Should you respond to inappropriate comments?

You would think that medical professionals, of all people, would be sensitive when dealing with loss. And while I know 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 took his life. When she told her doctor, he asked, “How did he do it?” When she told him he used helium gas, the doctor said, “Well at least he didn't leave you a mess to clean up.”

I wish this was 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 and then they’re liable to say something hurtful to someone else?

I have had my share of truly inappropriate comments and yet I have never told the speaker how their comments hurt. Should we let someone know that their comment was inappropriate? If so, should we tell them in person or write a note in hope that they’ll be more tactful the next time they speak with someone experiencing loss?

I’d like to hear what you think and learn how others have handled this issue.


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 in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "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 StoreClick here to order.


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Comment by CDJBlue on February 13, 2010 at 12:43pm
My mother passed recently. A co-worker is aware that we had a difficult relationship and didn't get along very well...which has probably made everything so much more difficult, because of all the regrets, guilt, etc. We regularly have lunch at a local restaurant. One of the waitresses, who hadn't seen me for a few weeks asked where had I been. I told her my mother had died, to which my co-worker responded "they didn't get along anyway"!! On our walk back to work, I told her if she ever said something like that again in my presence it would end our friendship. It worked...she's never said it again.
Comment by Mary_Tupps on February 13, 2010 at 11:23am
I have been running a lossof partner support group for 10 years now. It has been both surprising and outrageous the things that are said to those who are grieving.

My husband had only been dead a couple of DAYS when someone told me that "You're still young enough to remarry." Of all the most hurtful and outrageous things which have been reported in my support group over the years it was the comment made by the widows Aunt-in-law. The deceased had suffered for years from cancer and went into remisson. While in remission he had his teeth repaired which had been badly damaged by fenol pops for his pain. Unfortunately, a few months later, this gentleman was "called home" due to a blood clot. The man's Aunt remarked, "It's such a shame that he wasted all that money on his teeth!" The worst part was, she was standing next to his casket at the wake!

People do not understand how hurtful the things that they say are. The most gentle, loving thing that was said to me after my husband's death was, "I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're going through and don't know what to say or to do for you..." The honesty was pure and the sympathy and empathy were in her voice...after I hugged the stuffing out of her, we watched television in silence for a few hours then went out to dinner.

I'm very sorry for your loss is the best thing to say when the right words are hard to find!

...and YES, you bet your boots that with some of the most hurtful comments that were made to me----even though they were well meant, were corrected and the person was firmly put into their proper place!
Comment by pam on February 13, 2010 at 9:22am
My sister died from an accidental overdose 18 months ago. She passed away while she was sleeping and never knew what happened.
I was always raised if you don't know what to say, don't speak. Others should learn that too. I have had people say, at least she died peacefully in her sleep, or thank goodness she was not suffering from cancer or some disease. She did have a disease, she was an addict. And no, she didn't suffer, but my 85 and 87 year old parents should not have buried their 48 year old daughter. My adult children were left with no other Aunt, and I lost my only sibling. Those people did not have to run the next day 1200 miles to make funeral arrangements, go back to her apt and clean up the mess in her bed (which will never leave me) or write a eulogy for their sibling. So, people....if you don't know what to say, "I'm sorry for your loss" will work.

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