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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

Dear Joseph,

My husband recently passed away, and although I’m sure they don’t mean to hurt me, several of my friends and family members have made insensitive comments about my loss or the way I grieve. For example, people have told me, “It was God’s will,” and, “It’s time to get on with your life.” I know it’s hard to know what to say in this situation and I know they are trying to help, but I don’t know what to say when somebody belittles my pain. How can I respond to seemingly insensitive comments about my husband’s death?

Don’t Make it Worse

Dear Don’t Make it Worse,

I’m so sorry about your husband. I’m especially sorry that the pain you’re feeling has been compounded by others’ actions. I wish I could help with the first problem, but I hope to offer some helpful ideas for solving the second.

I wanted to offer meaningful advice, so I asked our 180,000 newsletter readers to share their perspective. I read through pages and pages of their wise and heartfelt comments, and I’d like to share a summary of the recurring insights, allowing many of our readers’ caring voices to speak to you through direct quotes.

If it’s okay, I’m going to broaden your question to three:

  1. What do people want when they’re grieving?
  2. What don’t they want?
  3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
  4. 1. What do people want when they’re grieving? They want your heart, not your brain.
    Too many times, we avoid those in pain because we aren’t sure what to say. We think we need soothing poetry laced with wisdom of the ages to spill from our mouths in order to soothe their pain. Don’t wait for inspired words, just make contact, grieve alongside them, and share the moment.

    Here are a few comments from others who have lost a loved one:

    • Don’t avoid the grieving person because you don’t know what to say. “I’m sorry for your loss” is enough. Your mere presence is enough.
    • I don’t remember anyone telling me it was okay to feel sad or lost, or to hate what breast cancer did to my mom’s little body. It would have helped if someone allowed me to grieve.
    • Simply asking how he or she is doing and saying “I care” goes a long way. When my husband died fourteen years ago, it was helpful to me when friends called and left messages to “check in on me.” I would come home from work each night and just listen to the love and concern of dear friends. I felt no need to call back; I just listened.

    When someone I love is going through shock and pain from some precipitating event (like death, job loss, etc.), I put a reminder on my schedule two weeks, two months, and six months out. People often get a flurry of support close to the incident, followed by a long quiet time. I find that going to lunch with them in these intervals allows me to be with them at times when loneliness or self-doubt can be most profound.

    2. What don’t they want? They don’t want judgment, repetition, or assignments.
    We may not realize it, but much of what we do when we try to reassure those who have lost loved ones is self-centered. Years ago, Mel Lerner described a common human motivation called the Just-World Hypothesis. We all want to believe the world is just and fair. If we work hard, eat right, exercise regularly, and do our share of house chores—life will work out. When we pass a traffic accident on the freeway, our belief in a “just world” is at risk for a moment. So somewhat reflexively, we drive slowly by the victim, scouring the scene for any evidence that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. “I bet they were texting while driving,” we might conclude as we notice a young driver. Or, “A sports car—figures. Poor fool.”

    If you’re not careful, you can respond similarly to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. We want their pain to go away so we can reassure ourselves that we can avoid pain as well. So we offer advice on grieving, judgment to help them put their pain “in perspective,” etc. Be careful, because when we feel a need to make these kinds of comments, it’s often more because we want to restore our faith in a “just world” than because we want to soothe our friend’s pain.

    Many reader comments complained of friends who offered judgment or unwanted advice rather than providing a simple connection.

    • My mother passed away last year after a fairly long illness. I struggled to get her the care and attention she needed while still managing my own life and career, so I hated when people I encountered said, “Why don’t you just do . . .?” On several occasions, I thought I was going to come over the table at the next person who authoritatively asked me why I didn’t do this or that to deal with the situation—like I was too stupid to think of the most basic, obvious solutions.
    • When I lost my seven-month-old daughter, I didn’t want any religious speech about how she was in a better place or that God had a plan for her. I just wanted (and still want) people to grieve with me.
    • At my father’s post-funeral luncheon, a friend told my stepmother that she would find herself dating again before long. I could hardly believe the insensitivity of the comment. My stepmother has struggled to forgive this person and realize it was an awkward attempt at helping her remember that in time, the pain will subside and life will take on a more routine feeling again.

