“Were you close (with the deceased)?” Think about why you’re asking that question and how you’ll reply if they say “No.” I hate that question because closeness can be a hard term to define and it seems like a way of trying to assess the depth of your grief or whether or not you should be grieving at all.  I’ve lost people I wasn’t close with and when I was asked that question, I felt awkward responding no. I felt like that would make the person think I wasn’t grieving or that I needed to provide justification for my grief. People can feel genuine grief over people they weren’t close with and the lack of closeness can complicate the grief.  I felt similarly dismissed when I was asked if I’d had my dog who died for a long time and I had to reply that I’d only had her for two months.

“Do they have any other children?” (regarding parents who have lost a child) Let’s think about the question behind this question. Perhaps you’re concerned for the welfare of the other children but more likely you’re trying to assess “how bad” their loss is and if they have other children you’re thinking “Well, at least they have other children to live for.” A compassionate response never begins with at least and losing a child with five siblings is as devastating as losing an only child.

“How did they die?” Ask yourself if you’re asking that question for the bereaved’s benefit or for your own curiosity.  The other person may not feel comfortable revealing how their loved one died and how they died is not the point. The point is they lost a loved one and are grieving. If the manner of death is important and they want to share it with you, they’ll reveal it in their own time. If you must ask at least express your condolences first and ask it in a more delicate manner, such as “Was it expected?”

“How do you manage to go on after your loss?” You’re so strong! I could never do it!” It’s meant as a compliment but the subtext is “I’m so glad it happened to you instead of me” and “I love my loved one more than you love yours.”  These people are “strong” because they don’t feel they have any other choice.

2 thoughts on “Grief Speak: Questions not to ask (of or about) the bereaved

  1. I cried more when Tom Petty died than when my grandmother did. You’re absolutely correct that people grieve differently. Its nobody’s business how much or why someone is grieving. If a person wants to be kind, offer condolences. That’s it. If they truly want to help, they can ask if there’s anything they can do for the grieving person and be prepared to do it if they’re going to ask.

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  2. Don’t ask tacky questions like “did he know he was dying?” And don’t stay away and not help out the person who gets stuck with settling an insolvent estate and a big mess of a house. Real friends help out; they figure out what to fo or they ask specific questions.

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