What NOT To Say

shareasimage-2 copyRecently a friend was commenting that someone said something totally inappropriate to an individual who had recently suffered a loss.  In this case it was a death and the remark was one of those ones that people say ALL the time but don’t really understand the impact of the words on the grieving individual.  I have been guilty of it and I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this post has at one time or another made the same blunder.

I went to school to be a social worker.  Not that I have ever worked in that field for money but I have to believe that I learned something from Dr. Kahil and Professor Brubaker all of those years ago at Ohio Northern University.  Couple that with trainings and classes over the years including Stephen Ministry and I have picked up a thing or two about what to say and what not to say.

So today please consider my list of what not to say to someone who has suffered a loss.

God has a plan. Indeed God does have a plan but my belief in a loving God does not include the scenario that God wants his children to be in pain or suffer.  It is the world that we live in.  As I told my children time and time again—life is not fair.  The sooner you figure that out the better you will be as well as learning to be  more accepting of situations that are out of your control.

I know exactly what you are going through.  No, no, no !!!  A million times NO!  No one can possibly know exactly what another person is going through because we are all so different and each situation, although there are similarities, is different for each individual.  You can empathize, be compassionate and share that you have suffered hardships also but you can never know exactly what another person is experiencing unless you are that person.

God knew you could handle it so he gave you more.  Once again, no.  I do not believe that we have a God that looks on us and deems who can suffer the most, the longest, the best.  Once again–we live in an imperfect world.  Stuff happens.  Yes, you may find incredible strength when you endure a hardship but it is not really all about having things handed out to folks just because they can “handle” it well.

He/She is in a better place. This one is a tough one.  Perhaps.  But what about YOU?  The one left behind to deal with the aftermath that inevitably comes with a loss or death or crisis of some kind? Perhaps the very best thing to do is to just say “I am so sorry for your loss.”

She/He lived a full life.  Maybe so.  Instead of saying something that somewhat diminishes that person how about asking what did you love the most about him/her?   That way it opens up the conversation to sharing some wonderful stories and memories instead of focusing on the sadness and loss.

Call me if you need anything.  I have said this one a billion times but you know what I really needed to do?  Just show up.  Chances are good that that person will never call you if they need something.  The best thing is to just show up. Ask specifically if there is anything that you can do and then just do it.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  It can be as simple as going to the post office and getting stamps for thank you notes.  When a friend lost her son unexpectedly I was able to take the SD card from her camera and get prints made for the memorial service display.  It can be something simple like offering to walk the dog to staying at the house during visitation or service hours.  People who have suffered a loss most definitely are not always clear headed and thinking about things so offer to do the everyday things that might indeed make a huge difference.

Time heals all wounds.  Time may help diminish pain and sadness over the years but I guarantee that it does not heal completely.  My dad passed away 20 years ago today and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him.  Not a day that I don’t wish I could tell him that I am doing well and miss him more than words can say.  If there is a magic bandaid that heals the wound of loss I would love to see it.

Try to look for the good in the situation.  This one really gets me.  Seriously?  How can a person who is caught up in grief see any good at that moment?   Don’t get me started on this one.  Just don’t say it.

Try not to cry.  This one is just plain dumb.  Come on. It is totally okay to cry.  It is a release.  It is natural.  It is part of the process and it can come at any time.  Honestly as I was writing this post I got teary thinking about all of those who I have lost over the years to death and that is part of it.  It is just a natural reaction . There is no time limit on grief. There is no schedule to follow. Everyone has to do it in their own way and if crying is part of it—-that is just what it is—a part of it.

At least he/she is no longer in pain.  I think this one is so easy to say because in so many cases the person who has died has suffered and has been in pain.  But when we say something like this it diminishes the person who is left because they ARE in pain.  And will be.  For quite awhile .  While it may not be physical pain and suffering it is pain all the same and and needs to be recognized for what it is.

I have found that my go to is to simply say “I don’t know what to say.  There are just no words right now but I want you to know that I am here for you.”.  Does it make everything better?  No.  But at least it lets that person know that you want to be there in whatever way you can be without offering platitudes that just plain hurt.

If you have thoughts on this I would truly love to hear them.  Please feel free to leave a comment.  And as always, thank YOU for taking the time to read today.

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  1. I especially love the “just show up part” that is so true. You need to make the effort to be their for someone. THey aren’t going to reach out…

  2. Excellent post. These are very wise words. I heard several of these when I had my miscarriages. I did not want to hear any of it. It hurt deeply, and was devastating. And I personally hate, “I know how you feel.” In any situation this is wrong. As you said, no one knows that. People need to be available but not intrusive. It isn’t about you, it is about the one who is in the middle of pain.

