Five things NOT to say to someone whose spouse has died
It’s always difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving, especially to someone who has experienced the death of a spouse. Rachel Nafziger Hartzler experienced this firsthand after her husband, Harold, died in 1999. Even questions and comments stated with the best intentions can be painful.
As part of her master’s thesis and subsequent book, Grief & Sexuality: Life after Losing a Spouse (Herald Press, 2006), Rachel asked 152 survey participants about this very topic. She asked the question, “If you were to write an article or book entitled, ‘What NOT to Say When Someone’s Spouse Dies,’ what would it include?” (p 181)
Here’s a summary of their most frequently given responses and some corresponding thoughts (NOTE: Rachel indicates that readers who may have said some of the following statements shouldn’t feel guilty; rather, they can determine to be more thoughtful and aware in the future) (p181)
“I know how you feel.”
Generally speaking, you don’t know how someone is feeling. It’s tempting to try to relate your experiences to someone else’s situation (that’s at the heart of empathy, after all), but saying you know their pain isn’t necessarily helpful.
“Nobody knows how you feel,” wrote one respondent. “Perhaps they can relate to your feelings, but they can’t know” (p 184).
“God wanted him/her home” (or anything else that implies God willed the death)
Rachel reports that twenty-six percent of the survey participants responding to this question said that it was not helpful to hear thoughts on God’s will as it related to their spouse’s death. Things like “It was God’s plan,” “God knows best,” “They’re better off now,” and such generally don’t ease the pain of a loved one’s death.
Rachel observes that “religious clichés that are sometimes offered may be facts, but not helpful statements when an untimely death has occurred” (p 183).
“How are you?” (unless you really want to know)
Often people use this greeting without thinking of its implications. It has become a cultural phrase akin to “hello” or “hey”, but this greeting packs a lot of weight that can be oppressive to someone who is grieving a loss as significant as that of a spouse. Seventeen percent of respondents indicated that they did not appreciate this type of inquiry.
If you do ask this question intending an honest response, be aware that listening to someone’s true feelings might go beyond the brief conversation or assertion of care you had intended.
“It could be worse.”
Things could always be worse. Like if all your children died, or if an entire village were wiped out. But this consolation rarely goes far when someone is experiencing the grief and pain from a significant loss in his/her life.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
An open-ended statement like this can be a difficult offer on which to follow up (and often comes with hidden stipulations and scheduling restraints). Rachel observes that offers to help may be better received when one is specific, such as:
- I can help with childcare on Tuesdays, or
- I am available on Wednesday afternoons to help with outdoor work or to get groceries for you, or
- Call me any evening between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. (p 185)
Part of making a genuine offer to help is in understanding some of the needs a person encounters after losing a spouse. Perhaps the deceased spouse performed a particular set of household chores, or maybe being thrust into the role of single parent has increased childcare needs exponentially. Figure out how you might serve the bereaved individual and make specific offers to help.
You can learn more about the grief process and questions associated with the death of a spouse in our new eBook: Life after Losing a Spouse: Discovering God’s invitation in the midst of grief. It’s a free, downloadable resource designed to help you begin to understand this experience and hopefully provide you with encouragement for your journey.
Also, to learn even more about Rachel’s research and life journey, we recommend you read her book, Grief & Sexuality: Life after Losing a Spouse.
Note: All quotes are excerpted from Grief & Sexuality: Life after Losing a Spouse, by Rachel Nafziger Hartzler (Scottdale, PA & Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2006); used with permission