It's never easy to know what to say to the recently bereaved. Despite our best intentions, even the seemingly most benign phrase can be interpreted as patronising, dismissive - and even downright insensitive. Some expressions of sympathy display more about our own preoccupations than sensitivity towards the feelings of the person who is grieving.
To help navigate this social and emotional minefield, here are ten phrases a bereaved person is unlikely to find helpful.
1. "At least you have other children."
Trivialising a parent's loss - by a) stating the obvious and b) suggesting that children are interchangeable - is thoughtless and insensitive.
2. "God doesn't give us any more to bear than we can handle."
Aside from the fact that your God/god might not be the same as the bereaved person's God/god (supposing, of course, he or she even worships a God/god), this cringe-worthy sentiment is meaningless and does not stand up to scrutiny.
3. "God needed another angel in heaven."
See phrase two above.
4. "He (or she) is with the Lord now."
Unless you know without question that both the deceased person and the person you are attempting to comfort subscribe wholeheartedly to the Christian faith then this is a cruel and unusual thing to say. Anyone who utters this phrase to the wrong target audience is only thinking about themselves and is unable to see beyond their own small selfish world view.
5. "He (or she) was too beautiful for this earth."
I understand that at first glance this seems like a compliment to the deceased person but - are you serious?
6. "I know how you're feeling."
No you don't.
7. "It's probably for the best."
What the -?
8. "Life is for the living."
Can someone please explain this to me? I've never understood it. Does it mean that life is for people who are still alive or that life is for living it up - or is it something else entirely? Both indecipherable and ambiguous, this phrase has a cruel and callous edge.
9. "The same thing happened to me once."
No one who is grieving is interested in hearing about your story of loss. It's irrelevant.
10. "You'll find someone else."
It's heartless to tell someone who has recently lost a life partner that they'll soon snag themselves a replacement. You may as well say, "Hey, cheer up, chook. Why don't we get our glad-rags and a bit of lippie on, and head downtown and get you hooked up with someone else."
A grief expert at the Huffington Post advises us to show up, do a kindness, sit down and listen - and, perhaps most importantly, not to try to be profound - when dealing with the bereaved. There's no need to explain that "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding." With apologies to Ronan Keating, sometimes you really do say it best when you say nothing at all.
Let's face it. There's actually nothing you can say to ease someone's grief. Just demonstrating a quiet willingness to be there and be with them is often the best you can do. Treating someone as normally as possible when everyone else is trying to be deep and meaningful can be a refreshing change. And if you really have to say something then a simple "I'm sorry for your loss" is probably as good as it gets.
What else is inappropriate to say to recently bereaved people? On a more positive note, what is acceptable to say? What acts of kindness do you recommend to support grieving people?