When They Say the “Wrong” Thing…

I have seen a lot of articles about what NOT to say to someone who is grieving, what TO say and WHEN to say it, an overall guide on how to “handle” someone who is grieving. For a very long time I found those articles so necessary, reading them validated my anger. I wasn’t angry at people for saying the wrong thing (sometimes I was) I was just angry because I was grieving. The validation I got from those articles didn’t always serve me in the best possible way. Being mad at people for how they handled my grief wasn’t my grief, it was a symptom of my grief, those “they just don’t get it” articles fed that symptom…they didn’t treat it.

I of course see the relevance for articles that help all of us navigate grief. We absolutely have to have, and keep an open dialogue about this topic that makes so many so uncomfortable, but I also see a need for more “guidance”. As I’ve gotten further into my grief journey I wonder where are the “support” articles for those who are supporting the grieving? Not a “how to” but a support guide. Loving someone who is grieving and supporting them through that journey is work, it’s a tough job and one that can only be done out of love. Remember that, love!

Let me preface all of this by saying I have had some people say some VERY ridiculous things to me. Very obvious, blatant “why in the hell would you say this to me” kind of stuff. I think anyone who has experienced grief has a pocketful of examples of those kind of statements or sentiments. A couple of my examples after losing Luke (he was 34 and I was 30 when he passed from cancer) “Well, at least you don’t have three kids and a mortgage together.” Yes, thank God we didn’t have a shot at building a life together before he passed away (so much sarcasm) thank you for that silver lining! Cancer, oh everyone is an expert on cancer, comparing Luke’s cancer journey to their own or someone else’s…if you’re alive or your person is alive, it wasn’t the same. Luke is dead and you/your person are alive, clearly, something was very different. Please don’t tell me it was the same. I have a pretty long list now that I think about it, people really do say some dumb things, I get that. I understand this is something all people who have experienced grief have experienced or will and that’s why we see so many “how to” articles, blogs and or books. I get trying to give people a “how to” but I think for the most part, people deserve a little more credit than we’re giving them. Some people, some people are just ignorant (that is me being kind) and those are the people you avoid at all costs. They’re lava, play that game, stay away from the lava.

I’ve carried a chip for a long time, for those who didn’t say anything, for those who said the wrong thing…maybe a combo platter of the wrong thing, at the right time, or the right thing at the wrong time. Of course there are days you want to be treated “normal” and then are days you can’t believe no one asked you how you’re doing even though it’s clear you’re having a bad day.

My grief journey has been an inconsistent roller-coaster. I’m guilty at being angry at people for not remembering dates that are significant to me, for not checking on me enough or long enough, for saying the wrong things, for not saying anything at all. Again, sometimes my feelings were completely valid (I guess all of our feelings are, right?). We can’t help how we feel but our reactions to those feelings are not always valid or justified. I don’t want us to confuse those “they don’t get it” articles for validation of our anger or our behavior/treatment towards others when we’re angry. Much of my grief has not been done with grace. When someone said the “wrong thing” they knew it. I have said and done some things, in my grief, that I am not proud of, that I wish I could take back but I can’t. I hope this reaches far and wide.

Here is the piece that we’re missing, in my opinion. Again, by first saying. there is NO denying people say “dumb” and/or insensitive things to people who are grieving but 9ish times out of 10, if they’re saying something, even if it is the “wrong” thing, they’re saying something because they care. If they don’t say anything, I want to believe more times than not, they don’t NOT care, they simply don’t know what to say. I’ve experienced grief and sometimes I’m at a loss for words when my friends experience a loss. Grief isn’t universal so how I felt or what I needed could be completely different for someone else. I try to avoid platitudes and I think this is a good general rule of thumb. Losing someone you love sucks, it just sucks. There isn’t any way around that. Let’s not sugarcoat loss. Let’s validate whatever someone is feeling and be present for them. Plain and simple.

You’re mad, you have a right to be mad, so be mad but don’t stay there. You’re sad, you have a right to be sad, so be sad but don’t stay there. Can you come back and visit being mad or sad, of course, again, just don’t stay there. That’s the key, I think, validation. You’re allowed to feel however you feel. Nothing about grief is rational, so when you have someone who has a fairly rational take on very irrational feelings and they try to rationalize the situation, that’s probably not going to work. Having my feelings validated went a long away and when they weren’t, I got my validation from those articles that highlighted “people who just don’t get it”. Maybe they didn’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. That’s the piece I was missing, or overlooked when I couldn’t see past my own crap, I never forgot I was loved, but on my worst days, I got more out of those articles. If I’m being 100% honest, which I always am (to a fault) they sometimes pushed me in the opposite direction of the ones who were trying hardest to support me.

