What Not to Say or Do When Someone You Know is Grieving

Heidi Hutton Rigoli
4 min readMar 8, 2024

My husband died a little over four months ago.

I’m 68 years old and have lost other people. My father, my mother, and others.

But my husband was the most important person and best friend I’ve ever had. We were married for almost 30 years, and I’m experiencing a depth of sorrow I’ve never known before.

Yet, I feel the need to speak up about something. Not just for myself, but for others who grieve and may not want to say it.

Here goes —

Sometimes people say and do dumb things when you’re grieving!

Sorry to be harsh, but it’s true.

The problem is that these things aren’t just dumb. They can be hurtful too.

I know you don’t mean to hurt anyone. I’ve often said the wrong thing too.

For instance, saying that the one who died is “in a better place.”

That isn’t helpful. Anyway, how do you know?

Also, people will tell you they’re sorry, but at least the loved one had a good, long life.

No matter how old the dead one was when they died (my husband was 92) their life wasn’t long enough for the person who is missing them.

Then, there are the people who don’t show up to support you.

What surprised me the most were the reactions of friends I thought were the closest and would be the most supportive.

Some of them didn’t show up.

Then there were people I never expected, who were there for me.

Yes, I have expectations.

I’ve been told expectations only lead to disappointment.

I agree. But sometimes I do have them.

I don’t know everyone’s reason for not showing up. I think some people don’t know what to say and are afraid they’ll say the “wrong thing.”

Like the things I’m writing about here!

Or maybe a person doesn’t show up because they can’t bear to look death in the face.

And looking at you, my friend, right after your loved one dies, is looking death in the face.

Another thing I feel and hear amongst grieving people is that most people who did come to support them came during the first few days or weeks after the death.

Eventually, people get back to their busy lives and families.

What they may not know, and the one grieving is surprised to discover too, is you’re in shock at first. You might be busy taking care of business.

I was pretty numb those first weeks.

Unfortunately, a couple of months or more later, the shock wears off. The fact that the person is really gone hits hard.

The loneliness is excruciating.

Not that anyone can take that away from the person, but a little distraction might help.

Many of the people who were there to support you for the first few weeks are understandably going on with their lives. They probably figure you are too.

But quite often, you’re not.

You’re very clear now that the person you’ve lost is never coming back. You have no second chances with them. No do-overs. If you have any guilt about things, you can’t make it up to them now.

There will be no new experiences with them, no more hugs and kisses, or intimate conversations.

There are also “the firsts.”

The first time you do things, like shop, walk, or go places, since the person died.

These come when you’re at the grocery store.

You pass by the snacks you used to buy for them and it hits you right in your gut: You won’t be buying them their favorite food anymore.

You realize how automatic it was to look for the things they like to eat.

You might even reach for an item, but your hand draws back as if from fire.

Or you go for a walk and pass someone you and your loved one used to say hello to while out walking. You say hello and hope they don’t see that you’re crying.

Now you’re walking alone.

Sure, there will be friends to walk with, but you’ll never again walk with your best friend.

When we were walking, my husband would point to birds and flowers. Seared in my mind is the joy with which he would gently hold a flower between his fingers, and say to it, “Wow! You’re beautiful. Thanks for showing up!”

You might even try to do that yourself now.

But, your words seem to fall to the ground.

You feel empty, hollow. And in that hollowness is nothing but pain for a while.

If the person you loved did not die suddenly, you might have thought you were prepared for the loss. Others might think so too.

But there is no preparation for this.

People who have lost someone with whom they were lovingly intertwined, may get what you’re going through. Others will not.

I’m only in the third month of living without my husband, Fran. I know things will lighten up as time goes on. I know grief doesn’t end, but we can learn to live with it (or so I’m told).

I am not resentful of my friends who can’t show up the way I want. There have been plenty of times I have not been there for people.

I know I have a choice about how I go on with my life. I can choose to be bitter, sad, angry . . . but do I want to with that?

No. I realize we’re all trying to do the best we can, including me!

And our lives can be gone in a moment.

I know that more than ever now.