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What to say and not say to someone who is grieving

Finding the right words to say to someone who is grieving can be really tricky. That’s why we’ve rounded up a list of things to say and not to say to someone who is grieving. Have a read.

When someone dies, it can be really difficult to know what to say. Here are Kenzie’s Gift founder and bereaved māma / mum Nic’s thoughts.

Some of these you may find upsetting or confronting so please remember these are Nic’s personal opinions, formed by her own experience and from years of working with Kiwi families who have lost their tamariki / children.

When Kenzie girl died and grief cast its dark shadow over our lives, the kindness of whānau, friends and strangers brought rays of sunshine and hope to our lives. To this day, I remember and treasure all the acts of kindness that were shown to us: it was humanity at its finest.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to other families who have walked this really tough journey, discussing some of the wonderful support and things that have helped us through. But we’ve also discussed  some of the stupidest and most careless things people have said.

With this in mind, I thought I would share a few tips and examples of what to say (and what not to say) to a parent or caregiver that has lost their taitamaiti / child.

What not to say

Top of the list of things not to say is anything about a higher being loving their taitamaiti / child more, and that they’re now in a better place, i.e. "God loved them more," or "They are in a better place now".

While that may be your belief system, for most mātua / parents and caregivers, they could not love anything more than their taitamaiti / child, and the place their taitamaiti / child should be is with them.

Say this instead:

Much better to say, "I wish I knew what to say, just know I am here for you".

This way, you are recognising their grief and distress and offering unconditional support.

What not to say

Another clanger that we often hear is, "There is a reason for everything," or "It's God's plan".

Again, a big no-no.

There is no higher reason for a taitamaiti / child to be faced with a life-threatening illness, invasive medical procedures and their young lives cut short. It's a devastating result of genetics and DNA going awry and a body not doing what we need it to do. A cruel twist of biology brought on by no one.

Say this instead:

Empathy and compassion can be articulated instead by saying, "You and your whānau are in our thoughts and prayers", or "I'm so sorry for your loss, I’m here for you".

What not to say

Here’s another notable example of distressing words. If someone loses a partner, parent or sibling, we would never think to say: "Sure, you'll soon find another one.” But for some reason, when someone loses a taitamaiti / child, people will often say, "At least you can still have another taitamaiti / child ..."

It seems so obvious, but you can't replace a taitamaiti / child with another, just like you can't replace your partner, parent or sibling.  

This statement gets rolled out time and time again - all of the families I have walked this journey with have had it said to them at one point.

Say this instead:

Nothing. Just say nothing. Saying nothing is better than saying this.

What not to say

Here’s another distressing example, one which thinks that a positive mindset can beat mate pukupuku / cancer and that death from mate pukupuku / cancer is simply a failure in the fight against it.

This one, I heard from a corporate representative who had been reading The Secret. I’d just presented to an audience about Kenzie and my journey with mate pukupuku / cancer when she asked me, "So why are you here?"

I knew exactly where this was going as I had heard many platitudes from The Secret about how we could wish our futures to be just so - in some way implicating that we’re responsible for our mate pukupuku / cancer, survivorship or death.

She then proceeded to say, "You’re here because you chose to be here, Kenzie chose to die". It was clear that she actually meant that if Kenzie had been tougher and fought harder, she could have chosen to survive.

This is also similar to saying: "They came here to do what they needed to do, and it was their time to go."

I’ve got one word for these thoughtless things.


Say this instead:

It’s much better to say nothing at all than say these type of things. Give a hug and just be with the person instead. There’s support in silence too.

What not to say

If you want to convey solidarity with someone who has lost a taitamaiti / child, please only say, "I know how you feel," if you've lost a taitamaiti / child too.

Say this instead:

If you haven't lost a taitamaiti / child, it’s best to say, "I don't know how you feel, but I’m here for you”. This way, you’re recognising their grief and offering support.

Final thoughts on what to say to someone who is grieving

It’s tough not knowing what to say, for fear of saying the wrong thing. We understand and know that it’s hard - it takes courage to be there for friends and whānau through tough stuff.  But being thoughtful about your words, being supportive, and being there makes a huge difference. It made a difference in our lives through all the trauma.

So please, be there for friends, show empathy, kindness and solidarity.

But don't try to fix it - you can't.

You can be the support through the tough times. You can recognise the feelings without trying to change them. Grief is a long-term journey and it's not time limited.

Remember to recognise their loss and admit that you can’t make it better. Talk about their loved one and share memories - this is such a big part of their legacy and indelible footprint they have left behind.

Always remember, a moment’s kindness can carry someone through their darkest hour.

Tēnā koutou / thank you to everyone for the moments of kindness you've shown to us.