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'I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY'
What not to say to someone who's grieving.

Date published: 11/29/2009

BY EDIE GROSS

Studies done in the 1980s identified 141 comments that are so common that a grieving person is likely to hear them all within 72 hours of losing a loved one, said John James and Russell Friedman, co-authors of "The Grief Recovery Handbook."

Many of those comments start with a stated or implied "Don't feel bad " followed by any number of equally unhelpful statements:

She's in a better place.

He's not in pain anymore.

God won't give you more than you can handle.

"The griever has had an emotional experience and they're surrounded by a population much more comfortable with intellect," said James. "The public will say things that are intellectually accurate but emotionally useless."

Other unhelpful comments:

Be strong. "We always say, 'You can be strong or you can be human. Pick one,'" said Friedman.

You've got to keep busy. "As if keeping busy would heal your heart," Friedman said.

Time heals all wounds. "Time doesn't fix unfinished business," said Friedman. "If you have a flat tire, a year later you still have a flat tire if you don't fix it."

I know how you feel. "Grieving people intuitively know you don't," Friedman said.

Better choices are "I heard what happened and I don't know what to say" or "I can't imagine what it's been like for you," with an upward inflection so it's stated like a question. Both statements are more honest and open-ended, inviting the griever to express their feelings if they want to.