The bereaved report that they are frequently subjected to insensitive comments following a death. It’s not as if someone deliberately wants to hurt the bereaved; inappropriate statements appear to stem from a discomfort with the concept of death and individuals who genuinely are at a loss for words.
You would think that medical professionals, of all people, would be sensitive when dealing with loss. And while I understand that many aren’t comfortable with the topic, I’m still astonished at some of the callous and insensitive things that have been said to patients. A reader recently shared that her husband died by suicide. When she told her doctor, he asked, “How did he do it?” She shared with him he used helium gas; the doctor said, “Well at least he didn't leave you a mess to clean up.” I wish this were an isolated instance, but it’s not. Another reader reports that when her baby died eight months into her pregnancy, the doctor that induced labor told her, “It’s for the best.”
Most of us are shocked into silence when told something truly inappropriate. But shouldn’t we say something to let the speaker know that their comments were hurtful? If we say nothing, aren’t we leaving the speaker to think that what they said was okay?
This is a hot topic for the bereaved. There is no right or wrong thing to say or do when confronted with a hurtful statement. Here are some thoughts from bereaved parents, spouses, and children on how they’ve handled this issue:
1. A bereaved daughter was offended by a friend’s comment following her mother’s death. She told her friend, “If you ever say something like that again in my presence it will end our friendship.” She reported that it worked; her friend never said anything hurtful again.
2. “Never confront or challenge,” recommends a bereaved spouse. If you want to speak up, do it with understanding. She has countered with, “I know you mean well, but comparing my loss to one of yours isn’t helping me. Each of us hurts in our own way, and our grief is unique. Acknowledging that is more helpful.”
3. A bereaved daughter fielded many insensitive comments following her mother’s death after a debilitating battle with cancer. Frustrated, she finally asked people, “Why would you say something like that?” It had its desired effect, and the comments finally stopped.
4. The most caring thing said to a bereaved mom was, "I'm sorry. I have no idea what you're going through, and I don't know what to say or to do to help you." She reported the honesty was pure and she could hear the sympathy and empathy in the tone of voice.
5. A bereaved mom was asked, "Where are you finding the strength to get through this?" She felt it was a respectful question that acknowledged her loss, and she now uses it herself with others who are mourning. “Grieving people have much wisdom to offer others,” she said. “It's wise to go to the source of wisdom with good questions.”
6. “I’m so sorry for your loss” continues to rank as the most appropriate thing to say. The bereaved report that those who stray off-topic usually wind up in inappropriate territory.
If you are subjected to inappropriate comments, you can choose how you wish to respond. If it will make you feel better, say something. Should you decide you would like to educate and enlighten others, determine what you would like to say beforehand and say it whenever you deem necessary. If you choose to say nothing, that’s okay too.
A wise reader suggests, “Providing a simple thank you to anyone who says something inconsiderate may be all that is in order; and then walk away. It is a time to save your energy for other battles and for big hugs" from others who understand.
Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available as e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store
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