Sunday, December 16, 2012

Saying foolish things

Based on personal experience, I can tell you that people saying foolish things to those who are grieving, saying things that make it worse or that cause pain, is something that is much too common.

There are a number of reasons that happens.

* the speaker is feeling confusion caused by pain and shock at what has happened to you. This appears, to me, to be the biggest reason people say things that are confused, cause pain or don't make sense. If you are suffering from terrible tragedy and someone says something foolish, that hurts, I would suggest that the best starting place for thinking about what they've just said is that they are confused and in pain on your behalf. 

 * the speaker suffers from shallowness and lack of knowledge and perspective and the lack of self discipline to stay silent.  I have always tried to be grateful that they have not had the experiences that would have taught them better.

* the speaker suffers from self absorption and the desire to put the other person out of the speaker's misery by saying something that comforts the speaker and allows them to move on in their bubble.

* the speaker suffers from narcissist behavior and the need to re-assert their central place in the world. Your pain has interrupted that and they are trying to re-establish what they believe to the proper order of things.  I was always glad I wasn't the speaker.  When someone says "you just buried a child?  That is nothing compared to my suffering" and then proceeded to tell me about the hang nail they just had, or something similar, I would remind myself to be grateful I did not suffer from the mental and spiritual illness the speaker had.

* the speaker suffers from utter fecklessness and a willingness to harm others for some benefit to the speaker. So, your child was murdered and someone starts trying to sell bullet proof vests for children using the tragedy (or to make any political or other point at their expense -- especially ones you do not agree with).  /Sigh.  People can't help themselves.  Some really think they are helping others as well.

However, all of that said, I would like to emphasize that as we hear what people say about the tragedies that others experience I would suggest that it is better to assume confusion and pain than fecklessness and sociopathy. 

So, what should you say?

It is easy to say, "I'm so sorry.  I don't know what to say, but I'm so sorry for your loss."  That is always the safe thing to say.

"Tell me about ...." is also good, if you are willing to just listen.

Those are two starting places, two good places, in all the other things people say and do and speak.


CJS said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience. This list will help both grievers and well meaning supporters.

Anonymous said...

Thank you . I hope many, many, many people read this. I lost a young child and the comments were very hurtful, especially coming from LDS people. In order to deal with the hurtful comments I told myself that the people making the comments were jerks ( most of them really were) and the people and what they had to say were not important, which was also true.

Melissa Dalton-Bradford said...

I'm a contributor to Segullah as a member of their editorial board, and I think (i think!) this is how I have wandered into your blog, or at least into the cozy little room of this particular post.

I am also a bereaved parent.

And I write a great deal (books, essays, poetry, a blog) on this and closely related topics, and have recently been discussing on my blog what you have addressed with such unadorned steeliness and generosity here.

You've nailed it, Stephen. But you've also softened the puncture by saying, well okay, we are flawed (stupid or narcissistic and often preoccupied and fearful) humans. Still. . . let's learn to do this one thing better, shall we?

Will you please stop by my blog, Stephen, if you ever find time and see, after reading, if you might be willing to do an online interview on grief and co-mourning with me? I think the discussion would be lively, enriching and beneficial for many.

Thanks, Melissa

P.S. A good place to start: