5 Clichés To Avoid When Someone Is Grieving

I never noticed the strange and awkward things people said to one another following a devastating loss until after Sarah was born – and no one really knew if she was going to live, or die unexpectedly. (Does anyone know this about any life or death?) One afternoon, a friend from our parish stopped by with a hot meal for us. We were preparing to take Sarah to the children’s hospital for a consultation about the first major surgery she would have to endure – the cranial vault reconstruction.

The first thing she did upon entering our home was to embrace me in a bear hug and say, “You know, God gives special children to special parents.” I didn’t know what to say. It was the first encounter I’d ever had with something I knew a person meant as a comfort, but which I found to be hurtful and unhelpful.

I simply smiled and thanked her, while I seethed inside and tried to make sense of it all.

Since that time, I have worked with people all over the country who have suffered a variety of devastating losses. There are so many among us who are barely hanging on, who feel that their lives have shriveled up in the sense that no one really understands their plight. While most of those closest to us say what they think will genuinely offer solace in our times of need, words often fall flat when we are in the thick of agonizing heartbreak.

While there are countless possibilities of cliches to avoid, for the sake of brevity, I have selected the five that I hear most often among the bereaved. 

1. “He is in a better place.”

Most cliches carry seeds of truth in them, but the problem happens when words are intended to replace thoughtful acts of charity. Knowing that someone who has died, someone for whom we cared deeply, is “in a better place” (presumably heaven) does not make the pain of losing that person dissipate. 

Shortly following loss, it is not uncommon to feel intense surges of anger, directed at the person who died, ourselves, even God. To consider the possibility that his or her soul is “in a better place” can actually fuel that anger, particularly if the person died under horrific or very tragic and confusing circumstances. 

2. “Everything happens for a reason. God’s ways are mysterious.”

Life – and death – don’t have reason attached to it. In fact, the more life experience we gain, the more we realize how unpredictable and even chaotic life can be. Again, it’s true that God operates in a mystery we will never fully comprehend, due to our finitude, but in the direct aftermath of loss, we cannot always handle the blow of such a statement.

Does everything happen for a reason? One could plausibly say, in a theological sense, yes. God has a perfect and permissive will. Many of us know and accept that. We understand that God never actively wills harm or suffering, but that these are inevitabilities due to Original Sin. Instead, God permits suffering to occur, but we don’t have adequate explanations for why when we are grieving. And we may never have the answers to our questions.

3. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

A while back, when I was wrestling with this statement someone punted at me in haste, my spiritual director said something very telling: “Even Jesus was crushed under the weight of His Cross. Three times.” 

Sometimes God does give us more than we can handle. I think this platitude evolved from the verse in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that loosely translates into “Nothing has come to you but what is human. God will not let you be tried beyond your strength, but even with the trial he will provide a way out.”

Believing that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle can actually make us feel worse when we are suffocating in our suffering. We may believe that our faith isn’t strong enough, or that something we are doing is causing the suffering. In reality, it’s best to focus on the Passion of Christ and hand over our pain to Jesus, knowing that even He couldn’t carry His Cross alone.

4. “It’s all in God’s timing.”

Yes, Divine Providence is the concept that all circumstances coalesce into harmonious conclusions. When we look in retrospect at the periods of our lives when we didn’t understand why things weren’t falling into place, and then suddenly, they did, we can more clearly determine God’s hand at work in coordinating the aspects that needed to occur before life could move forward.

This doesn’t make sense, however, where death and loss are concerned. How can death ever truly be God’s timing? A young child dying of an undiagnosed heart condition? A teenager dying in a fatal car crash? A young mom with several small children dying of cancer? Truthfully, we don’t need to dissect God’s timing or ways when we are grieving. We simply need to live in the midst of the questions for a while.

5. “Time heals all wounds.”

I heard it said on a documentary in which a young woman lost her son to murder, “Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It helps us deal with our wounds.”

To believe that somehow the passage of time will lessen our grief is to limit the way in which we grieve. A counselor once told me that God gives us our emotions, and when they arise in us, we can attend to them with gentleness. There will be times in our lives when grief reappears in bizarre ways, even surprising us as we thought we had “moved on” or “gotten over it.”

Time provides us with the space to feel the ups and downs related to all of living, and all of dying. It does not erase what – or who – we have lost. 

Grief is complicated and nuanced, but it is also a strange, paradoxical opportunity for us to draw nearer to the wounded Heart of Jesus and grow in a deeper love for Him. We find healing in His wounds.

Photo by Kenny Orr on Unsplash


JEANNIE EWING is a Catholic spirituality writer and national inspirational speaker. Among her eight books, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, is her most popular. She is a frequent guest on podcasts, radio shows, and has appeared on EWTN, CatholicTV, and ShalomWorld. Her deepest desire is to accompany those who suffer and are lonely. Visit her website at jeannieewing.com for more information.

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