Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

What NOT to Say to a Grieving Family

when bad things happen.jpg

Harold Kushner explains what NOT to say to a grieving family in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” using as an illustration the story of Job (the faithful, righteous, and pious man who loses his livestock, house, servants, and children, and is afflicted with boils all over his body). Having lost his own son, the rabbi knows all too well what helps and what hurts when trying to comfort a friend or relative.

The three friends who came to console Job got terrible scores, and here’s why, according to Kushner:


Because the friends had never been in Job’s position, they could not realize how unhelpful, how offensive it was for them to be judging Job, to be telling him he should not cry and complain so much. Even if they themselves had experienced similar losses, they would still have no right to sit in judgment of Job’s grief. It is hard to know what to say to a person who has been struck by tragedy, but it is easier to know what not to say.

Anything critical of the mourner (‘don’t take it so hard,’ ‘try to hold back your tears, you’re upsetting people’) is wrong. Anything which tries to minimize the mourner’s pain (‘it’s probably for the best,’ ‘it could be a lot worse,’ ‘she’s better off now’) is likely to be misguided and unappreciated. Anything which asks the mourner to disguise or reject his feelings (‘we have no right to question God’ ‘God must love you to have selected you for this burden’) is wrong as well.


Under the impact of his multiple tragedies, Job was trying desperately to hold on to his self-respect, his sense of himself as a good person. The last thing in the world he needed was to be told that what he was doing was wrong. Whether the criticisms were about the way he was grieving or about what he had done to deserve such a fate, their effect was that of rubbing salt into an open wound.

Job needed sympathy more than he needed advice, even good and correct advice. There would be a time and place for that later. He needed compassion, the sense that others felt this pain with him, more than he needed learned theological explanations about God’s ways. He needed psychical comforting, people sharing their strength with him, holding him rather than scolding him.


He needed friends who would permit him to be angry, to cry and to scream, much more than he needed friends who would urge him to be an example of patience and piety to others. He needed people to say, ‘Yes, what happened to you is terrible and makes no sense,’ not people who would say, ‘Cheer up, Job, it’s not all that bad.’ And that was where he friends let him down.

The phrase ‘Job’s comforters’ has come into the language to describe people who mean to help, but who are more concerned with their own needs or feelings than they are with those of the other person, and so end up only making things worse.

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  • http://Goingoutonalimbhere... Lena

    The ‘theme’ of lately seems to be “what to say” “what not to say”…maybe we just need to be ourselves. As foolish as some words may sound at times of need, care, comfort; maybe in the attempt they still may indirectly ‘serve a purpose.’ If it makes the mourner or depressant…’laugh with disbelief’ ‘get angry with offensiveness’ ‘hurt,confused, amazed, surprised…’ the receiving individually is required to FEEL something.

    If everyone coming to the individual is saying “ALL THE RIGHT THINGS” pehaps that would leave the person to feel a collective ‘false sense of caring?’

    There is something therapeutic in depression, loss, illness, etc. that allows us to feel emotions of varied types even if brought on by someones unintentional attempt to care ‘with the wrong words.’ If you are meant to be angry; maybe even NEED TO BE ANGRY I do not think anything one says right or wrong will matter; the anger will find its way to the top; besides I am fearful that one day there will be books that are titled “what not to say when you lose a love one” “what not to say when you are depressed.” If this is the case stamp my forehead FAILURE now.


  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JenB

    I find the what to say/what not to say posts to be very useful and have sent them to people who are “outside” of my world and wind up saying hurtful things, such as those listed above.

    The comments given here are, indeed, painful to hear. If you simply say to someone “I’m here for you,” “let me know if you want to talk,” “I’m here for you when you’re ready,” “everyone mourns in different ways/nobody can tell you how to mourn or how long it should take,” or if they are not in your close circle of friends, you can offer your home as a “hiding place” because it’s unlikely someone to look for them at your home. You can offer them a quiet room, letting them know that they can hide away there or talk if they want.

    Remember that mourning/loss isn’t necessary through death. You mourn the loss of your health, the loss of your a dream, the loss of the ability to conceive naturally and carry a child to live birth (infertility), when your parents sell the home you spent your childhood in, the loss of a relationship, losing your therapist, if your house is burned down… the list goes on and on.

    Thank you, Terese!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Skylark

    Usually there are no words that will take away grief over loss, only the tincture of time will help one to heal…That plus whatever a mourner can use to heal from his/her faith. If one is a member of that same faith, to offer its wisdom at this time in whatever words come, is not a useless gesture if it is sincere. Whoever said here that the offer of your time, your resources, and your loving presence is coming from the right heart…just be there so one does not feel alone, be the person to lean upon, be the person who listens, is the biggest help. Letting the mourner know and feel your support is about all one can do…and being consistent. Be patient knowing that the healing takes time…so give of your time. Be there!!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment gioia

    Many years ago, a person thought to be a friend suffered the loss of a pet. She grieved for over two years, and I listened, offered support and agreed that it was, for her, like losing a child. A few years later, my father died after an 8 year illness through which I was his primary care-giver. A few weeks later, I shared with her the first time I found myself in a situation where I would normally have been doing something for my dad and was shocked to find there was “nothing to do”. Her response: “Are you going to get upset every time something reminds you of your father? Come on — you are free to do what ever you want, now. Start living, for pete’s sake!”

    Another “friend” asked me, just before a meeting (about three weeks after my dad’s death)to not mention my loss at all: it would upset another person in the group whose parents died several years ago.

    There definitely ARE things that should not be said to someone grieving. I fear, however, the people who most need to know that are the very ones who would not be reading this anyway.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Christie dunn

    I’m a novice volunteer in hospice so your advice was heaven sent. I do pet therapy with mostly dementia or alzheimers patients. But our hospice clients require dr. Orders for pet therapy, and so are dog people as I am.
    Although their life is difficult when I come on the scene it is their life in the cycle of life that as hospice we are to be comforting and meaningful.

    as a psych rn doing home visits I had a cadre of depressed elderly. Unfortunately, when the family ignors their elders it is horrid and they feel useless. One thing that was helpful was doing a life review. It’s easy if you have photo albums that go way back. Reviewing ones life and pointing out the life lessons, the strength of character,
    The depth of love or resilience it took to overcome obstacles—-these are the achievements that need celebrating in the final stages of life.

    did. I get off tract, what the heck, it is close to death, it’s next door neighbor, and we need to know what to say there, too

  • Deanna

    Worst comment ever made (in My opinion) to a man whose wife just died, “You can find someone else.”
    Saying nothing, just being there is always better than saying the wrong thing. Excellent post. Thanks

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Joyce

    Basically, anything you say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one is going to be the wrong thing. I lost my son almost 13 years ago, very suddenly, when he was 24. Trust me when i say that there is NOTHING you can say, NOTHING, that can help. The only thing you can say is, “I’m sorry,” and leave it at that. Be there. Listen if the grieving person wants to talk, or just be there is she/he doesn’t want to talk. Just be there. But shut up, ok?

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