s experience and let them know they are not alone.
  • Be genuinely curious about what he or she is feeling, judgment aside.
  • Tell the truth about yourself and sincerely feel with them. For example, “I wish I knew what to say . . . I feel so sad you have to go through this. I’m here.”
  • Find the words and body language that feel authentic for you; take a deep breath, nod your head, touch your heart.