    • You are very correct. It is wrong in ANY situation. I am so sorry for your losses. That is a horrible thing to live through and then to have people throw platitudes at you that make it even worse had to have been a very difficult situation. I like your words that people need to be available but not intrusive. Exactly. It is those small things that people remember later. Like the hot chicken salad casserole that my ex boyfriend’s mom brought us when my dad died. That I remember.

  3. Very good post, Beth Ann. My 1st husband and my dad died 8 months apart. I cringed my way through many of those statements, telling myself, “they don’t know what else to say.”

  4. I don’t know if this is a good thing to say or not, but many times, I’ve said that we aren’t meant to understand why some things happen. You’re correct in saying that just being there for someone is the best comfort of all, and admitting that we don’t have words.

    • I think that is perfect. My feeling is that our God is too big to be able as a human to understand the things that many folks “blame” on God. My brain is definitely not big enough to understand—I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do know some of these things just add more pain than help.

  5. Excellent post! I especially dislike the one that “God knew you could handle more” because that one has been said to me so many times ~ well-meaning I’m sure, but one day I may respond to it instead of nodding because I know that they don’t know what to say to me. I wish more people would think before they open their mouths! I love your ‘just show up’ because it’s perfect!

    • Thanks so much. You get it. Sometimes I guess people just don’t know how to say the right thing and it really isn’t their fault at all—-they just repeat phrases they have heard a zillion times. It’s time to start the change, though. Bit by bit.

  6. Along with the ill-planned comments (in the awkward moments of not knowing what to say), I greatly dislike the sympathy cards that echo much of the “What not to say” phrases. At times like these, many times, the fewer the words the better and a squeeze of the hand or comforting hug (if appropriate) will mean much more. And, as you suggested, just “show up” and creatively suggest possible tasks. Great post!!!!!

  7. Listen. My single most valuable word of advice to add to your powerful and thoughtful list.

  8. A very thoughtful list. While I try very hard to accept the intention behind the awkward sentiment and have suffered foot in mouth disease many times. it does pay to think before you speak and when in doubt – I’m so sorry is always appropriate. I remember one women saying to Cole at Joe’s Memorial, “You know you are lucky you had a dad. I hope you are grateful” Fortunately, a friend standing near quickly stepped in, put her arm around my kid and said to the women, “You can’t possible have meant those terrible thoughtless words” However, the kind words, far outweigh the thoughtful ones. And for that I am so grateful.
    I usually say some along the lines of – “it really sucks.” Simple because it’s the first two words Cole said to me after I told him his dad died. And it resonated as so honest and true. But when in doubt, I stick with “I’m so sorry for your loss” and if I knew or know the person well enough might offer a short story about what the person meant to me.

    • You have lived this , haven’t you? I love “it really sucks” because it does. And sharing stories is perfect. It shows compassion and love and empathy and all things wonderful. Thank you.

  9. Patricia says:

    So true. Guilty on one. It seems people nowadays have to say “something” and it’s like an anchor hearing them sometimes.

    • It is so hard to not say these things because it is what is typically said. I, too, have said them and when I have been on the other side of the grief and loss I had a different perspective. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  10. Patricia says:

    Gotta add to the “not what to say” for pregnant women as well. I heard some lu-lu’s!

  11. Reblogged this on Missy's Crafty Mess and commented:
    I am reblogging this post because it is great advice to anyone who is grieving. I also wanted to add a few of my own.
    After my Sister died I had an individual tell me that God needed her more than I did. My Sister died less than 2 months after leaving a violent abusive relationship. She had many illnesses over her short life of 24 years which landed her in the hospital more times than I can count. Yes, my Sister lived an unhappy adult life full of pain. I do believe God has taken her home to a better, safer, pain free place. However, to me these words implied that she didn’t deserve to live a happy healthy life. 9 ½ months later and I still cringe at the sound of those words.
    I have also experienced that “give me a call if you need anything/ I here if you need me” scenario and then it never happens. In the months since my Sister’s passing I haven’t had a single friend contact me and ask me how I was doing. I do thankfully have a handful of family members that keep in close contact with me. I am not the most out spoken person and I am an introvert by nature so I am not comfortable reaching out to people. I suppose that’s why I blog about my grief so much because it’s easier for me to “verbalize” through a keyboard. It really hurts that people saying things and then don’t follow through.

    • Missy–thanks so much for sharing this. I had no idea about your sister and the sadness that you must still feel as a result of that loss. I am so sorry. I can not begin to imagine the sadness and pain and loss you must feel. Your words are so meaningful and I am so glad you added your notes to this post. Hopefully we can help “educate” others on what it feels like to be on the other end of those words. Thank you again.

