I’m A Hospital Chaplain — 8 Things I Avoid Saying To A Grieving Person

Grief is a painful and complicated experience.

Things to Avoid Saying To A Grieving Person Milan Radulovic's Images, Montes-Bradley | Canva

So, someone you know just experienced a loss. You want to be supportive. The question I hear over and over again is, “What do I say?” To start with, let me emphasize that everyone processes loss differently. What is comforting for one person may not work for another. That being said, as a hospital chaplain I’ve been in these situations many times and have learned (often the hard way) that some responses work better than others.  Let’s start with advice on what not to say. Then I’ll offer some better alternatives.


Here are 8 things to avoid saying to a grieving person:

1. Don’t say, 'Everything will be OK'

Most of the items on this list are well-intentioned attempts to offer comfort, and this is a great example. When we want to offer reassurance nothing falls out of people’s mouths more naturally than “it’s OK” or “everything will be OK” (often accompanied by a pat on the back). 

It may seem counterintuitive, but this can be more upsetting to people following a tragedy. Put yourself in the place of the grieving person. Let’s say you’ve just lost your husband, for instance. Things are not OK.  In fact, in that moment, you may very well feel that things will never be OK — not ever again. So, hearing “it’s OK” only creates a disconnect, and even worse, may be perceived as trying to diminish the loss. All of that leaves the griever saying to themselves, “Well, clearly this person doesn’t get it.”


Also, let’s be honest — you don’t know that everything will be OK. Saying otherwise in not truthful. Dishonesty is never a great strategy.

RELATED: 15 Healthy Ways To Mourn When Someone You Love Is Suddenly Gone

2. Don’t say, 'I know how you feel'

You don’t. You may have been through difficult things in the past, and some details may even be similar. You may relate to them and empathize with what they’re going through. But no two people experience loss in the same way. Even people in the same family, responding to the same loss, can experience it in vastly different ways.

To assume you know exactly what the other person is feeling only projects your experience onto them, denying them their own unique emotional response. Don’t assume. Let them tell you what they’re feeling.


3. Don’t say, 'They're in a better place'

Spiritual beliefs are powerful and can have a major impact on how we make meaning of a heartbreaking situation. For that reason, it may seem natural to share insights from your personal belief system that bring you comfort. Maybe you wholeheartedly believe that the deceased person is in heaven, but does the grieving person believe it? That’s the more important question. 

We should be very careful about imposing our views on others, particularly those in an emotionally vulnerable state. Wait and listen to the language used by the person grieving. Listen to what they say to comfort themselves. If they say “I guess God needed another angel in heaven” then clearly that sentiment is meaningful to them. Go ahead and reflect that language back to them. The same is true for “she’s in a better place.” You can repeat it if they say it first. Otherwise, keep this one to yourself.

4. Don’t say, 'Be strong'

What’s the intention behind this statement? Seems to me that when people say this what they really mean is “stop crying” or “pull yourself together, you’re embarrassing me.” It puts an added burden on the griever and, whether intentional or not, communicates that it’s not OK to mourn openly.


I was once will a family in the Emergency Department when they found out their young child had died. The parents were understandably devastated, sobbing and wailing. The pastor from their church arrived and knelt at eye level with the parents, then sternly said, “You need to be strong.” It was clear that the parents did their best to compose themselves and stifle their sobbing.

About six months later that same mother showed up to a support group I was running and spoke about how angry she was at her pastor for how he treated them. For implying that they were weak, or not handling the loss appropriately.

The truth is, expressing emotions isn’t weak, and pretending you’re OK when you’re not isn’t strong. Sometimes, real strength is allowing yourself to fall apart and trusting that you’ll be able to put the pieces back together when all is said and done. As a support person, we should be giving them the space to grieve in whatever way is authentic to them, even if it’s a little messy.

5. Don’t say, 'He lived a full life'

Note that this is almost exclusively said of the elderly. But even if the person is one-hundred-and-nineteen years old, death could still seem too soon for those who love them. Family and friends could still be wishing for another year, another day, another hour. Are they supposed to miss the person any less? Are they not allowed to be sad? Offering platitudes that minimize the loss is not helpful. Let them have their grief.


