12 Grief Cliches and the reasons they suck.

some things we can't put a bow on.

some things we can’t put a bow on.

Two weeks ago I asked a question via my Facebook page: “In your opinion, what is the worst cliche used for grief and loss?”

People hate clichés, so they were happy to chime in on the flippant things people said to them in their worst moments.

I’ve had nearly all of these thrown at me in a funeral receiving line, all except the ones that pertain to loss of a child, a unique grief which I haven’t walked through.

I’ve spent the past few weeks going over these in my head, turning them over in my heart and I’ve come to realize that there are two central themes running through every one

1) Loss isn’t that bad and it will all be better soon, this isn’t really that hard.
2)  God is the source of your loss, he willed it for the good of all.

I find that every grief cliche has one or both of these going on.

Often those who come bearing these cliches also come armed with scripture that makes us wonder, “wait, are they right? Is the way I’m feeling completely invalid? Is God up there sending the worst into my life like a parent doling out punishment?”

This practice is called proof texting, it’s what people do when they want to say something and they want it to be biblical, so they find a verse that backs up their thoughts and ignore the context completely.

And the google gods have just made this even easier to do… 

Proof texting has backed up slavery, racism, gender inequality, corporal punishment and pretty much all of these awful cliches. So when you hear a verse that seems completely incompatible from what you know to be true of the Gospels and the love of God, dismiss it until you’ve had time to look into the context itself.

For now, let’s blow up some clichés, yes?

1) We’re not having a funeral, we’re having a celebration– Asking grieving people to celebrate is patently unfair. Loss it’s hard, it’s part of the fall, minimizing it isn’t something Jesus did so perhaps we shouldn’t either.  God loves his people, but he hates death, hates it.  Sent his son to make it go away forever in fact.

2) God needed another angel – This one is ridiculous on every theological level imaginable.  Shall we break them down really quick? 1) people don’t become angels when they die, two different things. 2) God doesn’t exist in time so God doesn’t ever “need us” up in heaven, he wants us, but he doesn’t need us there at any certain time.

3) God wants to make you stronger through this – Stronger? Like God’s taking my people away like a body builder adds weights? Grief doesn’t make you stronger or more impervious to pain. It tenderizes, breaks your heart and leaves it partly broken, it wounds and leaves you living but limping.  This brings you closer to God not closer to strength and independence.

4) Be strong, you’ll get through this just fine! – Again with the strong. Nose to the grindstone!  Grieve well, grieve hard and you’ll be fine by next Tuesday!  You know what I love about the Bible?  How it talks about our weaknesses as acceptable, as our best shot at falling in Love with a God who wants to sustain us moment to moment.

5) God never gives you more than you can handle (the most hated and discussed cliché) I still remember the first time I realized that this wasn’t in the bible. So many people think this is scripture, it’s not.  This is a twisting of 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” The context of this verse is a letter to the church of Corinth encouraging them to take a look at the history of the people of Israel to find a common thread for their own struggles. All this to say this verse was never, ever, ever written as a means to minimize loss or pain.  It’s not true.  We get more than we can handle all the time, in fact we were never intended to handle it in on our own in the first place.

6) Everything happens for a reason The more I live, the less black and white it all is.  I believe that God gives and takes away but I don’t understand what that looks like from God’s end of things. I’m too mature to believe that God is hands off with death, but I also believe that God grieves with us and that this is no trite thing.

7)  Well, you know he was “saved” right?  Whether or not someone is in heaven is comforting, but it never makes death easy. Death is a permanent tearing away and it hurts no. matter. what.  Paul (who had been to heaven at this point) described death as sorrow upon sorrow, wave upon wave of pain when we are torn apart from those we love with no other options.  Paul had seen heaven, and he still grieved death.  He’d been there and he still described losing people to it as repetitive, crashing pain.  

8)  All part of God’s plan We don’t understand God’s plan, at least I don’t. I know that there are two forces at work in the world right now and one of them is evil. It is never, ever, ever helpful to tell someone that the God they are clinging to is the one who inflicted their wounds for the greater good. It’s not good theology and it’s a terribly unhelpful at a funeral, I worry that those doing it are driving people away from the God they deeply need in the moment.