I think the people who have supported me, even the ones who I have lashed out at, deserve so much credit, more credit than I have given them. Sure, I went to a grief support group and I’m so thankful for that support and it helped J and I tremendously, but a lot of people got me through losing Luke outside of my every other week grief group. I have told them thank you but I know it will never be enough. It’s enough for them because they just want me to be happy but it will never be enough for me, I’ll never be done thanking them, ever. I’m sure I’ve apologized a thousand times because maybe I lashed out a thousand times. Clearly, I haven’t always been the easiest person to love but they loved me anyway and there isn’t a thing I could do to change that. I know that I will always be loved by a select few, even when I don’t resemble myself, they will still always see me. Thank you for not letting me lose myself, for not letting me drown. I was very aware of the I’m allowed to be mad part of grief, and I used it, but I missed the “just don’t stay there part”.

Also, can we just acknowledge how terrible, how truly gut wrenching it is to watch someone we love suffer? Looking back, thinking back on certain memories, phone calls and scenarios…I must’ve broken their hearts over and over again. My pain was their pain and I missed that part, too. It’s not easy to watch someone you love grief. Even worse, they saw my pain but they couldn’t fix it. As a parent, I know how hard it is when J is hurt and I can’t fix it, it kills me. My poor parents, the calls they got in the middle of the night when my insomnia got the worst of me, where they would just listen to me sob, what kind of hell was I putting them through? Still, there they were…regardless of what a jerk I had been that day or the day prior.

Our grief is ours and we are allowed to feel however we feel, I just wish I would have read more “don’t forget they’re saying these things because they love you” type articles when I was in the thick of my grief. I needed content that would bridge the gap between their rational thoughts and my irrational feelings, not drive the wedge. I hope if you’re in the thick of your grief and you feel very misunderstood you will remember that while those around you don’t understand you, they do love you.

Family has its textbook definitions but means something a little different to everyone. Family; unbreakable, my safest place, home base, love, my purest joy, the strongest root God has ever created. I lost myself in my grief but my family never lost me, they never let go…even when, on some days I wanted to be let go (that wedge).

The people around you aren’t always going to say or do the right things and you’re allowed to feel how you want about those things, you’re allowed to ask them to change their words or behaviors but please don’t push love away. Grief is love and the only “cure” for grief is more love. Please don’t set yourself on an island full of articles about how “they just don’t get it”. Those articles won’t pick up the phone at 3:00 am when you’re in pain and can’t sleep. Those articles are well intended but they don’t love you.

Those articles will validate your anger, and validation is important but don’t let them keep you there. Bridge the gap, don’t drive the wedge. Find your balance, find what works best for you…communicate that and even on your worst days try to be kinder than you feel. Acknowledge that your pain is their pain, too. That shouldn’t make you feel guilty, it should make you feel loved, lucky even. I don’t want you to lose the love that’s still here grieving the love that’s been lost. As always, peace by piece.

To: J, Dad, Mom, Melanie, Matt, Grady & Wyatt. You’re home. I know I haven’t always chosen the right path but you’ve always guided me back to where I belong.

My True North. I love you more every day.

True North
Image Credit: Hiking Dreams & Inspiration

4 thoughts on “When They Say the “Wrong” Thing…

  1. Beautiful and spot on! Thanks for sharing this well written perspective about the journey of grief… I have also discovered that losing my child is helping to be more compassionate with others… At first ,any problem or loss other than mine was insignificant- but going into the second year I am finding a connection to anyone with any loss and realizing it is part of our life story what we do it… I am still writing it!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Donna! I am so, so sorry for your loss! No one should have to endure the pain of losing their child, it just shouldn’t happen. I’m so sorry! Again, thank you for your kind words about this entry, I’m glad you enjoyed it and it resonated. Sending you so much love & light as you continue your journey. Xo – Steph


  2. Beautiful post Stephanie. You’ve articulated an incredibly difficult subject so well. And it’s true — most people want to say *something* but they are petrified to say the wrong thing. I would love to see your lists of the very best things to say; What are the best and most helpful things people said to you, or ways in which they supported you? And particularly, when the grieving person is clearly doing very poorly, what do you say? (Like when you run into her at the grocery store at 10 p.m., and she looks like she’s been crying for days, and probably wanted to sneak out w/o anyone seeing her.)

    And maybe a little about form… even if I see someone every day (like a coworker), I always send a handwritten note to their home. Apparently this is getting kinda rare, judging from the tender reaction I’ve gotten from some people. Sometimes, that’s not possible, so I communicate in whatever way I can. If I get a VM, I leave a very short message, e.g. I’m so sorry, I’m thinking about you, and please call if there is anything I can do. Any thoughts on that?

    I’d also love to see of list of “do-not-say” things:
    — the “at least” statements (how it could be worse)
    — comparative statements (I had a relative who had the same diagnosis and now he’s doing great, blah, blah….)
    — Nothing (the deafening silence)

    Thank you for your voice. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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