Grief and suffering are never one-size-fits-all. Boy was I reminded of this when I broached the topic of how to show up for someone who is suffering. In my initial post I asked for examples of what has helped in difficult times and, as we explored in the previous article, simply showing up and being present is the most powerful salve we can provide.
We can also offer acts of kindness, gifts, and many other types of support in these situations and I will share many of these creative options in my next post. But today, with your help, I’m going to focus on the other side of the coin: the things we’ve heard, or even said, that have proved unhelpful or even harmful.
If you have said any of these, with every good intention, like I have, do not despair. We are all doing the best we can in the way in which we were taught. My hope is that we can extend grace to others when they say the “wrong thing,” as well as to ourselves when we find we have done just about the same thing. I think it is fair to suggest that we have all been on both sides of this verbal situation.
This list was copied directly from people’s responses to my question about what was hurtful to hear when they had lost someone they loved or were going through a difficult time. The examples came from people who had lost their mother; experienced a miscarriage; lost a fiance, husband, wife, child, pet; were going through a divorce, and whole host of other heart-wrenching losses. Many times I have provided your enlightening follow-ups and context to the example in italics.
EXAMPLES OF WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE GRIEVING:
“They are in a better place and not suffering anymore.”
“I know how you feel.” The person saying it means well and wants to sympathize, but they can’t actually understand the nature of my loss because they haven’t experienced everything I have.
“Welcome to my world.”
“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
“It happens for the best.”
“Everything happens for a reason.” You know the worst part about this? When I was in high school I loved this verse and shared it willy-nilly. I shudder at some of the “support” I used to “give” others.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.” Or any iteration. Because people in pain will never call you up and tell you what they need!
“Money can’t buy happiness.”
“Everything in moderation.”
“You got this.” How the hell do they know if I have this??!
“Sorry for your loss.” Many people said they felt like this just sounds robotic.
“Pull yourself together…It’s just a dog.” I personally want to smash that person in the face with a chair, just saying.
“You are going to be a better person because you have experienced this.”
When someone’s baby dies: “At least she wasn’t older.”
“Well, it beats the alternative.” Any sentence that begins with, “Well…” should be swallowed immediately by the speaker.
“Well, we’re at that age now when we lose our parents.” You are never old enough to lose your mom.
“My mom died last year. This is what you’re going to go through and feel.” Everyone grieves completely differently.
“Wasn’t she brain dead anyway?” F**k you.
“That wasn’t her. The real “her” died when she had the brain aneurysm.” She loved, she laughed, she lived – even after her brain aneurysm.
“You are so young… you’ll find someone else…” I did in my own time, because he was the right person, but I sure as hell didn’t want to hear that days after my fiancé died.
“Do you want to feel positive today, or do you want to feel negative? The decision is yours.”
“NEVER EVER, EVER QUOTE THE BIBLE VERSE Romans 8:28”
“God has a plan in all this.”
“Rejoice in your suffering.”
“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
“I am sure you will grow from this experience.”
“Stop wallowing and get out and do something positive for yourself.”
“One day you will look back on this and see the blessings/good/positive that has come from it.”
“Well you think that is bad, what about THIS tragedy story of mine…”
When someone has just taken a foster kid into their home and is struggling emotionally and confides in you that they are struggling with depression, don’t say “is it kind of like buyers remorse?”
It’s not the time to challenge someone spiritually. One day, after the diagnosis of Autism was given to our 3 year old. I was overcome with what changes the disability would bring to our child’s life. I was also grieving the loss of normal, which is what most of us anticipate. In the middle of the gut wrenching grief, a Christian friend advised me to “examine my life to check for all my un-confessed sins and repent so my child would not have to pay the price for my sins.” (**I loved someone’s response to this person’s sharing: ” I don’t know you personally, but I can say with 100 percent confidence that Jesus never would have said (OR EVEN THOUGHT) something so cruel and unhelpful. I think instead, he would have turned water into wine for you and sat down and had a drink and let you shed tears of grief. UGG, sometimes we as humans are just so unbelievably stupid and hurtful it makes my heart hurt.”)
When I had Breast Cancer and thought I would be doing chemo and losing my hair, a very good friend said, “Isn’t it interesting that we are all so vain?” I remember it to this day.
When we went through infertility, if someone told me to “Stop thinking about it, and it will happen,” I wanted to high five them in the face. With my fist.
A story about someone else who went through something they deem far worse.
A story about someone who went through something similar and “everything came up roses.”
First, let me say that I love every single one of you for being so open and honest about these experiences. Your comments of support, outrage, compassion, and unity make my heart swell.
Let me also acknowledge, AGAIN, that I am guilty of many of the blunders listed above and probably more that I’m not even aware of.
This list is NOT about feeling guilty or frustrated or like there is nothing you can say without offending someone (just look at all the awesome options we came up with in my last post!). This article is intended to shine light on the power of our words and choosing them more carefully. It is also about grace and forgiveness: for ourselves when we have unintentionally hurt others AND for those that caused the hurt.
We are all trying, we are all growing, and that, I believe, is all what ultimately matters. Thank you again for being such an integral part of this community.
Look out for my final and favorite post in this series: creative, profound, and heartfelt ways to show up and support the special people in your life: coming soon!