You Shouldn’t Say “You Should”

When you want to  help someone whose friend, relative, or coworker has died, avoid saying “you should” or “you shouldn’t.”

Grieving is some of the hardest work people ever undertake — perhaps the hardest. When the loss is new and raw, when bereaved parents  or widowed spouses or parentless children face the realities of never seeing loved ones again, the pain is beyond description. In the grief-laden, foggy-minded months after my husband’s death, someone told me the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to imagine that kind of pain. Though I still can’t remember the context (whether written or spoken) nor who said it, the accuracy of the assertion burned itself into my core.

Grief doesn’t affect mourners 24/7; it lurks 48 hours a day, 14 days per week. (Whether “the math” agrees or not, that is how it feels.) Grief doesn’t visit the homes or workplaces of those who have lost; without permission it becomes an unwelcome squatter inside the cells and hearts of the bereaved. It tosses beloved furnishings out onto rainy streets while arranging its own dark goods in every corner of memory and thought.

Already facing such life-altering changes, the bereaved don’t deserve to be told they “should” or “shouldn’t” … anything.

Don’t say, “You should be…” or “You shouldn’t be…”
Don’t say, “You should feel” or “You shouldn’t feel…”
Don’t say, “You should already…” or “You shouldn’t yet…”
Don’t say, “You should have…” or “You shouldn’t have…”

Instead of helping, these and other shoulds and shouldn’ts send the bereaved the message they are not grieving the “right” way, that their best efforts are inadequate, that those best efforts fall short.

Telling the bereaved what they should or shouldn’t do (unless you’re a professional whose advice they are seeking) is like whipping a horse with a broken leg because it refuses to run — pointless and cruel.

Acknowledge Birthdays and Anniversaries

After Mom died I hesitated over whether to acknowledge her birthday — or their anniversary — to Dad. I say “hesitated,” but that’s too mild a word.

I was afraid.

What if … he didn’t remember their anniversary ?
What if … he didn’t remember it was her birthday?
What if … he’d forgotten his sadness … and I reminded him?

What if I made him feel worse?

I didn’t know then, even though I missed her terribly, too, that my widower Dad missed her so much more. He was already sad — of course he was — already grieving her absence.

The week of her birthday felt awful, though my husband did his best to help me through it. Then one of Mom’s friends brought me a loaf of homemade bread. She knew it was Mom’s birthday, and she told me about a time when my mother took some to her.

Knowing someone else remembered my mother meant everything!

Even so, I still hesitated to bring up special Mom-related occasions around Dad because, again I thought, What if I make him feel sad by mentioning her?

After my husband died, I realized how ridiculous my thinking had been. Even though I’d wanted and needed acknowledgment of others’ ongoing thoughts of Mom, I’d assumed Dad could “forget” the timing of significant dates. I’d assumed that by mentioning those special occasions I’d “make” him feel more sorrow and longing for her than he already did.

As a widow it felt even more important and helpful to have people remember — and acknowledge — my husband’s birthday than my mom’s, though I still wanted that, too. Before hubby’s death, he was the one who helped me get through Mom’s birthday, the day after his.

Their birthdays fell in the fourth month after his death. Shock had begun to lift, but I was still, frankly, a mess. In that first year, one of my best friends flew 2,000 miles to spend that difficult week with me. She returned again for the week of the anniversary of his death. Her presence made a world of difference!

Another thoughtful woman gave me a card a few days before that same first “angelversary,” as some call it. (Some also call it the “sadiversary.” When my grief was still raw I called it the latter; now tempered by a few years, I think of it as the former.) In her sweet note she acknowledged awareness that it was a difficult time of year for me. Until then I’d known her only as a friendly acquaintance, but we’d not been particularly close. Her thoughtfulness marked the beginning of a now solid friendship.

Don’t be afraid to “say something” to your coworkers, friends, classmates, or relatives who’ve suffered a loss. Even if your kind acknowledgment elicits a tear or two (or an entire stream), you won’t “cause” the bereaved to feel sad — their losses did that! — but you will have demonstrated you care by showing you remember their lost loved ones.

I’ve Added a Resource Page

I’ve created a page of “Helpful Grief Resources” with examples of what to say when someone dies (and what not to say).  I’ll add new sources as I encounter them, so check back from time to time.

  • Have you found useful sites, books, articles–even songs–that helped you interact with the bereaved?
  • If you’ve suffered a significant loss in your life, what comments or gestures from friends were most (or least) helpful to you?

Please share your experiences in the comments below or you can contact me via


Twitter: @TealAshesTBruce


Together we can ease the anxieties of those who wish to help their grieving friends — and thereby help the mourners, too.

To reach (or share) the “Helpful Grief Resources” page, click on the menu above or go directly to:

When Someone Dies, Do NOT Say, “I Know How You Feel.”

Never tell a grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel”—because you don’t.

You really don’t.

Each survivor’s grief is as unique as it is personal.

Picture your coworkers, classmates, relatives. Do you relate to them identically? I don’t mean answering to the same boss, the same teacher, or the same great-grandma. Do you interact the same with everyone at work? Do your classmates get along equally? Do your siblings share identical relationships with your parents (or your children with theirs)?

Of course not.

Although every grieving parent commutes to work inside the Office Building of Loss, and each shares a suite with at least one other person, each must employ individual skills and equipment to complete assignments for their tyrannical boss.

Even though parentless children enrolled in the Boarding School of Bereavement attend classes together, all must write long-answer exam essays in the unfamiliar tongue of separation and carry their own belongings from dormitory to desk day after day.

While surviving spouses are forcibly relocated to the lonely—yet far too crowded—neighborhood of Death Did Us Part, each widow(er) must maintain sole upkeep on a once-shared mortgage, even while working within walls irreparably damaged by the move.

No matter how many coworkers, classmates, or relatives you share with the bereaved, grief is non-transferrable—one size does NOT fit all.

After my husband died, I knew that people expressing condolences intended support and comfort; I appreciated their efforts. However, each time yet another well-meaning person said, “I know what you’re going through,” I wanted to scream: No, you DON’T know (… you’ve never married, your spouse is alive, you divorced your husband, your third-cousin’s death isn’t the same as my husband’s …) because you have NOT been through THIS!

Ironically, most other widows (and widowers) did NOT say they knew how I felt! Instead, they acknowledged the uniqueness of my grief—and their inadequacy to comprehend it.

  • X and I raised our kids before he passed, so I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I feel for you. We said our goodbyes before Y died. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.”
  • Z and I weren’t married as many [or as few] years as you and your husband were, so I can only guess how you’re feeling right now.”

Those who verbalized their lack of understanding made me feel best understood.