9) You shouldn’t be attached to the body, it’s just a shell, they’re not there anymore.  I’ve heard this one a lot, too much. It pissed me off every time. As humans we’re allowed to be attached to objects, homes, wedding rings, photos…. but when it comes to the bodies of our loved ones we’re supposed to be completely detached. The body is the way we saw the soul on this earth, we’re allowed to be a little attached. It’s hard to put those bodies in the ground and walk away.  Don’t forget this.

10) At least you’re young enough that you can have another child OR remarry  “Makes it sound like you can go to the store and get a new one to replace the one you’ve lost.”  Are any of the people in your life interchangeable?  Expendable?  Replaceable?  Then neither are other people’s. If we say that God creates us all unique and that all life is precious than grieving the loss of any life, no matter the gestation or age, is completely justified.

11) Well at least it was early in the pregnancy so you weren’t that attached.  I haven’t miscarried so I don’t pretend to understand that pain. But I do understand the pain of hope that doesn’t come to completion and I understand the heaviness of grieving “what didn’t happen.”  I understand that my parents were supposed to be grandparents and likewise those babies were supposed to be born full term, to nurse, babble, walk, graduate and fall in love.  Life is precious. We are attached.

12) It was just their time to go.  This reduces people to timers, there is no comfort in telling someone that their loved one’s clock ran out. Our lives play out in complex ways and the manner of death is sometimes so shocking that it’s nearly impossible to believe that when God planned this life, he planned this ending.  I’ve sat in front of caskets and wondered: “Is this really how it ends, God? When you sent a baby, did you know this was how it ended?”

Clichés are human attempts to make the hugeness of life and death easy to manage and understand.  This cannot be done, it hurts more than it helps.

The phrases are something that people who “don’t get it” say in attempt to make it all better, to put a magical bandaid on it and reduce the raw awkwardness. They usually come to us with good intentions

As a society we aren’t all that comfortable with pain in progress, we like a bow, we like a quick happy ending.  We need to get over that.

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  • Lisa K

    Having not experienced the loss of a close loved one, I have had a hard time relating but I do know that I will be devestated when it happens. I think watching you and Nicole go through it has helped me be empathetic and to sit back and be there for the suck and not feel like I need to say anything than, “This really sucks.”

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      You got it right Lisa, I’ve seen your empathy in action and appreciated every second. I still remember you bringing flowers to “soup and pie” night… it melted me.

  • Natalie Hart

    Oh yes. All of these. I’d be so happy to have any or all of them retired. Having been on the receiving end of some of these, I wish people would realize that they don’t have to be the “wise words” person to “put all of this in context.” Because the actual wise persons just hug you and are sad with you.

  • Deanna Piercy

    One of the things I learned as a hospice nurse is that often the least said, the better. A hug and “I’m so, so sorry” is often the best one can do. I also think it’s comforting to see that others are grieving along with you. I learned not to hide my tears when one of my patients died.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      I think that’s so lovely Deanna and I’m sure it was appreciated by your clients.

  • Lisa Adams

    Hope your next post is about educating those who have not experienced deep loss on how to comfort well. No platitudes or cliches just sincere “I am very sorry for your loss” plus what else? What helps?

    • http://hopefullyknown.com/ Tamara Rice

      I can’t speak for Leanne, but I can tell you I think the only person who will know what else will help is the person you are trying to comfort. “I am very sorry for your loss” plus “is there anything I can do?” Everyone’s answer to that question is going to be different, even if they are going through the exact same things.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      I can do that, it would be mostly few words and tons of practical advice. I think the best way to love post grief is with your hands and your presence.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ Leigh Kramer

    I’ve been on the receiving end of many of these and have also counseled many families who have heard them. Always the worst. Any time we use a grief cliche, it’s to make ourselves feel better. We see our friends and family grieving and it makes us feel helpless (because we are) so we tack on a few words and try to tie a bow around it. But grief defies these endeavors. It is messy and painful and just plain wrong. No matter how young or old, no matter the circumstances, no matter what, loss hurts. There’s nothing we can say to make it better. We need to get to a place of recognizing our presence matters more than empty words.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Absolutely presence is everything. After both my parents died the people I most remember are those who were there, in the formal and informal moments.

