The holidays are a joyful time for some and can trigger grief for others. Some people spend their first holiday season without a loved one; for others, it could be their tenth. While suffering is often synonymous with death, it can be caused by various life events. Moving, the end of friendships, divorce, life-altering illnesses, and losing a job can cause grief too.
You’ll likely run into family members grieving during the holidays and want to offer kids words or support. It’s easy to throw out blanket and cliche statements to show love, but how helpful are these statements? Some can unintentionally minimize your loved one’s grief or invalidate their pain, even when you mean well.
ESSENCE spoke with a couple of mental health professionals to learn what you should and shouldn’t say to people suffering from a loss. Here are several phrases not to say to loved ones.
‘They’re In A Better Place’
While we all want to believe someone who died is in a better place, telling them that doesn’t always make the grieving person feel better. Saying this to someone grieving from the loss of a loved one can be dismissive about the other person’s beliefs, says Aaliyah Maura, a marriage and family therapist in Houston, Texas.
“You don’t necessarily know someone’s spiritual beliefs or their beliefs about death and the afterlife,” she says. “That could also be a way of projecting your feelings [and] thoughts to the other person.”
“Other reasons not to say this statement are that you don’t know the circumstances before the person dying or how their relationship was before the person passed,” says Maura. Additionally, grieving people deserve the space to feel sad, which is also a part of healthy grieving. These types of statements don’t encourage that.
“It can exacerbate someone’s feelings and make them feel like they’re being selfish for still being disappointed or for being sad or hurt that person’s no longer alive.”
‘They Wouldn’t Want You To Be Sad’
This statement, while well-meaning, can invalidate your loved one’s pain, says Kanita Bourne, a licensed clinical social worker and life coach in Rancho Cucamonga, California. “People often like to brush off the pain of others because it makes them feel uncomfortable because they have not learned how to deal with their emotions,” she says.
Let’s face it, grief and sadness can be uncomfortable for us to process on individual levels, and even more so when it’s someone else’s sadness.
“They don’t necessarily want other people to deal with sad emotions. So they make comments that try to push them in a place of what I will call toxic positivity because it’s just easier than managing or feeling like they have to manage someone sad,” Bourne says. Toxic positivity is the belief that you should always be positive, optimistic, and happy no matter what happens. It can be harmful as it’s not representative of the full range of our emotions as humans, and it can also lead to us suppressing, minimizing, and denying our true feelings.
That said, telling a loved one that the person they lost wouldn’t want them to be sad can unintentionally make their grief about avoiding the awkward feelings that come with sadness vs. giving them space to feel heavy emotions.
Continuing with Bourne’s point about toxic positivity, not only can it assume that we should only feel positive emotions, but also that there is no room for weakness. When you tell someone grieving to “be strong,” you may be telling them, in other words, that it’s not okay to be vulnerable, which can be unfair.
“What people are saying when they’re saying to be strong, people may perceive like it’s not okay show emotion,” says Maura. Suppressing your feelings can affect your loved one, making it difficult to process and communicate their feelings.
You want your loved one to have permission not to be strong while grieving because it creates space for vulnerability, community support, and being held, which is a part of being human.
You may wonder what healthier ways of supporting a grieving loved one look like, but know there isn’t a perfect way. The main goal is to say things that acknowledge their grief, which sometimes could mean saying very little. Here are a few suggestions of more helpful things to say and do.
Ask How They’re Feeling
Instead of telling your loved one how to feel, simply asking how they feel may go a long way. It’s a way of acknowledging their pain instead of avoiding it, says Bourne.
You can ask questions like ‘I know the holidays must be hard for you, how are you coping?’ or ask them how they are. This gives them space to express their grief and be vulnerable if they want to be.
In addition to asking them how they are, you can also offer a hug, which sometimes provides more comfort than anything you can say.
Create Space For Storytelling
Reminiscing on a loved one can be bittersweet, but it is a way to facilitate healthy grieving, says Bourne.
“Storytelling, especially for Black people, is something that historically has been how we pass things down from generation to generation,” she says. “With religion, for whatever reason, that has stopped. So bringing back storytelling, I think, is something healthy.” She says the holidays may be an excellent time to share those stories with a loved one or invite them to tell stories about them with you.
Offer actionable help
“I’m here for you” may suffice for some people, but others may prefer you offer more actionable support. This could look like showing to pick kids up from school, buy groceries, or handle household chores. If you aren’t sure what they need, asking is no harm.
The final tip is to remember that grief doesn’t have a timeline. It can still be difficult to deal with whether they experienced loss a few months ago or years ago. As someone who loves them, you can do nothing to stop or remove the grief, but you can offer meaningful support that reminds them they don’t have to endure the suffering alone.