What Not to Say
“Sometimes not knowing what to say, what would be appropriate to a child who is bereaving, will prevent me from helping them. From reaching out to them.” (Teacher)
Talking about death and grief can be difficult. When reaching out to a child who has recently experienced a loss, even caring and compassionate adults may hesitate, fearful of making comments that are not helpful. This module offers education professionals concrete advice on “what not to say” to grieving students and their families. It offers more constructive alternatives. Use this information to feel more confident that your comments will be supportive and affirming.
Many of us aren’t sure how to approach a conversation with a grieving student. This is when adults are likely to make the least helpful choice of all—to say nothing. This may communicate to children that you don’t care, aren’t available, can’t cope, or aren’t confident they can cope.
Consider these common remarks, which are well-intentioned but not helpful:
- I know how you feel. You cannot. Each child’s experience is unique. Until children tell us how they are feeling, we can’t really know.
- You must be angry/sad/frightened/confused. It is more useful to ask children how they feel.
- At least you had the holidays together before she died. Statements that being with “At least” (“At least he is no longer suffering,” “At least you have another brother”) are likely to discourage or silence true expressions of grief.
What should educators say to grieving students? Open-ended questions are usually most helpful. Some examples:
- How are you doing? How is your family?
- What are some memories you have about your father?
- Tell me more about what this past week has been like for you.