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“I Know How You Feel”


That’s what I am of this “Never Say These Six Things – Well-Meaning but Hurtful Expressions of Sympathy and What to Say and Do Instead” item I’ll talk about in this post.  I’ve often said to a person standing near their loved one in the funeral home or church, “I lost my Mom many years ago, I know how hard this is, I know how you feel.”

But I don’t.  Can’t.

In my defense, I thought it was a good thing to say – to help others realize this unstoppable pain gets better.  But, as I’ve learned from Diana, Director of Heartlinks and my grief coaching classes, this is often a hurtful thing to say to someone grieving.

Why?  Because each person’s grief is so different, almost like our voices or fingerprints.  Each person experiences grief in different ways and their feelings are unique.  They may be feeling much more than sadness, they may be angry, confused, relieved, feel guilty or at fault, exhausted.  They may be happy in some ways and worried in many.  All of which we must not presume to know and say, “I know how you feel.”

My sister Annie felt very differently from the rest of my brothers and sisters when our Mom died traumatically in 1970.  Most of us couldn’t stop crying.  We were in shock and disbelief Mom wouldn’t be coming home from the hospital with our new baby brother.  Some felt angry. Annie’s feelings were different.  She felt at fault, to blame. She described her feelings in the book I recently authored, We Lost Her, in this way:

 “It was all my fault.  I didn’t even pray right, the one thing she asked only me to do.  I’ve failed her again.”  But no tears came. 

Annie wept as she told me this, 47 years later.

She didn’t shed one tear in all the days of the funeral.  She knows she didn’t cry at all, even after the funeral when she walked out to the pasture, to one of her favorite spots.  She just felt the guilt that she bore all alone, sharing it with no one.  She thought we all knew Mom’s request of her, but we didn’t.  We had no idea that she was tormented by blaming herself.  I had no idea until we talked for this book.

And as people offered their condolences and suggested “I know how you feel” Annie felt worse and worse, not better.

Stating “I know how you feel” puts the attention on us, instead of the griever.  It serves to discount and minimize the grieving person.  They don’t need to hear our grief story right now, although most will politely listen to us.  Their grief should not be about us.

So, what should we say?

“I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“I wish I had the right words, I don’t know how you feel.”

Acknowledging their uniqueness.  Remembering as we go to see them, be wholly present with the person grieving, to set our intention to kindness and love for them is the most important thing we can do, even if we say very little.  Often, our silence is best, allowing the grieving person to talk if and when they are ready and set our intention to listen at the moment to them. Because we can never know how they feel.

So, dear reader, I promise I’ll never say “I know how you feel” again and I hope this has given you some thoughts on things to say instead.

If you’d like a presentation for a group you belong to on “Never Say These Six Things” please contact Lisa at the Heartlinks Grief Center office at to arrange a speaker.

Be Blessed,


Ellen Krohne, author of We Lost Her, available on

Heartlinks Grief Center volunteer and Family Hospice board member

“We Grow Stronger Together”

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