6. Don’t say, 'It’s God’s will'

Again, maybe you sincerely believe it, but offering faith-based justifications for death will not necessarily make the emotional loss any more bearable. The grieving person may not share your beliefs. Even if they do, people can have a strong faith and still be angry at God when someone dear to them is taken away.

I was once talking with a man whose son had died when another family member interrupted our conversation to say of the death, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” The father’s angry response? “Well, it’s a stupid plan!” Needless to say, the exchange didn’t create a lot of space for healing.

7. Don’t say, 'It’s time to move on'

No. Just … no. Never say this. I don’t care if it’s been five years since the death. Twenty years, even. There’s no expiration date on grief. As anyone who has experienced grief knows, it never goes away — you just get better at living with it. Years can go by without incident, and then an old song might come on, or you might see an old photograph, or you might smell a certain food, and suddenly you’re reminded of the person and all the old feelings surge back to the surface. This is normal.

Now, it is possible to get stuck in your grieving process. If a person’s grief truly keeps them from being able to function in their daily life, even long after the death, then they may benefit from professional help. Short of that, though, let people grieve in their own way, at their own pace. Trying to rush them is usually more about your discomfort than it is about the griever.


RELATED: Dealing With Grief When You Don't Know How To

8. Don’t say, 'Call me if you need anything'

This one isn’t necessarily such a bad thing to say, but I include it on this list because grieving people often don’t know what they need at the moment. They don’t even know what to ask for. Saying “call me if you need anything” can place an added burden on them at a time when they’re already overwhelmed. There are better alternatives (see below).

Here are 4 better things to say to a grieving person:

Maybe you’ve used some of the examples listed above (I certainly have!). Don’t beat yourself up about it. No doubt you did it with the best of intentions, and the grieving person could sense as much. Still, if you’re looking for a little more solid footing when responding to a grieving person, I’d suggest trying some of the following.

1. 'I’m sorry you’re going through this'

It doesn’t try to take away the pain or diminish the loss. It simply communicates that you recognize they are going through a difficult time and that you care. Isn’t that the message we’re going for, after all?


RELATED: 8 Healthy Ways To Deal With The Loss Of A Friend

2. 'Grieving takes time'

Sadly, after suffering a loss people get plenty of messages from other people and from our society at large telling them to “get over it” and “move on.” You can give them a gift by counteracting that message, offering them permission to grieve at their own pace. Planting this seed early on could save them a lot of second-guessing and heartache down the road.

3. 'Can I get you...?'

A glass of water. A chair. A blanket. Something concrete. Helping to take care of their physical needs gives them time and space to focus on their emotional needs. The nice part about offering specific things is they don’t have to take the initiative to think of something they need. They just need to answer with a “yes” or “no.”


I grew up in a rural farming community. When a family experienced a death, food would just show up on their doorstep. Casserole dishes, fruit bowls, cookies, pies — offerings left by neighbors who recognized that people need sustenance in times of grief. No need for them to ask. It was just there for them. There’s a lot of wisdom in this old tradition. There are many ways to communicate care and concern, but few speak as effectively as food.

4. And finally, there is a best answer to the question “What do I say?” That answer is…

Say nothing. Don’t offer tired platitudes or truisms. Don’t give advice. Don’t say a thing. Just shut up and listen. As a rule, our culture is not comfortable with silence. Most people will do almost anything to make it go away. Be the exception. Embrace the awkward silence, and no matter how difficult, fight the urge to talk. Just listen — even if the only thing you hear is the sound of muffled crying. It’s your presence and not your words that matter.

So, hold their hand, hug them, or just sit with them. Let them be sad because that is the appropriate and healthy response to loss. There will be plenty of time later for talking. In the moment, they need someone who cares enough to say nothing.

RELATED: What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving


Wyatt J. Dagit is a board-certified chaplain, ethics consultant, and writer. In addition to YouTango, his work can be found on Medium and Substack.