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 River of Tears on February 9, 2011 at 7:24am

If in doing so , it is difficult when they may not hear what you may be trying to say .  Never to confront or challenge , but wanting more understanding ( maybe my way of not being angry).  Yet in it all after say "hello" that only word I think he hear then all went back to how it was when he came to talk to me after me Sister passed away.  Finding that there many with a generosity of heart that will say and do things even if they may not always be the absolute correct thing but you just know where they were coming from , and there are those like my friend .  Some how in life there are those who chose to take these painful times to come to say what they want and then just walk away as though it was their calling ..  and if ever you want to talk to them  more then then respond to you after it is all done and over with that they were not angry with you ????  This should not surprise me , though it did , I must have hoped for something when I walked in there , maybe at least that not to blame but be heard . But in the end all he felt and used the word anger .  Not to ever say how another feels  but this time I almost can tell you he was especially after the 3 time of him saying to me after thanking him for talking that " he was not angry with me "      Sometimes it may not always be what you hope , for if it was , my Sister would still be here and would not even be writing this .


Please take care

Comment by Helen Abrams on March 6, 2010 at 6:46am
Unfortunately the people who make inappropriate comments won't ever read this blog. It's been 18 years since I've lost my husband and recently a devastating sudden death in the family has brought up some negative comments and I'm finding those comments very hurtful. My husband at 34 died after 8-months suffering from Luekemia which at the time was the most devastasting lose to our family and my three young sons. Years do heal however death is life changing and dealing with those changes also were difficult. The 8-months was surrounded by hospitals and babysitters and craziness,emotions and in the end it resulted in his passing.

The passing of our family member brought feelings I had when dealing with my husbands death which I was attempting to console. The comment to me was this is totally different then the death of your husband the pain is much worst for us and you had time to perpare. The first time and second time it was said to me I didn't respond the third time I said "The end result was the same we lost the person we love". Their grief is overwhelming and I now realize that I can't compare my lose to theirs. Moving forward I'm keeping my mouth shut and will allow the family to talk about, remember and grieve the loss of their loved one. My role now is support, cook, a good hugger and a better listener.
Comment by person on March 4, 2010 at 8:21am
I've been widowed, and I'm presently dealing with infertility. I'm sick of suffering rudeness in the name of politeness. WHY is it rude to say "That hurts, here's why, please stop"? Being quiet just lets them go on and on.

I've heard it all. "It wasn't meant to be" after miscarrying. My baby DIED INSIDE ME. They wouldn't say this if my kid was a toddler and was hit by a car. Another person said it was "probably a blessing." Everyone thinks I've never heard of adoption and is eager to educate me. My husband thinks everyone means well, and I should accept the remarks in the spirit intended, so he smiles and says nothing, leaving me to suffer, including the imbecile who said it was nature's way of telling me I'm not meant to be a mother.

When I was widowed, people excluded me from parties because I was the odd one out, including a wedding of longtime friends who thought it might depress me. Some friends acted like they thought I was now after their husbands. Once I remarried, I was "non-infectious" again.

People shouldn't be obliged to suffer cruelty in the name of being polite. I'm about to start telling people they are hurting me, and if they don't quit, they're off my list of friends.
Comment by Robbie Miller Kaplan on February 23, 2010 at 11:25am
Kathy, my condolences on the death of your husband. Everyone grieves in their own way and you are the best judge as to how you feel about your sister’s comments and whether you should speak up. It sounds like your sister is an integral part of your life. If you are going to speak with her, I would encourage you to first let her know how much you appreciate the time she spends with you and her support. You can then tell her the comments that people make that you find hurtful and also let her know the comments that bring you comfort. I would like to hear from others as to how they would suggest you handle this.
Comment by kathy obiedzinski on February 23, 2010 at 7:45am
i just read your comments and i would like to tell you what i am going thru my husband had died of a massive heart attack on 3/1/09 after he died my sister start saying she heard foot steps up in my apt. she also makes sure she brings up my husband name she tells me i had a good marriage which i already know. when we went someplace during the holidays and she packed the back of her van she will say george is probably saying good now you see what i go thru with you. measning my sister people try to tell me go to a support group get out more ect. i do not know what to say to my sister regardnig the remarks she says my therapist told me to say please do not do this to me because it is very hurtful is she right?
Comment by Susan W Reynolds on February 22, 2010 at 2:51pm
Insensitive remarks often arise from the speaker not knowing what to say and also their own difficulty in confronting death and understanding grief.

