What not to say to grieving clients

A new client arrives, and during your first session they disclose that they have had a recent death and are there for grief support.

What words come to mind? What should you say?

More importantly, what should you not say?

In my practice, I give lots of space, and have them tell their story. No interruptions, no comments, just holding the space for them. I do some self-care, some normalization toward the end.

In the middle, I will ask what they have been told that is not helpful. Every client can give me a list, no matter how old they are. Seven to seventy, they have a list. It is instructive for therapists as well. Here are some highlights:

  • They are in a better place
  • Aren’t you relieved/glad they are no longer in pain?
  • I am so glad it was quick
  • God must have needed another angel
  • You should be angry/are you angry yet?
  • You can have another baby
  • You are young enough to love again
  • They would not want you to be sad
  • There must be a reason this happened/silver lining to this
  • You should be getting over this by now
  • It’s time for you to (get rid of clothes, make changes to the house, etc)
  • They chose to “leave” to spare you
  • Nobody survives that
  • We’ll work toward closure/getting over this
  • You know, I lost my (mother/father/child/spouse) and…

Even if your client identifies as having a faith tradition, or sought you out because you identify yourself as a member of a particular faith, tread carefully. Death causes questions about faith, and telling someone to lean on theirs when they are mad at their deity is counterproductive in grief work. They need permission to be mad in that moment.

And while it might be true that some part of your client is aware that their loved one was in pain and could not survive, if given a choice they would rather have them back here, next to them. As a result, your client may be feeling incredibly guilty for even thinking that they wished the illness or trauma was over and that their loved one would be released- because they should not have wanted that and they may think they were in some way responsible for their death. It may to make sense, but in early grief nothing makes a lot of sense. Your brain is clouded and not able to process a lot of information. Your client may have all those thoughts and emotions competing with each other moment to moment.

Your client needs permission to vent about the stuff that has caused them additional pain in a safe space, and to not hear you reinforcing those concepts. They are all go-to’s when we are caught off guard after a death. I get that. But your role is to help them cope with them, and to learn to deflect them so they can continue to work on recovering without as many stumbles.

I frequently role play with my grief clients so they are prepared for the common challenges of hearing what people say, often with the best of intentions. They figure out how they can respond, and how to not take on more emotional baggage. I practice not taking on the role of caring for others who want to share their grief with them. It empowers them, and makes them feel safer venturing out where they might run into people who fill the space with words that are meant to help but end up hurting. Grocery stores can be a minefield sometimes.

Their loss is their own. It is unique from anyone else’s, and from any they have ever experienced before. Make your space the safest it can be so they can use you to work through the hardest parts without fear of well-intended words that are neither healing nor helpful.