  • http://hopefullyknown.com/ Tamara Rice

    Thank you for this. I feel like your number 1 is something I see a lot of on Facebook and I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone. A Christian will post that so-and-so just “graduated to heaven” and that status will get 30 likes. Do we really think the family of that person who was just lost to *this* world forever wants to see 30 people “liking” that their loved one died? I think sometimes people mean well … and sometimes they just aren’t thinking. (Neither one is a very good excuse for being hurtful with our words.) But I despise cliches. They do hurt. Thank you for this, because as much as I’d like to think it’s intuitive to recognize that these things don’t help … the number of times I have heard them from people over the years proves otherwise.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Yeah graduated to heaven isn’t my favorite either, and it’s true… all of these are still happening today.

  • Bethany

    Instead of asking “what can I do?” – step in and DO something. Laundry, cooking, cleaning, driving – what you can see is a need. At times of the grief, the person you are asking is in a cloud and can’t tell you “what” you can do to help! .. My humble opinion.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Yes, my best game plan with this is to say: “I’m going to do _____ (bring food, clean, watch kids, rake leaves) When is it best convenient for you?”

      People want you to think they don’t need help and they can handle regular duties but, they can’t. Also, grief is expensive so if they deny everything you can always mail gas cards or takeout gift certificates. Practical was everything for me. I had friends pitch in with rent and even help with my Dad’s headstone to keep my from taking out a loan for it.

    • Gin

      I totally agree with you, Bethany. When someone is grieving, it’s all they can do to get up in the morning, and we expect them to be able to get their thoughts together to make a “To Do” list for folks?

    • Alana

      And asking what to do puts more burden on the one experiencing the loss. Then they have to think and organize, which they should be free to release (IMO).

  • Beverly Belcher Woody

    The one that I can’t stand is, “God just wanted another flower for His garden” and the one previously mentioned that “God won’t give us more than we can handle.” Then, how do they explain suicides and mental institutions filled to capacity? When my father died, the greatest comfort to me was his childhood friends telling me stories of things that Daddy did as a young man or things that Daddy said about me!

    • Mark Allman

      I do think it is nice to hear how a person you loved impacted someone elses life.

  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

    This is astonishingly good, thank you. Interestingly, although I haven’t experienced grief in a major way yet, the way you summarised what these cliches boil down to is also how I would summarise how people respond when they hear of my chronic illness.

    I am glad to say that I have never (as far as I can remember!) uttered any of these cliches to a grieving person.

    Recently I read Julian Barnes’ book Levels of Life. The first two parts are introduction, really, and the third part is a brilliant meditation on what it felt like to lose his wife. It is like the atheist’s version of A Grief – Explored?? – totally forgotten the title of CS Lewis’s book. But anyway – Julian Barnes also obliterates some of the useless things people say to him afterwards- I remember him doing that well with ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’

    FAB post! And we have to Skype – January?? Xx

    • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

      A Grief Observed! How could I forget that??

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Yes to January. I’ll email you to get something on the books as soon as I finish responding to comments to ensure we do 😉

  • Kathi

    Leanne, I thank you for addressing these “cliches.” I’ve heard most of them, as well, and I could add another that was painful to hear: “She (or he) lived a good, long life.” Having lost both my mom and dad (it’s been a year and a half) at the ages of 87, I’m sure people thought this was an appropriate response. Yes, I was thankful that I had them for so many years, but those years just made us closer and the loss more difficult, and it wasn’t long enough – just further evidence that God made our hearts yearn for eternity. I cry over the simplest reminders of them. And yes, my heart does yearn for eternity!

    • Mark Allman

      I agree. When you love someone it is never long enough.

  • http://www.estheremery.com/ Esther Emery

    Wow. Bravely spoken. So many of these drive me crazy. Thanks for leading us to stand in the broken places, in all the complexity and beauty of grief.

  • Kate

    So appreciated this article. I weighed in on this issue in a different light in my Open Letter to Grief:


    May it be an encouragement to you, and thank you for sharing these truths and helpful insights.

  • Guest

    Good list. re: #9, the problem is deeper than you even indicate. We’re
    not souls “wearing” bodies or even souls implanted with bodies. That’s
    uncut gnosticism. When God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s
    nostrils, he BECAME a living soul… For the body and spirit to be
    separated is a horrible rending and always the cause for tears.

  • Rev. Zachary Bartels

    Good list. re: #9, the problem is deeper than you even indicate. We’re
    not souls “wearing” bodies or even souls implanted in bodies. That’s
    uncut gnosticism. When God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s
    nostrils, he BECAME a living soul… For the body and spirit to be
    separated is a horrible rending and always the cause for tears.

