Coping with Hurtful Words and Attitudes During Grief

Advice on dealing with difficult people and hurtful comments during grief

Last updated: 28 November 2016

Bereavement is a difficult, lonely time, but negative attitudes and hurtful words from those around you can make it even more difficult to cope.

Normally, you might be good at ignoring negative comments. You might deal with hurtful people and upsetting comments by laughing it off. But grief can make even the most well-intentioned remark feel like a painful attack and sometimes, unfortunately, people might not know when they hurt you.

Sometimes the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one can cause negative attitudes from others. For example, social prejudices against mental illness or substance abuse can lead to misconceptions or judgements about the person who has died and the bereaved. Other examples include deaths resulting from criminal activity, accidents caused by human error, dangerous driving and suicide.

People may express that it was your loved one’s fault, that they “brought it on themselves”, or that you should forget about them because they were careless with their life. The underlying misconception here is that you shouldn’t be sad, because they were responsible for their own death. This is untrue. Your grief is valid, no matter how your loved one died.

Some people may try to force their opinions on you, religious or otherwise. People bereaved by suicide in particular may be told that suicide is a sin. Even though the person who said this might well believe it to be the truth, these comments can be extremely upsetting and entirely unhelpful.

In other cases, grief can make you imagine that a close friend or relative is criticising or insulting you, even if that is not their intention. Because your emotions are so intense during grief, even the smallest comments, which you would usually ignore, can become hurtful.

Ways of coping

If you have heard a hurtful comment or someone is acting in a way that you find disrespectful, there are several ways of dealing with the situation. Consider what is the right way for you to handle it and always remember that this is your grief – you must be allowed to feel it as it is.

  • Ignore them and let it go. Consider if this argument is worth your time and energy. If a friend has said something hurtful in passing, it could be that they didn’t mean it. It may be better to let it go – you’ve got enough to deal with as it is, without having to confront someone about a small comment. Even if you believe they are in the wrong, it might be worth prioritising your emotional well-being and ignoring it altogether.
  • Be honest when something upsets you. You might want to mention that a certain comment or attitude upsets you, especially if it is a close friend that keeps repeating a phrase that distresses you. For example, if they keep saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” you could just say, “I know you don’t mean to upset me, but I just find that kind of comment unhelpful.” It could be that they have no idea how their words are affecting you. Being honest will help them better support you.
  • Tell them clearly and firmly that their behaviour is not helpful. If someone keeps saying hurtful things and will not be persuaded to stop, you might want to explain to them that their comments are adding to the burden of grief. Despite what they may believe, your grief is valid and you need to be allowed to express it.
  • Avoid negative people who continue to hurt you. If a certain person continually behaves in a way that causes you deep distress, think about taking a break from talking to that person. Perhaps in the future, when your grief isn’t so raw, you may be able to reignite the friendship. But right now you need as many supportive, loving voices as possible, not negative ones.
  • Spend time with others who are bereaved. If other friends and family members have been bereaved by the death of your loved one, you may find it helpful to spend time with them. You don’t necessarily have to talk about your loved one, but knowing that they at least partially understand what you are going through can help.
  • Join a specialist support group. There are many bereavement support groups in Australia that focus on one type of bereavement, such as suicide bereavement groups. This means that everyone in that group will have at least some idea of the social prejudices you are facing. Sharing your story with people in the same situation can be an important way of moving towards healing.

If you find that a particular comment or attitude is deeply troubling you, if you can’t stop thinking about something someone has said, you might want to find further reassurance and guidance. Contact a specialist bereavement support organisation for expert advice on coping with grief and the attitudes of those around you.