What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Experienced a Loss

LittleMe&MyDaddy

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is mourning a loss, but there are several things that we’d all very much appreciate if you’d remove from your “comforting words” list.

1)   “Well, it could be worse. At least you weren’t farther along, I have a friend/sister/cousin who…” (insert a story of horrific loss here)

I can’t tell you how many well meaning friends messed this one up, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who has experienced a loss is well aware of all the even worse things that could happen.

Trust me, when we discovered we had miscarried at 13 weeks, I thought a lot about everyone I know who had lost a child at any age. I thought about all the many things that could still go wrong, even when we tried again. I thought about genetic abnormalities, missing body parts, another miscarriage, or worse. In fact, I’m now 22 weeks pregnant, and I still check for blood every single time I use the bathroom.

It’s not like I needed any reminders that a future ultrasound could reveal problems or that stillbirth and SIDS are real. For a while I couldn’t stop thinking about the friends I know who have had second trimester miscarriages, or the mothers who have lost their live children in infancy, or early childhood. And then there are the parents spending the night in the hospital praying for the cancer to die and for their sweet child to survive. I thought about drunk drivers and airplane crashes, chemical spills, bombs, cancer, and my aging parents… all of it.

Maybe I tend to obsess over the negative, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And when I’m already freaking out about how unfair life is, that is not a good time to tell me a story about something even worse. What I need in that moment is a reminder that I’ll get through this and that there are beautiful things to focus on too, when I’m ready.

2)   “I know exactly how you feel.”

Excuse me, but I’m a unique individual with my own fears, thoughts, and experiences. No matter how similar our situations might be, it’s practically impossible for you to know “exactly” how I feel. And even if it were possible, I think the sentiment you’re trying to get across here is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Instead, by assuming you understand what I’m going through, you’re actually minimizing my experience and generalizing it to a whole group of other people who’ve gone through a “similar” loss.

Yes, it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in my grief. But your loss is not equivalent to mine and pretending they’re the same doesn’t help me process my grief. What I’d really appreciate instead is if you could share your own personal story and then offer me empathy and understanding through curiosity and openness. Please listen to me, instead of telling me how I feel.

3)   “You’re feeling better now, right?”

Grief is a very personal process. You have no idea what baggage I might be carrying around from my past. Or what other losses I’ve suffered. And since each person process grief in their own way and over their own time period, there are really no rules about how long it should take. Rushing someone through the process (if that were even possible) is not helpful. Instead, just let me know that you’re there for me if I need to talk and suggest something we could do together. Also, please get comfortable with my tears. There’s nothing worse than mourning a loss with a person who is squeamish about a few tears.

4)   “I’m sure nothing like that will ever happen to you again.”

I’m sorry, but even you can’t predict the future. As much as this is meant to be reassuring, it just doesn’t ring true. We are all human and that means we’ll all have to experience some grief and loss in our lifetimes. We lose people we care about. That’s a part of life. It’s certainly not the fun part, but it is a necessary part. We form bonds and they are broken through a variety of circumstances.

I think that experiencing a loss can actually help us though. By recognizing how precious and fragile life can be, perhaps we can be more present and appreciative of the amazing lives we get to lead. Maybe we can actually stop to smell a flower, instead of rushing by as if we’ll have all the chances we’d ever want to smell that rose, or appreciate that sunset, or tell our loved ones how deeply we care about them.

5)   “I’m worried that something like that will happen to you again.”

Again, as true as this might be, it’s not something you need to share with the person who is going through the grieving process.  Talk to your other friends about your worries or concerns, but please allow me to slowly rebuild my trust in a benevolent universe, instead of burdening me with your concerns.

6)   “Call me if you need anything.”

This goes into it’s own special category with statements like, “What can I do to help?” and “Is there anything I can do?” The truth is, there’s nothing you can do to take away the pain I’m experiencing. Sure, I appreciate the thought, but asking me to reach out in the midst of my sorrow or requesting a list of actions you can take that will “make me feel better” is just more work for me. And right now, I can’t do any work. Sure, stop by with a hug or a gift or send me a sweet text or heartfelt message, but don’t ask me to devise a way for you to help. I’m pretty sure you can figure that out for yourself.

So what CAN you say to someone who is grieving?

