Good Intentions / Unhelpful Remarks


While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert it only irritates.
Samuel Johnson

In the time immediately following the death of a loved one, friends and family want to comfort us, but talking about death is awkward and most people don't know what to say. When we are in the shock of acute grief, we are vulnerable and sensitive to the remarks of others. Well-meaning people often say unhelpful things. The comments are made with all good intentions of supporting us, but they can still hurt, or minimize our feelings, because they do not acknowledge the pain of loss. Click Overused Expressions of Sympathy for common remarks that unwittingly diminish grief.

Grief is Personal:
My Experience of Unhelpful Remarks

During my mother's calling hours, (wake), a few people told me they knew just how I felt. Grief is personal and the comment didn't help me. If anything, it left me feeling less understood. No one can ever know exactly how another person feels, and this is especially true of grief. Even siblings, who are sharing in the death of a common parent, can feel differently because each sibling had a unique relationship with that parent.

The comments I least appreciated had to do with Mom's long life. Yes, I know parents die; we all die, but I wanted to shout, "Stop it!" I understand what they were trying to convey, and I am grateful my vibrant mother lived a lot of years; but that doesn't mean I was ready to give her up, or that I hurt less because she was old.

I have read that the grief associated with the death of elderly parents is minimized because it doesn't carry the tragedy of premature death. That somehow, because it is in the natural order of things, it doesn’t hurt. This is untrue, at least for me. As Ken Doka says, "If you were twelve years old, no one would believe it odd that you would grieve the loss of your mom, so why do we assume it is easier fifty years later? Those fifty additional years carry even more shared memories."

Having a positive relationship with my mother for so long made it very hard to break the physical bond at death. I can never know the depth of pain a parent endures when a child dies. It is an unspeakable loss. I can only know how I feel now that both of my parents are dead. It hurts.

People may not have asked the age of my dead mother to intentionally dismiss my sadness, but that is what it felt like to me every time. If an adult tells you a parent has died, please do not first qualify the death by asking the age of the deceased.

The experience of my mother's funeral is more recent, but I also remember tactless statements at the time of my father's death more than twenty years ago. Because I have lived away from my hometown for many years, both events were filled with people I didn't know. One such unknown woman at my father's wake told me that she knew just how I felt because her dog had died the week before.

I understand she was trying to connect with me on the feeling of loss. Maybe the death of her dog was the most profound loss of her life. When it comes to grief, pain is pain. I have loved and cherished pets my entire life, and I have deeply grieved for them at their passing. For me personally, however, the deaths of my pets and the death of my father were not the same.

Another woman, also unknown to me, brought her little boy to the calling hours. She explained that she wanted to teach her nine year-old son about death, corpses and funeral homes in a safe way. I think children should be introduced to the concept of death as a natural part of life, perhaps first through the death of a beloved pet, but she added: So, I decided to bring him to your father's viewing because my son doesn't know him and doesn't care anything about him.

I responded that I was glad she felt she could use my father's death as an experiment for her son. Only with my remark, did the light of understanding flicker in her brain. She turned very red and mumbled something as she left. Please, if you intend to use someone's death as an experiment for your children, do not tell the grieving family of your plan.


Go to next page: Overused Expressions of Sympathy

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