10 Things Never to Say to a Sad, Grieving, or Depressed Person

Some pieces of advice are enough to send any upset person over the edge.

We’re all familiar with those eyeroll-worthy clichés thrown at us when we’re going through a rough patch. Whether you have lost a loved one, undergone a painful divorce, or you just can’t cope with life’s sour lemons, it seems everyone always has an opinion about what you should be doing to fix the situation, whether you welcome such advice or not.

These pearls of wisdom for the most part are useless, and can set back the grieving process, not to mention, be downright insensitive, offensive and inappropriate. It’s not that folks are trying to be hurtful; rather they lack tact or are somewhat unskilled when it comes to delivering words of support, often because they just don’t know what to say.

According to Nancy Weil, a grief specialist and director of grief support at Mt Calvary Cemetery Group, the only two things people really want to hear when they’re suffering are, “I am sorry for your loss,” and “I will keep you in my thoughts.”

“The rules of grief are simple. If it is not harmful and it’s not illegal, you’re allowed to grieve in any way you want. People will tell you how you should grieve because it may have worked for them, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you. At the end of the day, there is no right way to grieve,” Weil told AlterNet.

Sometimes just being present with the person who is experiencing hardship can be the most powerful tool of all…and knowing when to shut your trap. Weil explains:

“We all need hope and something to cling to in difficult times but often those giving advice really just want the grief-stricken person to revert back to the way they were before. In reality, experience changes us and we’re never going to be quite the same again. But that’s okay—it’s part of a healing process. While grief may change you, it doesn’t mean it will be for the worst. Joy will come again.”

Consequently, phases like pull yourself together or things could be worse are more likely to drive someone off the rails than encourage them to open up to discuss their problems.  

Here are the most unhelpful pieces of advice that should never be uttered again by anyone, period.

1. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Really? Does it? This trite expression tells us to believe that there is supposedly a bright side to all negative situations, offered as a gesture of hope. Yet, aside from being a dubious metaphor, it’s not even figuratively accurate. Not everycloud has a silver lining—it depends entirely on whether the sun or moon is emitting light behind the cloud to create that silver outline effect. So, before throwing out this erroneous expression to your tearful friend, ask yourself, "Will this person benefit, even slightly, from falsely assuring him/her that circumstances will eventually improve, when in fact I haven’t a clue what the future holds?" The answer will naturally be no, in which case, you will be eternally grateful you held back when your friend calls you the next day to tell you she got hit by a bus.

2. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

Ah! The cliché that mothers and friends alike love to regurgitate five seconds after a painful heartbreak to assure you there's an abundance of men and women out there swimming in the fish tank called life just waiting to be caught by you. Take your pick, sweetheart! Here’s some advice for y’all! It’s no consolation knowing another potential fish may be out there looking for you, when the only focus you have right now is on that bastard piranha who just shattered your heart into a million pieces. A newly brokenhearted individual is not interested in fishing for love…comprende? Sure, there may be plenty of other fish in the sea, but as far as you’re concerned, you’re not anywhere near the sea; you’re in the desert, alone! As the infamous meme goes.

3. “Just get a few drinks into you….”

Right! Here’s to alcohol, the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems as the wise Homer Simpson once said. Just keep on drinking until you’re so incapacitated you won’t even remember why you’re sad. Bottom’s up! C’mon people! Encouraging a night of binge drinking when a person is experiencing loss is a big no-no. Not only does numbing the pain act as a temporary quick fix, but self-medicating can lead to more serious substance abuse problems and decisions we may regret later.  

4. God needed another angel in heaven.

Are you kidding me? Someone has just died and you’re going to try to pin this one on God? Even a five-year-old child is smart enough to know this is a bunch of crap wrapped in a knapsack. Trying to convince a person that someone he or she loved died for some greater cause that God wanted is about as helpful as being handed a fork to eat soup—especially if you’re an atheist. Even if you are religious, no one wants to hear this when coping with the magnitude of losing a loved one. Weil explains, “We are not taught etiquette of death in society very well. When I’m working with a family who just had a death occur, I will warn them that people will say stupid things. They are not trying to be hurtful. They just don't know what to say.  In this regard, it is always best to look at their heart and intention, rather than their words.”