    Secondly, people don’t want you to force them to review the facts of the case for the hundredth time. They also might not want to give you an emotional health report. Be aware that asking, “So what happened?” or “How are you?” can put a burden on them.

    • During my wife’s long illness, we coached friends not to ask “How are you?” as a standard greeting. This forces the patient to choose between “I’m fine, how are you?” and a discussion of the medical treatments. It’s better that friends provide a positive change by simply stating, “How nice to see you!”
    • I recommend you offer condolences and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and/or praying for you.” A simple, “I don’t know what to say” or a hug is far better than a question that I have to respond to such as, “How are you?”

    Finally, don’t give them an assignment. When we’re at a loss for what to say we often end with, “If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.” If you really want to do something, think. Stop and think about everything you know about their life. Where do they live? What little chores do they have to do to make it through a day? What extra tasks will now fall on them because of the loss? Empathize as best you can until you find some proactive task you can do to communicate real compassion. It won’t matter if it’s the perfect idea; it just matters that you take initiative rather than assign them to involve you. They rarely will, so the offer rings hollow.

    After my neighbor lost a loved one his wonderful friend showed up to mow his lawn for the next three months. Did the man want his lawn mowed? I don’t know. I do know that he felt more love from that empathic gesture than if his neighbor had said, “What can I do?”

    Here’s a comment from one of our readers:

    • I so appreciated those who just did things for me and didn’t ask me to “give them a call if I needed something.” Most of the time, I couldn’t think of what I needed or didn’t have the energy to make the call to ask.

    3. What should you do when people say or do things that don’t help?
    Our readers gave great advice about dealing with insensitive comments that came down to three wise suggestions:

    First, be proactive. When you know you’re feeling very sensitive, tell people what you do and don’t want. One wise father avoided a whole lot of hurt feelings by just making it safe to grieve and feel differently—and encouraging his kids to let each other know what worked for them.

    • When my mother passed away, my father made it very clear that each family member would come to terms with our mother’s passing in different ways and times. He went on to say that “Grieving is a process and not an event. Each person had a different relationship with Mom and all of you have a different relationship with each other. We may say things without thinking them through, so please be sensitive and know there may be misunderstandings. Everyone needs to be patient with each other because we really don’t know what the other person is truly thinking.”

    The most common piece of advice was to Master Your Story. Realize as you grieve that even those who make annoying comments are trying to deal with real emotions—yours or theirs. Let them be imperfect.

    • I don’t hold much store by what people said. Honestly, it’s only words and it’s often a sign that people feel awkward. It’s silly clinging onto words when none of it matters. Dying is part of life and none of us have the answers for doing it gracefully, we just have to get through it the best we can.
    • When others are insensitive, don’t take it personally. Try to understand that they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what to do. Make this the new story you tell yourself.

    Finally, if you need to give others boundaries in what they say, do it quickly before you build up too much resentment. It’s perfectly fine to politely, but firmly, let people know what you don’t want.

    • When faced with insensitive comments, perhaps you could respond, “We all wish circumstances had not led to this end. I am not focusing on how my husband died, but that he is now gone. Your comments on how and why he died do not change the fact that I have lost my husband and my world has changed.”
    • My mother died recently. While we weren’t particularly close, I loved her very much and miss her dearly. Every time this subject came up in a conversation with my boss, she would say, “I know you weren’t very close to your mom . . .” It was time for a crucial conversation, so I asked to meet with her. I expressed to her how much I appreciated her support through my bereavement. I then asked her if I could request something of her that would be very important to my healing process. I said, “Could you please not mention that I wasn’t very close to my mom. I know you mean well, but it makes me feel bad and right now I want to focus on the good parts of our relationship.” It was a great lesson for both of us.

    Thank you for raising this question. The pain you feel right now is universal. You’ve given all of us a gift by sharing the question at this tender time by letting us think about ways to offer greater and more useful love and support during one of life’s most poignant experiences.