  12. Beth Ann, this resonates with me today as I’m feeling guilty for violating several of your no-nos just this weekend when I attended a neighbor’s visitation. Yikes. I think we get all tongue-tied and babble on senselessly when the mourners are silent. We try hard to fill up that empty space with words, when it’s far better to simply take their hand, look them in the eye, and offer a sincere “I’m sorry.” Thank you for saying this so well!

    • Well thank you for being so gracious! I was afraid I would step on toes but I have learned a few things over the years and these are some of them. I agree–we all get tongue tied and just feel like we need to say something–anything—and sometimes those words come out that later we think were probably not so great. I am right there in that category. I have said some of these phrases myself over the years. One thing that comes with “age” is sometimes figuring stuff like this out and passing it along in a kind way. I hope that I have done that. I hope I do not hurt any feelings with this post but I felt strongly enough when I wrote it that I should hit publish.

  13. I give you an A+ on this blog. I have lost so many of my family and best friends and so many people said just the right things. When my husband died the people around me were so helpful. One of my friends came to my door and was so upset that I had plenty of food that people had brought and did not need more. She really wanted to help me. She did, just by her being there.

  14. I have a couple…first sorry that you’re missing your father.

    Second…I hate when you’re suffering and someone says “God is good” I just about want to hurt them. We don’t need to hear that in the moment.

    Third…When I was losing babies after IVF and I was sharing a bit of my story with someone, when I finished they said and I quote, “It just sucks.” It was about the best thing I heard in that moment. It’s how I felt and they got it. It doesn’t always (maybe never) need to be some fruffie Christian response. I wish us Christians were more real and less Christianeese. 🙂

  15. Seven years ago, when we first moved to Alberta, we were staying with our cousins in Calgary over the July 1st long weekend. While we were there, she received news a good friends of hers had died in a car accident & she was tremendously upset. I didn’t know her friend, but I wanted to do something for her, so I asked her to tell me about her friend. She started telling me about all the things that made him special to her, about him being in a band, the kinds of things they had shared. Although she cried & laughed all the way through it, she later said it was the greatest gift I could have given her. Through telling me about her friend she got to remember his life, not just the day he died.

    • That is perfect. A wonderful example of being there. Of being in the moment and doing exactly the right thing. Thank YOU so much for being you and for sharing this wonderful experience. Hugs.

  16. My Fiance died 7 weeks ago. He was very well known in our town and I was met by hundreds of people giving me their sympathy. I never really took offense to anything that was said. This was my first real time I had to deal with a close death. So I don’t even know if I would have known what to say. I have learned though! But my favorite things as benzeknees said was people telling me stories about how John touched their lives. He was loved by so many. I now am healing, people are still being very supportive. But a couple days ago I got a card from the people who John had bought his house from. They are an older couple but she said my Mom said after my Dad passed that people just fade away. She went on to say she was still thinking of me and his Mom. She enclosed a picture of the house before they painted it and gave me a little background about it. That made my day. 🙂 I think follow up cards, just checking in or still thinking of you is a great way to really show you care. I don’t really feel forgotten at all but that card meant a lot 🙂

    • You have been living the grief thing and it has to feel so raw and fresh, Sonia. Your words here are much appreciated as I know it is so difficult for you but I know you are surrounded by lots of great family and friends. That card was a wonderful gift. Hugs.

  17. Crystal Lawrence says:

    Very wise words, Beth Ann. I have said some of them, and have not said some others. I do know that being honest and saying, “I don’t know what to say” is sometimes the best thing to say. 24 years ago when my friend’s 15 month old daughter died in a pool accident I asked my mom what I should say to my friend. My mom told me I didn’t need to “say” anything (because nothing I said would ease her pain) but I needed to call. So I did. And I said, “I don’t know what to say”. My friend said, “You don’t have to say anything – you called.” That was one of the best lessons I have ever learned – being there is the best thing I can do for someone going through a difficult time.

  18. This was such a well meaning post. I know I’ve said the wrong thing at times too. People really don’t know what to say and sometimes you don’t need to say anything but just be there. I love the “just show up” part. When my Dad passed away 7 years ago, one cousin said to me “We sure will miss him. Wasn’t he a great guy.” That meant so much to me.

  19. Such good advice. I don’t know if it’s just nerves, unaware, or plain stupidity – but people can really say the dumbest things. I’ve often found a simple “what can I do?” is best. And yes — just show up. they won’t likely call.

  20. Excellent list and advice. Thanks for sharing.

  21. It’s good to have a gentle reminder like this, maybe we will remember when the time comes whether to say what pops in our heads or not.

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