What they meant to say: Looking beyond hurtful comments in grief

I want to be upfront with you. This post is about giving the benefit of the doubt to people who have said the wrong thing(s) to you in your grief. I feel the need to preface this because I know many of our readers have been treated poorly by friends and family since the death of their loved one. If this is you, I assure you I don’t want to minimize your experience. I know people can be mean, selfish, and hurtful and I know some people have bad intentions. However, I also know that sometimes well-intentioned people say the wrong thing. 

We all respond differently to difficult situations. Some people are consistently amazing. They always know the right thing to say, the perfect gift to bring, and the exact moment to step in and lend a hand. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are consistently terrible. They carelessly say and do stupid things without giving their behavior a second thought.

Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the amazing/terrible continuum. Unlike those on the ends of the spectrum, people in this mid-zone can move freely between being great in a crisis and being terrible. Sometimes they say the right thing and sometimes they slip up and stick their size 10 foot fully in their mouths. Usually, they are fine, if not slightly awkward, and most of the time their hearts are in the right place.

When someone says something hurtful, insulting, or minimizing to you in your grief, it’s tempting to assume the worst for a number of reasons.  For starters, you may be harboring a lot of indiscriminate anger about your loved one’s death and it feels nice to have somewhere to direct it. Also, when you are worn down and vulnerable, it’s protective and adaptive to separate yourself from people who you believe could cause you additional pain.

Finally, research has shown that humans are more likely to attribute a person’s mistakes to personal defects and poor character than they are to factor in the influences, pressures, and demands of the situation. This is called the fundamental attribution error and explains why you may think “She is a moron,” instead of “She was uncomfortable with this situation,” after someone lobs an insensitive comment at you.

Regardless, you have your reasons to be skeptical of those who hurt you in your grief. However, you also need your support system now more than ever.  So, even though you’d maybe rather not, for the duration of this article I’m asking you to (1) think of those you have written off in your grief (2) ask yourself – “Am I certain this person is terrible?” and (3) if the answer is “no”, consider these alternative hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: The person wanted to comfort you

When someone is in pain, the first instinct of caring friends and family is often to try and provide comfort.  Comfort, which implies a desire to take away someone’s pain, is the source of so many obnoxious platitudes and ‘at least’ phrases.

Many people don’t understand that it’s misguided and futile to try and comfort a person after the death of a loved one. There isn’t a darn thing anyone could say or do to take away the person’s pain, so it’s best to allow the hurt to exist. We suggest that instead of offering comfort, caring friends and family members should offer support. If you want to know more about the difference between support and comfort, you should read this post or this post.

Hypothesis # 2: The person was utilizing “troubles talk”

People often say things like “I know how you feel” or “I went through the same thing” to those who have experienced a loss. Although these statements are sometimes helpful, more often than not they come off as self-focused and minimizing.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of several books on interpersonal communicationnotes that statements like these may not be entirely selfish and may actually reflect what she calls ‘troubles talk’.  People, most often women, commonly use ‘troubles talk’ to help establish closeness and rapport in a number of different scenarios. Tannen explained the phenomena on a recent episode of NPR’s 1A.

You talk about a problem. The other person says that they have a similar problem. You feel connected. You feel less alone.”

When a friend or family member wants to offer support to someone who is grieving, it makes sense that they would fall back on tried and true interpersonal skills.  Once again, though, grief is a scenario unlike other. Unfortunately, in this instance ‘troubles talk’ can inadvertently convey, “I don’t want to understand your specific situation” or “I want to talk about myself,” when what the person wanted to communicate was “I’m okay to talk to.” and “You’re not completely alone.”

One more note on this topic, Tannen also explains that men and women commonly view the purpose of ‘troubles talk’ differently. Specifically, men may assume a woman who engages in troubles talk is looking for advice. So remember this the next time you feel frustrated because someone has offered you well-intentioned but unwanted feedback.

Hypothesis #3: The person cares about you, but they aren’t comfortable with grief

Finally, we have to consider the reality that some people simply aren’t comfortable with grief.  Many of our readers tell us that their family and friends seem to keep their distance because they don’t want to be around grief.

It’s sad, but true that many of your family and friends aren’t comfortable with death, grief, and emotion. This doesn’t make them terrible people, it just means they’re unqualified to support you in your grief.  Those who are there for you in your grief must be okay with your tears, occasional silence, and the darkness of loss.  If a person can’t handle these things, then they aren’t the right support person for you at this time.

Have an alternative hypothesis?  Share it below.  