    We compiled many of our readers’ wonderful and helpful comments and would like to share them with you. Please visit us on Facebook to download our free e-book, How to Talk About the Loss of a Loved One: Dos and Don’ts of Comforting Others.

    With love,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

28 thoughts on “Coping with the Loss of a Loved One”

  1. Susan Morabit

    I think the points here can be applied to any loss, not just the death of a loved one.

  2. Rod Morgan

    “Miss Manners” (the brilliant Judith Martin) said it best – there are only two things the bereaved want to hear: “I’m sorry for your loss” (“I’m so sorry…” also applies) and “He/she was such a wonderful man/woman.”

    Having practiced this verbal economy for too many funerals of too many friends, I know however trite they may seem, those words always are well-received.

  3. Liz

    One more “no-no”. When someone dies of lung cancer, as my mother did, don’t ask, “Was she a smoker?” I know that it is an attempt on the part of the person to reassure themselves that since they or their loved ones are NOT smokers they are “safe”, but more than once I had to bite my tongue not to reply, “Yes she was — but does that make my pain any less?!!” BTW, she stopped smoking 15 years before her diagnosis. Although she made her best attempt to mitigate the damage done by a lifetime of smoking, some things cannot be undone.

  4. Jeff East

    I am in the process of losing my mom. She is aware and accepting of what is going on. My family and I are sharing good times now and remembering the good things from the past. Our biggest joy is to be able to sit and watch a Reds baseball game with a life long fan, my mom. It helps that they are winning!! I hate to say it but so many of her friends that visit are depressing and so negative in what they say and how they act. We are, on my mom’s ,suggestion trying to celebrate her life instead of dwelling on the cold hard facts surrounding her death. We are not running from or hiding from the facts, just making the choice to celebrate 88 years of a meaningfull and blessed life instead of these last few hard days. Sorry for the ramble. My point is we need all be aware of the grief process starts sometimes long before the end.

  5. Brenda

    1. Don’t stop inviting them to events! It’s hard enough to no longer be part of a ‘couple’ witout feeling like you’ve been deserted socially by your friends.

    2. Be aware of the the ‘year of firsts’ after a death … the first birthday without them, the first Christmas, the first anniversary, etc. Think about sending a card or calling them around those times & if they’re up to it, invite them out for dinner.

  6. Jan

    How did you know I needed your help today? Your “Coping with the Loss of a Loved One” arrived in my mailbox this morning as I was sitting at my desk in a suit, waiting to go to the funeral of a close friend’s spouse. I always struggle with what to say and do in these situations, which happen all too often as I get older. Your words and advice were spot-on and helped me to overcome my selfish discomfort and focus on the needs of my friend. Thank you.

  7. Tom

    I will be loosing my wife in the coming months from cancer. This article came at the perfect time for and I can already see how I can use some of these ideas. Thank you

  8. Karen

    Great advice. Since we will all deal with friends who has lost a loved one, or with our own loss, this is a must read.

    How can we handle sensitive issues at work? My department is so concerned about violating HIPPA laws, they will not tell us when someone is going to be out sick for an extended time, or let us know when a co-worker’s spouse passed away. Someone comes back and you go ask, “How was your vacation?” And then you find out their husband died, or they were getting cancer treatments, and you feel like a cad. Can’t we be told about a death in the family, or that someone will be out on an extended illness so we should all pitch in, without worrying about violating HR laws?

  9. editor

    @Karen If you would like us to consider your question for our weekly Q&A column, please submit your question here:

  10. Wendy

    Very similar situation has happened to me, thankfully most of my colleagues have been amazing. The only situation that left me completely mortified was when one staff member remarked about a presentation they had been involved in, stating “that it hadn’t given any of the onlookers a cardiac arrest”. That hurt me so much to hear that remark, so totally insensitive as my husband had only passed away several months before of a heart attack.

