Grief Etiquette 101 (Please Stop Asking "What Happened?")

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

Death is inevitable. Even though everyone will leave this earth one day, it will never become easier for someone who loses a loved one. If you are close to the person who transitioned, the grieving process is usually harder.


Recently, my 23-year-old cousin passed away, and it broke the hearts of my family members. And while I have been to more funerals than I’d liked to admit in my life from family and friends (some were close, and others were not so close). Over the years, I have noticed that most people are compassionate and will send their prayers and condolences while others tend to be selfish and merely nosy.


Of course, it is common in this social media era to see RIP posts as people pay their respects and honor the life of their loved ones. I do not consider myself a guru on grief, but there should be a grief 101 etiquette class that everyone takes to learn how to respond to those who are grieving. It is something that my mother taught me, and I am learning that it is not the same for everyone.


I’ve taken the liberty to write this article with hopes that it will educate individuals on what to say and what not to say when someone is grieving.


Do not ask, “What happened?”

“What happened?” is commonly asked, and while I do believe most people are genuine and concerned asking for the details can come across as insensitive. While you may think it is showing compassion and concern, did you ever stop to ask yourself the following:

  • How many times is this person repeating that story?

  • How draining it can be, triggering and re-traumatizing?

More importantly, you are not entitled to know the specifics of the passing, so please stop asking. Asking for those details does nothing for the conversation. It does not console the person, bring the person back the person who passed away and puts the person in an awkward position to share if they have a hard time saying no.


There have been times when I’ve shared details, and I was not ready, but I did not want to come across as being mean. But wait, why am I concerned about how the other person feels? It appears as if the person is interested in the details of how the person passed without taking a moment to ask how I am doing.


For instance, what if the person said, “my mom jumped off a bridge” or “my sister died from cancer.” What are you doing to do with this information? Will you be more compassionate if you know the specifics? You can send your condolences and prayers without knowing what happened.


Do not insinuate.

This behavior is just as bad as asking, “What happened?” Instead, people will say something like, “Were they sick?” Again, you are not entitled to this information. If the person chooses to share, then providing a listening ear is all they need but do not try to pull details from them.


Your presence is enough.

Sometimes we feel like we need to have the answers to make the situation better. Truth be told there is nothing you can do to make the situation better because in most cases, the person would like their loved one alive. Do not understatement the power of your presence as it can do wonders by knowing someone is physically there with you.


Stop saying things you do not mean.

The one I hear often is “I am praying for you.” Of course, many people mean well, but if you are not really going to pray for the person, do not say it. Instead, you can say, you are in my thoughts and send your condolences or a card to the family. I have been guilty of this, too, and I’ve learned from it. I do my best to be conscience and stop what I am doing to pray for the family or ask the person if they would like me to pray with them. This can be over the phone or in-person if I am with them. Grief is hard enough, so the last thing people need are empty words of comfort. Instead, you can ask, "How can I support you during this time?"


Are they really in a better place?

As I have stated before, I do believe most people mean well, and others are being nosy, but saying to someone, “they are in a better place” is subjective. It may comfort some but not others. What if the person was not religious or shared the same faith as you? They may not believe in heaven (or a better place). Technically, we do not know where they are. I suggest using your best judgment, but if you do not know their faith, please do not say, “they are in a better place.”


Grief is hard on its own. Let’s be mindful of what we say to others during this difficult time.

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