Fifteen Things Not to Say to a Bereaved Man

Bob Baugher, professor, Ph D, writer and grief specialist works primarily with men who are grieving. He shares the fifteen things you should not say to grieving men and in fact to grieving individuals at large. Not only does Bob share the list, but he teaches us why these things are not helpful.

by Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Don’t you sometimes find that people who want to help you when you’re down say the strangest things?

Let’s look at not-so-helpful statements that well-meaning friends and relatives make to a man (and often, a woman) in grief. May we have the envelope please? And the “winners” are:

  1. “I know just how you feel; my cat/third cousin/ neighbor/friend’s uncle/parakeet died.”
    This is at the top of most people’s “worst statement” list. Think about it: even if the father of identical twin brothers died, one twin could not assume he knew “just” how his brother felt. We each have our own personalities and our unique relationship with the person who died. As tempting as it may be to try to identify with a man in grief, stop yourself from uttering these words. 
  2. “How is your wife/mother/ hild/sister coping with the death?”
    There’s nothing wrong with the question, unless the person asking it never gets around to “How are you coping?” It is based on the assumption that the man is holding it together. In addition, because the person asking may be afraid to fi nd out how the bereaved person really feels, it is easier to ask about other (usually female) family members. It’s a good question if it is asked in the spirit of concern about all whom have been affected by the death – including the man. 
  3. “You must be strong/be a man/hang in there/ keep your chin up.”
    Men get this all the time in subtle and sometimes overt ways. It often means, “Don’t show me how much you’re hurting because I couldn’t take watching you in pain.” Such statements make it difficult for the individual to show how he really feels.
  4. “It’s time to move on.”
    Here comes the judgment. When a death occurs, the public can put up with the pain of grief for only so long – typically a few months for a chronic illness and several months for a sudden death. However, once the one-year point has passed, the majority of people (except for those who’ve been through a similar death) begin to tire of observing a person “dwell” in his grief. Men may be especially pressured to put grief behind them.
  5. "That's the way life goes/it was his time/it’s better this way.”
    What a way to minimize someone’s pain. Better for whom? Sure, the loved one may have been in a great deal of pain and you may be relieved that it’s over. But, it is up to the bereaved to decide if it’s “better” this way – not anyone else.
  6. “You’ve got to accept/snap out of/resolve it.”
    This focuses on the death as a problem to be fi xed, solved, and reconciled. Men are sometimes sucked into believing that everything can be fi xed, and even try to hang on to this belief after a death occurs. The word “accept” was fi rst made popular in the bereavement genre 30 years ago by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book explaining people’s final reaction to terminal illness as “acceptance” – a premise even she recanted years later. However, the term has stuck in the mind of the public. To see a person in a great deal of pain tempts others to encourage him to reach that final stage, get over it, and accept it. 
  7. “At least….”
    When interacting with a person who’s experienced a loss, never begin a sentence with these words. As soon as you do, you make yourself the person trying to make something positive out of a tragedy. As diffi cult as it may be for you to watch a man you know experience excruciating, unremitting pain, you need to bite your lip and not fall into the trap called “Despite all this tragedy in your life, aren’t you at least happy that…?” It never helps. On the other hand, if the bereaved man comes up with his own “at least,” then it’s a different story. 
  8. “Now she’s at peace/out of pain/in God’s hands/in a better place/better off/an angel in heaven.”
    The clergy have gotten in a lot of trouble over this one. The bereaved can decide on his own if his loved one is now better off. It’s his call. 
  9. “You can have more children/marry again.”
    Yes, well-meaning, intelligent people who look just like you and me have said this. Resign from this club.
  10. “If there’s anything I can do….” (and then they do nothing)
    The best way to offer help is to be specifi c: “Would you like me to fix you dinner tonight, drive you (or your family member) anywhere this month, mow your lawn, watch the kids, visit your mother’s grave with you, go to the movies with you this Friday, call you on Saturday morning, pick up fresh vegetables for you this week, walk your dog on Thursdays?”
  11. “Isn’t it about time you packed up the clothes?”
    This is another timetable judgment problem. There exists no rule, law, protocol, or dictum for a proper length of time to keep belongings of a deceased loved one. A grieving person can keep his loved one’s belongings as long as his wishes. He can. He really can. 
  12. “Don’t cry/It will be okay.”
    For many people it is tough to watch the man in their life cry. To see him with tears streaming down his face, to hear his sobs, to watch his face contort in pain is diffi cult. The job of people around the bereaved, however, is to let him “cry ‘til you’re dry.” 
  13. “You mean you haven’t cried about it?”
    This implies that there is something wrong with a man not crying. Do not measure a person’s depth of grief by the number of tears he sheds. Research is clear that men tend to cry less frequently than women and that more men than women have not cried in years. 
  14. “There’s a lesson in all this….”
    Maybe there is – maybe there isn’t. But, as before, it’s up to the man in grief to arrive, if ever, at this conclusion. 
  15. “You mustn’t feel that way.”
    To tell anyone how to feel is a mistake. Even if he says he doesn’t feel anything, let him be okay with that. If he feels guilty, let him. If he’s angry, support him. If he’s fearful, empathize with him. If he’s depressed, sit with him. But above all else, let him feel or not feel. That is the best support of all.

You can help a grieving man by wiping these 15 statements from your vocabulary.

Until next time, remember: “I know just how you feel,” “keep your chin up,” and “hang in there.”

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