What NOT to say to when talking to youth who have just had a loved one die
Knowing What (NOT) to Say….
Help–I don’t know what to say to a person who just lost someone they love and care about to death.
Saying the right words to someone who has experienced the death of a loved one is some thing many of us worry about. Grief has a way of making us feel unsure about what to say, how to behave, and what to do. When the person we are trying to comfort with our words is a child or teenager, well, it can be even more complicated.
Many of the children and adolescents I am lucky enough to get to know in my role as Mental Health Counselor have taught me how they would like adults to be with them in times of loss. I’m going to share with you in this column some of what I have learned.
The most important lesson I have learned from my child and adolescent teachers/clients is that there really is NOTHING you can say that will make the loss less painful. What they need is for you to be, not necessarily to say or do, just be. What kids need is for the adults in their lives to be there for them. Different kids need different ways of being. How we adults need to be for them is somewhat dependent on their age, on the nature of the death, on their relationship to the deceased, on the family’s spiritual and cultural beliefs. There is one way of being that will be helpful and comforting to all children and teens—be consistent. Death losses cause havoc in children’s lives. What is most comforting is consistency and stability, like a favorite meal or cheering them on while they participate in sports- the things you have always done.
The kids I work with have told me about what they wished people had NOT said. I will share with you some of those examples. Before I do that I want you to know that each and every child who shared an example of what not to say did indeed realize that the adult who said it was well-intentioned. In the event that you made a comment to a grieving child similar to the ones I am about to list, it may help to know that the child knew you meant well! These kids told me they knew you felt awkward, they knew you wanted them to feel better, that you were uncomfortable seeing them in such pain and that you were in pain yourself. They knew that, and respected you for that. So what comments made the list? Here they are:
You have to be strong for…
When you tell a child they have to be strong the child understands this as they do not have permission to grieve or they have to grieve in private. Many kids I have worked with said they believed they had to be strong so they did not let others know when they were hurting or even missing the deceased loved one.
You could say You feel like you might need to be strong, but even strong people need support. I want you to know you can turn to me if you need or want to.
Your father would have wanted…
Kids are scared by this comment. This comment creates a feeling of pressure to do or be something that might not be consistent with how they feel and who they are. One teen told me she wanted to say to the person who said this to her, “I think I knew my Dad better then you. He would not have wanted…”
You could say One thing I remember about your Dad was how he loved when you played soccer. He would brag about you at work. I just wanted to share that memory with you in case you did not know that about your Dad.
You’ll get over it…
Really? Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to death knows that you never truly get over it. You will always miss the person who has passed.
You could say Some days will be easier then others. I hope you don’t have a lot of really hard days.
There are other fish in the sea…
Someone actually told me this when my 22 year old boyfriend died. I was surprised to have clients tell me stories of being told similar things when the loss is not a relative. There is never a replacement for someone you love. There are new loves, but a person can never be replaced.
You could say I bet right now you are feeling alone. You will always be able to hold your cat Turnip in your heart.
It’s not what you say or do, it is how you are.
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