  11. Joseph Grenny

    Jeff – I’m so glad you’re celebrating every moment you have. May you have many more of them!
    @Jeff East

  12. Joseph Grenny

    Oh dear – what a shame that people can’t find support from close colleagues better. Seems to me this is more an issue of a lack of informal conversation than formal announcement. Why would people not be open about sharing this casually? @Karen

  13. SLCCOM

    When my father died, my mother-in-law told my Mom “Now you know what I went through,” as her second husband had died of cancer, too. Why Mom didn’t hit her I don’t know, but it was the receiving line at the funeral. Needless to say, I spend as little time as possible with her. Unfortunately, my poor husband has to see her. Alone.

    I always call Mom on Father’s Day (when Dad died), their anniversary and his birthday. Those are still tough days 13 years later. Grieving never really ends; it will hit you suddenly at random times when something reminds you. Sometimes all that will help is a hug, or holding your hand, or a touch on your shoulder.

    Lastly, it is never too late to send a condolence card. I always try to share a good memory that I have of doing something or talking with the deceased, and assure the survivors that their loved one will never be forgotten.

  14. grizzly bear mom

    Karen, when my sister died I wanted my family, and not my co-workers to comfort me, so I didn’t invite them to the viewing, funeral or wake. If I had wanted them there I would have informed them of the arrangements.

  15. Sharron Robinson Davis

    When I lost my first baby brother, Gary, to a fatal car accident (he was 7 yrs younger than me, baby brother no 2 is 17 yrs younger), at age 23; I literally felt that someone without warning “ripped out a large piece of my heart”. It was so excruciating, that I thought death, not time, was the only way to make it stop. Now as August 2012 will mark the 20th year of his death, the pain has subsided with the Sensitivity of Time. What I most appreciated are THOSE who allowed me the time to grieve in my own way and in my own time. THOSE that made my process unique to me. THOSE that checked on me with sensitivity. THOSE who still call him by name, as he did have one and an identity before death took it away. THOSE who have “lost or know someone who has lost” and didn’t compare theirs to mine. And of course THOSE who didn’t know what to say out loud and therefore just prayed for me in silence. For it is because of “THOSE” that I was able to heal.

  16. Greg

    Is the eBook available without using Facebook?

  17. editor

    @Greg If you e-mail us at, we’ll send you a link to the e-book.

  18. Paula

    After my husband died suddenly, people said such terrible things to me that I collected more terrible statements from other grievers and now have a “What To Say and What Not To Say To People Who Are Grieving” page on my website. People who say terrible things are trying to make themselves feel better. Based on my experience and the experiences of others, I have a list of questions meant to help grievers cope. My husband has been dead since 1979, but I have stopped talking about his death to save myself from more hurtful statements.

  19. KarenG

    When my son was suddenly killed in a tragic and traumatic military training accident 4 years ago, i had to deal with not only my pain but my ex-husband and adult daughter who estranged herself fromme only weeks after her brother’s death. I also had to deal with a 2-year investigation by the Army and Special Forces. I had some family that assumed tthat since i was not the primary parent for the last few years that it wasn’t as hard – what a load of you-know-what! My son and i had reconciled years before his accident and we had grown very close again so it was like losing him twice, only permanent now. I hve had many people tell me “”get over it” and other assundry comments. I have had long-time friends cut ties because they couldn’t hanle my pain. I drew close to family members i had not had the chance to do so, i forged ahead despite a lot of very uncomfortabe moments in family court and probate court with my angry, vindictive power-hungry ex-husband, and i am still here… I have a supportive roommate and still have friends who remind me they care enough to check in with me. I wish things were different between my daughter and i, we did reconcile but our relationship is being rebuilt from the ashes of the past. I am grateful for the life i still have and time has eased the rawness of the pain. I am a better person today than i was but i have a lot of things i want to do but sometimes feell that i can’t do it since i can’t handle stress very well. My sincere condolences to those of you that have experienced any loss.

  20. DL

    My precious husband, who is my soulmate and my best friend, passed away only 13 days ago. He was the best husband and a very, very good man to everyone. Please excuse me for venting, but I am very hurt and angry about the insensitivity of the people I encountered after his passing.

