While losing people we love may be a natural part of life, there's no question that the mourning process is an incredibly difficult one. And it doesn't just affect our mental health: Recent research published in Immunity and Ageing found that, particularly among older people, when a loved one dies, it makes them even more vulnerable to disease and infection.
The American Psychological Association has plenty of recommendations for what to do when you're in the midst of grief. For example, talk about it, accept your feelings, practice self-care by getting enough exercise and eating right, and take time to celebrate your loved one's life.
But how can you help someone you love who's dealing with loss? More specifically, what should you not say? Here's what the experts have to say.
Don't say, "You must miss him/her so much."
Laurie Kilmarten, comedian and author of Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed, says pointing out how much you miss your loved one is rarely helpful. "Either the person does miss their loved one and you just made them cry, or they don’t and you just made them feel guilty," she explains. Similarly, psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., adds that pointing out how a grieving person should feel is hardly ever helpful. "Saying 'he would not have wanted you to be sad' simply doesn't help," she says.
Don't say, "It could be worse" or start sentences with "At least..."
While Adam Wright, Ph.D., says it's natural to want to comfort people who are dealing with loss, one of the worst things you can do is point out how their situation could be even more painful. "For example, when learning that a friend’s mother has died, one might say, 'At least she did not suffer for long' or 'It could be worse; at least you have your father around; both of my parents are dead.' This tendency to try to fix a problem may make us feel better, but not only is that not our job; it is also outside of our capabilities. In fact, a show of sympathy may only make matters worse."
Lombardo adds that saying things like, "It happens to everyone" is hardly helpful—it diminishes the grieving person's own experience, which—rightfully—feels personal to them.
Practice listening instead of empathy.
While it may feel counterintuitive, Wright says that in the case of grief, knowing that someone "knows exactly how you feel" isn't always a helpful response. "Empathy is defined by seeing another’s issues and feelings nonjudgmentally, through the other person’s perspective," he explains. "To add another level of complexity to this dilemma, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues against empathy as well, contending that empathy is the problem, not the solution. According to Bloom, empathy is biased, 'pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.'"
He adds that given such strong arguments against both sympathy and empathy, perhaps the best approach is to listen actively and nonjudgmentally and respond with rational compassion. "Say things like, 'I cannot imagine how you feel right now, but I am willing to provide you with any support that you need.' And then listen, actively, intensively, and wholeheartedly."
Want more tips for dealing with grief? Here are 8 things everyone should know.