If anything be said back at a zinging comment, try to remember it is probably from their ignorance of the situation. In grief , it is hard not to take things personally on many levels. One grand thing, is that when another person needs your acknowledgment, You Will know what to say as you have been there. A simple thank you to the inconsiderate and a response of bless you may be all that is in order. It is a time to save your energy for other battles and for big hugs from others that understand!
Comment by Ann Lia on February 15, 2010 at 5:39pm
Sometimes just looking someone in the eye and saying quietly, "How would you feel if someone said something like that to you at this particular moment?" works. The trouble is, most people recently bereaved are caught so unawares and are so immersed in grief that they cannot muster the strength to respond like this. Shrugging things off is an option. I liked the point that Sherry brought up - that people who said nothing were often just as hurtful. As a grief counselor, one of the things I focus on with my patients is openly communicating your desire to talk about your loved one with supportive people. Often, people avoid the topic because they don't know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes they are afraid it will upset you. It is okay to rebuff offensive remarks, and it is okay to tell an avoidant person that it is okay to talk about the deceased. Something along the lines of: "I don't mind talking about John, even if I still get teary." For the record, one of the most bizarre comments I have personally heard was at the funeral of a young (early 20's, killed by a drunk driver) family member. A "well-meaning" family friend said, "Well, you know what they say - here today and gone tomorrow!" Indeed! My wry and sensible grandmother turned rather loudly to the person next to her and said, "What a dope!"
Comment by Robbie Miller Kaplan on February 15, 2010 at 9:10am
Thanks so much for sharing your story Katy. You are very wise in encouraging everyone to stand up for themselves and educate others on what's appropriate and what's not.
Comment by Daisy on February 14, 2010 at 12:52pm
My beautiful 32 year old son died as a result of a lethal dose of heroin on June 28th, 2009. Within days of his death, in severe shock, still waiting for his body to be 'repatriated' (he died while on a business trip to England) a woman I used to do volunteer work with (someone who prides herself on being 'nonjudgmental') assaulted me while I was on an errand. She proclaimed that I must be relieved by his death. She referred to elderly neighbors of hers - whose son had also died as a consequence of this devastating disease - and speculated that, since they had spent so much money on treatment, she could only imagine their relief. She quoted another mutual acquaintance as saying 'this idea of addiction as a disease is nonsense'. She said more and spewed a lot of mean spirited ignorance in under 2 minutes. What she did disturbed me so much, I couldn't proceed w/my small errand. I was too shaken to do more than take my leave.

I have a practice of turning to God w/prayer for - well, pretty much everything. After prayer (and after waiting a day) I chose to call this woman and let her know that what she said did damage. I chose to tell her that I was not only not relieved by my son's death, but that I would walk up and down a local mountain trail 10 times a day carrying 50 pound weights in each hand if that would give me even one more minute with my son. And I told her that I was telling her this so that, in the future, should I see her anywhere, the sight of her would not cause me more pain - not cause me to turn away from her - and not tempt me to negate all the better memories I hold of our time together as volunteers. I felt better for it. This action led me to make a decision to be simply honest with everyone who inquired after my well-being. My practice is to thank them for their question and then give a small, honest answer. Some people I can give more details to than others. That's okay.

My grief is what I have of my son; it's my sanctuary and I will not dishonor him or myself by minimizing (or maximizing) what's real. Most people really do try their best to be kind. Clumsiness is fine. Comparison is not. Sorry, but no matter how much you loved Great-Grandma, it's not the same as losing a child, no matter the child's age or cause of death. Burying your child is catastrophic.

For me, the best thing anyone can do is ask a question (and steer clear of unasked for advice/platitudes). The best, most respectful question has been, "where are you finding the strength to get through this?" It's rare for people to do this - but since someone has done so, I can learn to ask others the same. Grieving people have much wisdom to offer others. It's wise to go to the source of wisdom with good questions.
Comment by Sherry on February 13, 2010 at 3:38pm
My 23 year old son passed away due to suicide 2 years ago. I think that I'm sorry for your loss is a great idea. I did not have that many people say bad things to me. Instead, they said nothing and that hurt a little also. It made me feel more isolated but I do admit that I was easy to cry and probably was just as well. I did not want to make anyone else uncomfortable.

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