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May 2, 2017

20 responses on "What they meant to say: Looking beyond hurtful comments in grief"

  1. I lost my mom 4 months…she was 104 years old was a Holocaust survivor……..I was her caregiver for almost 34 years after the death of my father……..One of my worst moments on Mother’s day this year was at my daughter in law and my son’s house……..my mother in laws parents were there as well……My daughter in law nor did her parents ask me how I was doing., nor was I spoken to either…….I felt so alone and utterly sad, I was happy to get out of there as well…I even had to pay for my own mother’s day lunch ( which my husband reinbursed me)…….Next mother’s day I will choose to do something else……

  2. I’m so glad you’ve written a well-thought out message on this. I’ve been saying this for a long time and most recently to the local chapter of a national parent’s grief group – Helping Parents Heal – that I facilitate. I have encouraged parents to always assume positive intent because, as you’ve said, few people actually mean to be uncaring. Instead they revert to trite, common responses to something with which they’re unfamiliar and would certainly dread. I also believe that the degree to which someone takes offense is also a reflection of how they approach life in general. Our perception reflects back to us what we’re expecting to see/hear. Choose the positive and let everything else go.

  3. Marie-France PrivykJuly 12, 2017 at 9:01 pmReply

    Hypothesis #4 The person is more uncomfortable with silence than saying the wrong thing!

  4. My adult daughter after the death of her father said to me “this isn’t going to make us closer!”
    We have always had a wonderful supportive relationship but she’s completely cut me off and out of her life. So now I’m grieving a wonderful amazing man that has passed aways and my living daughter.

  5. Deborah WeiskittelJuly 11, 2017 at 9:13 pmReply

    After I delivered my stillborn daughter at 40 weeks, my midwife told me that if my baby lived she could have had severe disabilities. She also said I could always adopt a child. And she reminded me that my baby had died a couple days prior to delivery, that’s why she was breaking down so quickly. Then when I gently explained that these were hurtful things to say she backed out of my life.

  6. I wish to address one comment made to me that was quite hurtful concerning my loss and it was made by a family friend and I don’t know if there is a category for it. This comment made to a caregiver of a loved one is especially disturbing in that It was my mother and I cared for her in my home for over 35 years and then some . The comment was “Now you have your freedom” something that I never wanted and never want to experience in the death of my mother. Any caregiver grieves for loss of their loved ones or patient and this is the worst comment made to someone because the freedom you have is grief unrelenting and over whelmig

  7. people’s comments to you especially when you have been a caregiver for years for a person you love in this case being my mother and to have someone say thinking that they are helping you say this comment which I rate it as the very worst thing you can say to a person especially if you are in the caregiving position. Someone said to me “Now you have your freedom” and that is not what I wanted in the first place and to have it said floored me since it came from someone you was our family friend. People should not say this to anyone you has experienced a tragic loss of anyone .

  8. This absolutely the truth. People now a days communicate poorly. Although some people can feel awkward when they know someone’s family member dies. They may mean well, but say something that is hurtful and not even known it.

    Great read
    Tom

  9. This is because as a society we suck at listening. The reason we have been given two ears and one mouth is for us to listen more than we speak.

  10. An interesting book that is out right now is called The Grief Recovery Handbook. It addresses some of these situations that people are sharing, and how we may have it wrong when it comes to grieving. We cannot always help the insensitive comments (“she is no longer in pain” after the death of my wife from cancer), but we can choose how we respond.
    As a culture, we intellecualize death, where validating grief would be so much better for the person who lost a loved one. Once we learn how to do that, and surround ourselves with people who know how to do that, we will be better as a society.

  11. This was interesting. The bit about trouble talk in particular. My mum does this a lot and I find it less aggravating if I try to see it as a misguided attempt at empathy.

    I veer between wanting to cut people some slack, and resenting it. It wouldn’t be impossible for people to educate themselves a little or at least think before they speak. I’m the person in pain, why should I make allowances. But then I try to remember we are all flawed human beings and quite possibly they are extending me some slack about something else that I haven’t noticed.

  12. I lost my husband in July last year. Not once in the 10 months has anyone asked me what do you need, where do you want to go what would help you? Grief is hard for everyone. But I had some really close friends that disappeared. How long does it take to send a text saying thinking about you. Maybe that is too much to ask from someone. I have let the hurt feelings go and the friendships. I pretty much am alone and for the first time in my life I am comfortable with that. My faith has grown stronger and Jesus truly is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. Prayers for all. God bless.