  • Lori

    I’m also a nurse who has just had a hysterectomy from uterine cancer in April, went through 3 rounds of chemo, & just came from the hospital for a routine (one of several ones coming up) follow up cat scans because the type of cancer I had could return in two years, so they’re watching me close. It makes me think more about my immortality, so here’s my thoughts. I want a celebration & not a funeral. I believe God has numbered our days (because the Bible says so) & know when it is our time to go. I want to believe He’s sovereign over my life & does have a perfect plan for me. I don’t want to be an angel, I want to be a redeemed child of God running into the arms of a loving savior. I have been made stronger through this cancer experience & hope I never have to repeat it. I am saved & will be in heaven & I hope my family finds comfort in that when I go at whatever time I do. I may live another 40 years. I may not. But some of these clichés are good things to say in my opinion. I would want them said at my life’s celebration. I love God with all my heart & try very hard to live godly in honor of who He is. And I would never use the words p_ _ _ ed off, because it’s foul talk & He has asked us not to talk that way. You had my respect until then.

  • Linda Marie Hamlet

    I usually say “I’m so very sorry for your loss, it must be very difficult.” and then I just STOP talking and listen. I think hugs are always appreciated and if you are feeling sad along with them, then don’t be afraid to show your emotion.

  • Lin

    I agree with many of your points, and having recently lost my mother, have heard just a few of the cliches spoken to me. I don’t care for them, either. But in any case, please try to have grace toward the person trying to comfort you. If they are saying the words, that means they have probably shown up for a visit or for the memorial service. They came. They’re trying. They may well be at a loss for words, and blurt something out quite by accident. I’ve seen it happen with my own husband; he wants to visit someone who’s experienced a loss – genuinely desires to be of some comfort – but suddenly doesn’t know at all what to say. “I’m so sorry,” is really the most helpful – but sometimes you are in a room with many people, and you are face to face with a grieving family member for several minutes as you wait to talk with another. “I’m so sorry” doesn’t cover the awkwardness of the moment, so you end up reverting to words that you never meant to say, just to fill up the time as you’re standing there. I’ve found something that seems to be helpful in these situations and maybe it will help others. Consider engaging the bereaved family member by saying something like, “I heard your dad was an avid golfer. What was his best game ever?” or, “I see by the photos that your mom made some lovely quilts. How did she get started in quilting?” or, “What is one your favorite memories of ____?” Things like this show an interest in the person, and often the bereaved family is so glad to talk about the good times with their loved one. It’s infinitely better than having to tell the story of their final days.
    To anyone reading this who has recently experienced a loss, I’m so sorry; I truly am. It’s really hard. There’s no timetable for grief, so take your time. Your loss is unique; it’s not the same as your sister’s loss or your brother’s loss or your spouse’s loss or your friend’s loss, so don’t even try to compare it. Allow yourself the pain, the anger, the grief, the emptiness. Pray for strength to make it through just one more hour/day. Allow yourself to be loved on by friends and family – or to just take the time to process the grief with some “alone” time. There is no “right” way except that which helps you to cope as you slowly put one foot in front of the other.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Thank you Lin, I agree, I never believe that we should throw the person who said something awkward under the bus. Rarely do people come to funerals with ill intent. But words always matter and when we’re on the receiving end of something that’s hurtful or skewing God then there is merit to address that as well.

      I love your practice of asking about a lost loved one at a funeral home, we love to tell stories in those moments and opening heats up for storytelling is such a healing moment. I’m sure that those who receive your grace at funerals and the like remember your tender thoughtfulness.

  • Allison

    I can relate to this so much! My question is, what DO we do when people say some of these things to us? I don’t want to throw their sympathy back in their faces, but sometimes it does frustrate me. I was even bothered by many of these things being uttered at the recent funeral of my friend, even by some of her family members. It has been hard to process, and the funeral didn’t help partly because I felt like many were “putting a brave face on” and spouting cliches…not very healing.

  • Jimmy Orr

    Awesome article! As a minister who officiates about 25 funerals a year, I hear these cliches. They make me cringe. I love your honesty. Thanks!