5.You just need to get laid.

Sorry, I forgot! Sex is the be-all-end-all answer to all cries for support. If I end my six-month dry spell, everything in my life will instantly improve as quickly as you can say orgasm!Oh, and thanks again for the self-esteem booster in reminding me how long exactly it has been since I got any—it had completely escaped my mind. Also, while I appreciate how effortless you think it would be for me to simply end my celibate streak, my name isn’t Casanova and there aren't a bevy of eligibles lined up around the corner dying to have sex with me. As Robin Thomas writes, “Never tell anyone they just need to get laid…unless you’re offering.” Touché!

6. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.

God help us, another religious reference! Granted, the power of positive thinking is important in life, but let’s be real: it can only take you so far. In fact, the only reaction this expression is likely to provoke (apart from a blow to the head) is: "Well if I’m supposed to handle this, why can’t I?" Such a taunting expression can only make a person feel like a colossal failure while completely disregarding any kind of physical suffering in the process. Likewise, as terminal cancer blogger Ann Silberman says, don’t tell your terminally ill friends to look at Lance Armstrong for inspiration. Just because Lance Armstrong survived with his 50-50 odds, doesn't mean the cancer patient with a three percent survival rate will. Sometimes illness, loss and tragedy are unavoidable, so locate your sensitivity chip and know when to bite your tongue.

7. If it’s meant to be, it will be.

Que sera, sera! Really, Doris Day? You want me to leave my whole life and future to chance and hope for the best because, well, I have no control over my destiny anyway? What a cop-out. Sure, it’s easy to just sit back and wait for things to happen in life in the hope something good will eventually, but leaving everything to fate does a huge disservice to us and infringes upon that little concept called free will. It also enables us to dissolve any notion of responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good or bad, by taking a back seat to our life rather than being the active driver of the vehicle…and where’s the fun in that? Sure, some things happen by chance seemingly out of our control, but for the most part, even then, that luck is a byproduct of hard work mixed with opportunity. Better advice? If you want something, actively pursue it.

8. It is what is it.

Is it…what? Oh, you mean you’re trying to sound insightful but really have absolutely no idea what you are talking about? Sounds about right. How is this passive-aggressive, contemptuous expression even remotely helpful to anyone? By acknowledging or accepting that shitty circumstances are just to remain as they are, we’re somehow supposed to find some inner peace. The subtext of what you’re really saying to me is this: I am just too lazy to think of an actual reason for your problems and want you to shut up. In a nutshell? This expression fails to give respect for other’s feelings, is overtly dismissive and is an evasion technique used by people who don’t have anything else to say or quite frankly don't give a damn. 

9. I know how you feel.

Empathetic advice can be a hit or miss depending on how it’s used. If you can relate to a person going through a difficult time because you have personally been there in an emotional or physical sense, then saying something to the effect of, “I never thought I would make it through, but I did, and you will too,” are acceptable words of solace. On the other hand, comparing the death of your friend’s baby sister to the pain you experienced during your divorce, may cost you a friendship. You may very well have been traumatized by your wife’s decision to leave you, but FYI —it will never compare to the loss of human life, period. You will come across as a major jackass for showing such blatant disregard for the gravity of the situation.

10. What goes around, comes around.

No list would be complete without the token karma cliché because everyone likes to think that bad things happen to those who inflict pain upon others. In reality, just because you are a good person doesn’t mean you will be rewarded. Similarly, just because you’re a deplorable specimen of a man, doesn't mean you will get your just desserts. The chances are that your cheating, lazy co-worker will probably get promoted before you do and the resident bachelor who fools around with all the women at work is married to an angel who will never find out about his indiscretions. But even if the odds fall in your favor and a person’s actions come around to bite her in the behind, you’re probably not going to be around to see it—so best be on your way and forget this redundant advice, even if Justin Timberlake tells you otherwise.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.


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