Please, No More "What Not To Say" Articles About The Bereaved

Family, Health And Wellness


I’m about over all this advice about what we should or shouldn’t say to the bereft, the miscarried, those diagnosed with cancer, and so on.

Example: For years and years I’ve read, over and over, that, “I know how you feel,” was never the right thing to say.

It was said to be insensitive because you’re presuming to tell someone else how they feel, when you couldn’t possibly understand the range of emotions they’re going through after, say, the loss of a baby they originally didn’t want, or that loss after seven months of pregnancy when they did want the baby and the nursery is all ready, for example.

In years gone by, so many people wrote article after article about how the phrase offended them, assuring us that, “I can’t possibly imagine how you must be feeling,” was infinitely more tactful.

Now, it appears that’s fallen out of fashion, and there’s a spate of articles about how this very advice is insensitive. We’re supposed to find something else to say.

Which, no doubt, someone somewhere will take umbrage to and write yet another article about how someone saying that upset or offended them.

These articles are all over the place, all contradicting one another, and today, there’s an article on msn with twenty-four things not to say to new parents. Twenty-four!

I don’t know about you, but it’s getting to the point where I’m afraid to say anything to anyone about any change of appearance or any life event.

I think, in this age of the Harvest Festival instead of Halloween and, “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” coupled with footage of transgendered people threatening to murder someone in public because some hapless clerk made an honest mistake and misgendered them, that we’re all becoming a bit too sensitive.

It’s a simple fact: people don’t know what to say when something terrible befalls someone else. (Especially now that all these advice articles are starting to contradict one another!)

It’s all getting a bit ridiculous, and the more of these articles I see, the angrier I get.

People are being told so many things not to say that there’s nothing left to say. Anything you can possibly think of, somebody is there to think, write, or tell you: It’s wrong. You “should have known” better.

Six years ago, my husband passed away from a malignant brain tumor. I heard the gamut of phrases, including, when he was diagnosed: “Don’t worry, you’ll get married again someday.” (Yes, I’ve read the obligatory article slamming this one, too. But, I know the person who said it. I knew she didn’t mean it the way it sounded.)

I have yet to write an article complaining about anything anyone said to me during that time, even the above jewel. Imagine that!

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I, too, have struggled to know what to say.

The truth? Unless I have ESP and can read your thoughts, my chances of saying something you will not find comforting have to be at least 50%, no matter how I search my soul, no matter how hard I try. That’s because we are all unique individuals, with unique feelings and unique histories, and we all hear the same words differently.

Unless you have ESP and can read my thoughts, you do not know why my face looked the way it did when I said whatever it was I said, or why my body language or intonation was what it was.

And there is nothing any of us can do about that. Let’s all stop reading one another’s minds, can we? Because the fact of the matter is that we cannot.

People are reading an article like this at least once a month, struggling ever harder for the right things to say and do, and their hearts are in the right place.

Friends of the bereaved, do the best you can. Being there, bringing something, and saying something is better than not being there, not bringing anything, and not saying anything.

And those bereaved, those just miscarried, those newly diagnosed with cancer, those going through a sex change, those who’ve just gained or lost a ton of weight …

I know this is difficult, but can everyone please just lighten up?

Yes, I know you’re grieving. Yes, I know your emotions are all over the place. Yes, I know you believe it isn’t your job to “understand” anyone else at this time, and that everyone else is “just supposed to know” how to treat you.

But the fact is that we don’t, because we can’t always do that.

My emotional resonance with your situation may be the most awful thing to you, but it may have been just fine with my other bereaved friend last month, and she may have told me how wonderfully supportive I was. I can’t help it that when I treat you the same, you don’t feel the same way.

I’m not asking that those reeling in terrible emotional pain “understand” anyone else. We’re imperfect humans on an imperfect planet, and sometimes true understanding can’t be reached even when we’re working our asses off in counseling with a significant other.

What I am asking is that everyone: Back up and take a deep breath.

Can we maybe just see past the awkward struggling, for once, and notice the intention to comfort that’s behind it? And if we don’t think we see that, can we give the other person the benefit of the doubt, understanding that no, they can’t read our mind, and no, we really can’t read theirs.

No matter what we think, we really, really can’t!

Maybe the other person is struggling with a burden you can’t see, and that’s affecting whatever they said, how they said it, or how they looked when they said it, that upset you.

Let’s cut each other some slack.

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This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.