  • Stephanie

    “All part of God’s plan” destroyed my faith as an 9 year old when my grandfather died. He was the single most influential person in my life at a time when I needed him most and I thought that if God took him away from me when I needed him that he didn’t really love me. So, in my infinite child wisdom, decided I didn’t love him back. It took almost 6 years to mend that part of my heart. Never say this, or any of these for that matter, to a child. At that age abstract and unconventional thought have not been embraced and this will only cause them confusion and more pain.

  • Harris

    I do agree with the fact that many things people say at a time of grief are uttered out of nervousness and should be considered as merely one’s attempt to console. However, most times, “less” is best. I have lost loved ones and truly stunned me when people would say “Time heals everything”. That is an empty statement, one that is not true. After losing my wife 5 years ago, nothing has “healed”. I can say that there is not a day that goes by that the sadness is not there. And to hear “It was God’s will” is another hollow, somewhat cruel statement. As a Christian, one who LOVES his Lord, cannot connect this statement. And I didn’t need to hear “I know how you feel”. I would never make that statement for no one TRULY understand one’s loss. I so agree with those who have stated that simply saying you are sorry for their loss and to “do something” for the family, not “asking” what you can do is a profound gift of friendship, love. To ask someone “what can I do?” adds to the overwhelming tasks that have already had to have been addressed. It has already been a “business as usual” when one HAS to deal with picking out everything that must be handled prior to any plans for a funeral following the death of a loved one. The last thing someone needs to do is to share with someone else the mundane things that TRULY have to be done. Simply find out WHEN a meal can be delivered or bring the lawn mower over and cut the grass. Grief is a journey that is personal, no matter how much one “thinks” they know. Thank you for your list and thank you for allowing others to share their experiences. Blessings.

  • Gin

    I think one of the things we need to remember when comforting someone who is grieving is that Jesus wept when Lazarus died. Here is the creator of the universe, with all power and knowledge that He would raise him from the dead, yet He cried. I believe there are several reasons Jesus cried, but primarily it was because He felt the sorrow of loss. His heart hurt at that moment, regardless of the imminence of Lazarus’ resurrection. Can you imagine someone using these cliche’s on Him? How ridiculous would that be? Better to just be present, tell them how sorry you are, and let them know how much you care for them.

  • Alana

    I’ve heard many of these, having lost a boyfriend to cancer, a parent, grandparents, and a pregnancy. I think the dumbest comments come with regard to miscarriage. The second you find out you’re pregnant you are thinking of your child, planning for the future, loving that baby. You’re a parent. And that loss is real. I received “Get Well Soon” cards, was told it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, that this is how nature handles pregnancies when something is wrong with the baby, and that “It’s God’s will”. Really? God wanted a baby to die?

    Ultimately the only thing that helped my heart heal was learning that 1 in 3 first pregnancies end in miscarriage. That it’s very common. It made me feel like I wasn’t defective, that a lot of women out there had experienced the same loss as me, and that there was hope for the future.

    With regard to my boyfriend, my own mother said, “He’s dead and you’re here. Get over it.” It was minimized because we weren’t married. I was wholly dismissed as a valid part of his life and he in mine. We had been important to each other for years. He had cancer. I loved him and he died way too young. Love is love, with or without a ring. And again, that loss is very real. I miss him today and he died 19 years ago.

  • http://idontstopbelieving.blogspot.com/ Brenda W.

    THANK YOU for this post. So right on. I sent it to several friends who are having their first Christmas after a sad loss.

  • Michelle697

    As a recent widow, I would like to add another cliche that I have heard.
    “Your husband wants you to be happy”. Really? Happy???? Right now??? As I am burying my spouse of 25 years, as everything in life has just changed with his sudden last breath, I am supposed to be happy. At 14 months in I am still trying to figure out if I am ever really going to be happy and loved again.

  • fuzcapp

    I have actually heard stupid ‘Christians’ say to women who have been raped, that it was God’s will that they were raped because they got saved through it. The same with girls who have had abortions – “Praise God you had an abortion – because you got saved out of it!!” I mean – some Christians are gobsmackingly stupid. Oh – and while I’m at it … this goes for adoption too. DON’T EVER say to a dispossessed parent ANYTHING EVER about the loss of a child through adoption being God’s will or God’s blessing or anything ever like that. Losing a child to adoption is a lifelong death sentence for the dispossessed parent.
    Some Christians seem to have had a complete empathy bypass.