What Not To Say to People in Distress (1)
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Despite the fact that most of us have felt emotional pain during our lives, we often have little idea what to say to others who are in desperate need of words of solace. Unfortunately, people often say things that can actually make the situation worse. Sadly, these life skills are not taught in school, so the following is a quick course entitled “What not to say to the sad and grieving.”
- Stillborn babies
It’s natural for you as a friend to want to ease the pain of your grieving friend who has just given birth to a stillborn child or has lost a baby shortly after birth. One of the commonest statements to grieving mothers is: “Don’t cry, you’ll have another one.”
Although spoken with the best of intentions, and with the aim of helping the mother look forward to a brighter future, it is one of the worst things a person could say in this situation. The grieving mother and father want this baby, not some amorphous being that may or may not manifest on earth one day. They badly want their little son or daughter who has just died. They want no other child. They feel sad, bereft, angry, disbelief: in short, a whole raft of emotions, but one emotion they are not feeling is the desire for another baby. That comes later, with time.
The best approach to this situation is to offer consolation, to be there to listen, to convey to the grieving parent that you are there for them for as long as it takes. Encourage tears, they are a great healer. Encourage your friend to keep this child alive in their minds: perhaps keep a lock of hair, buy them an engraved memento of their lost child, and give them your best hug. Most of all, give them permission to grieve for the now, and the future will take care of itself.
- Death of an elderly parent
This is another situation where all the platitudes known in the English language come out to play. One of the most common to be wheeled out when a parent dies at an advanced age is: “Well, they had a long life” or some sporting adage indicating that they had a great scorecard. Yes, they did. But the death of a parent is the death of a parent, regardless of whether that parent was 40 or 80. Sure, it is much sadder when a young child loses a parent and all the experiences that go with that, but we lose our mother or our father only once in a lifetime and it is a rite of passage no matter what our age. Try to remember that fact when dealing with this situation. Offer your sympathies as you would to a grieving child, because when a parent dies, we often return momentarily to that state.