    1. One dear “friend” empahtically said she would be at my side up to and including the funeral. Two days after saying that, she told me that she was “too busy.” She didn’t even send a sympathy card.
    Note: I never did anything to her, and when her husband was hospitalized, my husband and I really extended ourselves.

    2. A VERY elderly neighbor keeps offering his “help”…but as it turns out, all he actually wants to do is talk continuously AT me for great length about his past, his this, his that….and keeps insisting on taking me “out,” because HE TELLS ME that I need to get out just like he did when his wife passed away. Also, I don’t get a chance to speak about my husband.
    Note: he has plenty of family that he talks to and visits…and dates his “lady friends.” And as for going out with him, I know for sure he means a date! No, thank you! I prefer the peace and quiet of my own home.

    3. I am sick and tired of people insincerely telling me: “If there is anything I can do, let me know.” When I dared to ask the very, very slightest thing, like signing the online newspaper obit Guest Book, they find excuses why they can’t be bothered…or give no thought to what they write because it doesn’t make any sense.’

    Since I am completely all alone now, I have more than enough to deal with without having to tolerate other people’s stupidity, insensitivities, and nonsense!

    My wise, consoling husband would say: “That’s the way some people are. Don’t let it bother you.”

  21. DL

    p.s.: When my dearly beloved mom passed away decades ago, I was very surprised at how indifferent or cruel some people were during the wake, funeral, and the period soon afterwards.
    So I asked a person I knew about that, who was in the counseling profession, and he said (in essence) people don’t {necessarily} change during the time of someone else’s loss.

    How very sad for that type of person! And how very telling of them that they do not possess common decency and respect, especially for the deceased and for family and friends who are deeply hurting.

  22. DL

    The ways I came to realize when sympathizers are truly caring and sincere:

    1. the supporter let me talk about my loved one to a reasonable extent without me feeling rushed or cutting me off to interject.

    2. the supporter would look into my eyes, and they would have facial expressions with compassion, and I would be their focus without distractions.
    3. the supporter would hug me a few times.

    Insensitive, non-caring “supporters” that grievers do not need:

    1. they ask how you are doing while they continue to walk away.
    2. the same for: “If you need anything…”

    3. they non-chalantly talk about their losses in the past instead of listening to you with your very current pain.

    4. they talk about their plans to go on vacation, a party, etc, while you could not be less interested as your mind is wandering about your loved one.

    5. they tell you that they will call you or will contact you in another way, but of course that never happens.

    6. they “sincerely” invite you out to lunch “some time,” but they never seem to find the time.

  23. Adarsh Supercars

    Jeff East I hope your mom stays around for a very long time. I hope for the Best for you and your family. Do try and spend as much time as you can with your mom.
    If I had known, I would have spent a whole lot more time with her than chasing my stupid lifestyle.
    I miss my mom so much. I never knew she was going to go as she suddenly passed away.
    You just take care of her and do not care for what other idiots say.

  24. Adarsh Supercars

    This DL person has many unfortunate experiences and many are very common to me.

    I am Single(I am 28) and my mom and dad are no more. My mom just passed away days before so I am looking online for some way to help me over come my pain and the “feeling of being lost”. I was very close to my mom. I stayed with her and she used to take care of me and cook for me and everything else.

    I also called someone at home and he said he will come and never came. I just wanted company that’s all as I am Home Alone.

    I will ask someone to write some advice for me if you have some.

    I feel very sad for the people DL has lost over the years. My Heart Felt Condolences and may their Soul Rest In Peace.

  25. Amitesh Kumar

    I can understand the pain of loosing somebody very near and dear. I think it takes time to recover and I m still recovering

  26. Chava

    Im 37 yrs old. My wife of 18 yrs died two weeks ago. I find it very difficult and impossible to go on with my every day life. I dont know what to do.

  27. Gerald James Avila

    I love this article Joseph!
    Losing a loved one is a difficult thing to go through. The process of grieving that comes after the loss of a loved one is particularly not an easy road.
    You may also read my blog on Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss
    Hope this will help…

  28. Vonne Solis

    I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.

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