    • I lost my husband two months ago to lung cancer. He was diagnosed in March and died almost exactly only two months later on May 7th. I am still in complete shock. We were best friends and i feel like a shell of myself. I coasted for the first month and it seems like now, the scab just keeps being pulled off and it’s like it just happened yesterday over and over again. I am so lonely. At first, our friends were there for me all of the time asking me over for dinner, making me get out, but now they have kind of backed off. So, now here I am alone a lot in our house and it’s really sinking in that my husband will never be back. I think my friends at first kept me so busy that I didn’t have time to really absorb it. I guess now they think it’s time to just move on, but I feel hurt they don’t still include me all the time. I really expected to keep seeing them every weekend. Maybe I should just initiate it, but they are all couples, all married, so I don’t want to be that person, the fifth wheel.

  13. I relate quite a bit to this article. One woman, who I had just told about my husband dying from melanoma, started talking to me about her mom’s diagnosis and how hard it is. ( Her mom had the single location removed and is very much alive) When I met her mom the next week she had her mom show me her scar — like I had any interest! This same insensitive person also relates how much she worries about her own husband’s health because he doesn’t take care of himself. Then she told me that she was having a co-worker of hers, “a single mother like yourself” come to Easter dinner because she felt sorry for her. It was unnerving.

    I also have a ‘friend’ who whenever I say something encouraging to her — let’s say she has a kid home sick from school and I say ‘Hang in there’ or ‘Let me know if you need an errand run, I’m available in the afternoon’ she will say, ‘OOOHHH NO, you have it much worse that I do, I’ll be fine.’

    It really makes me examine what I say to others as these people are clueless when they talk to me!

  14. Thank you so much for writing this article. I agree with everything in it, and I also agree with all the comments so far.
    In other words…. this is such a fraught area….
    I have experienced it from both sides of the fence, as a person in grief who is irritated or hurt by what others say, and as a friend or relative who is struggling to find the right words to say.

    Grieving people are in pain, and may be more sensitive than usual. The people around them are often well-meaning, but either uncomfortable, and/or trying their best to be comforting and appropriate but they don’t know exactly how. We are not trained in how to deal with grief, from either side of it (as the griever or as the witness/companion/comforter).
    And…. some people really are rude or self-centred or insensitive, and they will say hurtful things.

    But I believe that the latter sorts of people are the exception, and that most people are trying their best to be supportive and sensitive and appropriate.
    That’s why it really bothers me to see articles like the recent one going around on “grief websites” and related pages on facebook — that article went on at length about how people should stop saying “I’m sorry for your loss”. Give me a break — it doesn’t help to try to impose a bunch of rules on what exactly people should say or not say to express their concern and caring. In the difficult, fraught, painful experience of grief and loss, it would be good if we could all cut each other some slack, and (except for the occasional really blatant unkindnesses) assume that people are trying their best to find something supportive and kind to say, and have the grace to appreciate and accept their flawed efforts to offer comfort.

  15. Between people who make hurtful/not helpful comments, people who go missing because they don’t know what to say, and people who one-up your grief with their own, I usually just keep my grief to myself. I know it’s not ideal, but it’s preferable to reaching out for support and regretting it.

  16. Not only have I lost my Dad and brother in law in the last year, I feel like I’ve lost my friends who either stay away or make the most insensitive comments – ‘Isn’t it time you moved on now?’
    I can relate to Danielle’s comment and the need to keep things superficial, as when I’ve tried to open up am met with a brick wall, it’s very isolating.

  17. I fully agree that most people are just uncomfortable with grief and don’t know what to say but they mean well. Most aren’t terrible people. The “troubles talk”sometimes feels like the most annoying though and something I wish people would be more self aware of when they are doing this. I call them “one-uppers.” They’re the people who you confide in but instantly regret it because they seem to always have to top your problem with one of their own and then your problem gets lost in the plethora of their problems that they are now rambling about to you. The people who you say “I’m having a hard day, just really missing my loved one” to and they respond with “I lost someone too (could have been years ago) and miss them and now I’m on my period and am so busy and now have to figure out….” and seem to go on and on. I have a friend that does that, with just about any topic, even if it’s not a “real problem”. Gardening even. I really wish I could get my tulips to grow” “oh yeah I can’t get mine to either and now I have pests and dogs digging at them and yadda yadda yadda” It’s like they can’t stand having to wait for you to talk because they are bursting at the seams for their chance to talk. I still like this person but I just keep our friendship pretty superficial and not talk about anything heavy with her. I know the others I rely on for support are going to be supportive, if even they do say the wrong thing sometimes, I know their hearts are in the right place.

  18. I’m curious how to deal with people who seem shocked when you say you’re still dealing with grief years after.

  19. My immediate supervisor stated, “You need to move on, everyone else has.” This occurred after my friend collapsed and died outside of my office, and my dad died the same day.

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