Here are 6 wonderful things to say to someone who has experienced a loss:

1)   “I love you.”

2)   “Would you like a hug?”

3)   “It’s OK to cry…a LOT.”

4)   “I’m so sorry for your loss”

5)   “I’m bringing you take-out tonight, what do you want for dinner?”

6)   “I’m here for you. Do you want to talk about it?” (then, just listen with an open heart)

6 comments
Katica
Katica

Thank you for sharing all of this.  Congratulations on your pregnancy.

Dianna Niemann Harris
Dianna Niemann Harris

thank you for this Shelly...thinking of you often in your journey toward birthing another miracle even as I remember and give thanks for your "unfinished miracle" and my own...*warm hugs*


AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

From @CariCAPR: I lost my first pregnancy at 12 weeks. The most annoying thing people would say to me was, “at least you know you can get pregnant.” This was not comforting to me at all, because what good is a pregnancy if you never get the baby at the end? Being disabled with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis since the age of 9 and being confined to a wheelchair from age 15 to 18, people were always asking me if I would be able to have children before I was ever married! This was a hard question to answer which only made me wonder if I would be able to have kids. Then when my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage it only added more fears and concerns that possibly my body wasn’t able to have children. I started bleeding at 8 weeks during my second pregnancy and was terrified I’d lose another baby. Thankfully the bleeding stopped around 12 weeks and I had my first baby, a boy, who is now 13. My 3rd pregnancy ended at 5 weeks, but my 4th went to term and I was blessed with my 2nd son. I had a five year gap before I was able to get pregnant again and I was blessed with a third son. Determined to have a sweet baby girl, I got pregnant a few years later and miscarried at 7 weeks then a few months later lost a five week pregnancy. I was blessed with one last pregnancy, I was convinced my dreams were coming true until I was told at 8 weeks that I was having a miscarriage. 2 weeks later, I ended up in the ER with an ectopic pregnancy and subsequently had my remaining tube tied (the other one had burst and was destroyed). So, I’m a mom of three beautiful boys, who I love dearly, but I’ll always mourn the absence of the sweet baby girl of my dreams. I appreciate words of sympathy and compassion, and I agree more than I thought I would with most of your post. I’m so sorry for your loss. Miscarriage is hard. Babies are true miracles and precious gifts from God. Thanks for letting me share and thanks for your posts and words of advice!

Wissotagirl
Wissotagirl

I am so sorry for your loss, Shelly. I lost a baby at 12 weeks and experienced so many of the situations that you wrote about. Everyone was well-meaning, but it came across all wrong. One or two I would add: "God doesn't give us more than we can handle." (Infuriating. How do they even know if I believe in "God"?) The other one was: "Well, at least you are young and can try again." (Not helpful. I knew my age and was scared crazy to get pregnant again.)

I was teaching grades 1-3 at the time, and a parent gave me a beautiful and simple gift. It was a piece of rose quartz shaped like a heart that I could carry in my pocket. She said very little when she gave it to me. She did give me one of the warmest hugs ever. Eighteen years later, I still put that rock in my pocket from time to time.

All the best to you, Shelly. Thanks for writing.

Kristi

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

Oh @CariCAPR I am so so sorry for all of your losses. Reading your story brings tears to my eyes and I am in awe of your strength, determination, and bravery in the face of so many miscarriages. Thank you for sharing here. And please know that my heart goes out to you and your family. 

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

@Wissotagirl Hey Kristi, Thank you so much and I'm sorry for your loss too. I got a similar gift of a little stone angel and a fabulous hug and that was one of the most healing exchanges I had after my miscarriage. It really doesn't take a lot of words, but a heartfelt hug and a small token of remembrance can mean so much. I also got a lot of, "well, at least you have one healthy child." Which is actually comforting, but hearing it said seems to diminish the loss of the little life I had already started to love that was growing inside me.

Now that I'm pregnant again it's such a mixture of emotion. I'll never have the carefree pregnancies that I had before. I will always know that things can go wrong. And even though I'm hopeful and excited to greet this wonderful child, I'll always miss the one that died.

Thank you so much for sharing your story Kristi and for your encouragement to keep writing about my experiences. I'm grateful for you. Warmly, Shelly