Hurtful Things Well Meaning People Say
In a perfect world, people would receive the kind of support they need from those around them at all times. However, the reality is, you will have to deal with people saying things you find hurtful, whether they mean it or not. You probably have already experienced someone saying something you found to be hurtful and not helpful. People who have been through this experience themselves usually will offer a hug, an “I'm so sorry,” or a listening ear. But those who haven't experienced this kind of loss often don't know what to say. So they say something, hoping to make you feel better and, in fact, they do the opposite. These are some of the most common comments women find to be hurtful:
“It is all for the best. Something must have been wrong.”/ “Everything happens for a reason.”
When you consider all the thousands of things that have to be just right in order to have a healthy, full-term baby, it is easier to understand why so many women experience a miscarriage. Medically, in many cases, miscarriages are nature's way of taking care of a fetus that is not growing properly. In Joshua's case, something was most likely wrong from the start, which is why the test never registered as positive. But that did not change the ache in my heart one bit. So, while this statement may be true, it doesn't make me feel better.
“I understand how you feel.”
It always made me angry to hear people say they knew how I felt when they had not experienced this trauma. Unless the speaker has been through a loss of this kind her/himself, they do not understand how you feel. They might be able to imagine how they would feel in the same situation, they might have gone through grief themselves and be able to empathize with you. But unless someone has experienced the loss of a baby, they don't understand how you feel.
“You are young. You can always have another.”
This statement can be hurtful in more than one way. For many people, the “can always have another” isn't true. I know too many women who had multiple losses and were never able to have a successful pregnancy. But more importantly, it glosses over the fact that this child is gone. Saying “You can have another” makes it sound as if this baby is easily replaceable, like a burned-out light bulb. Most women I have talked to think, “But I wanted this baby. Even if I do go on to have another baby someday, it won't replace this one.” A subsequent child will help to fill the hole, but can never be a replacement. When people say “You can always have another,” it makes light of the bond that has already formed between mother and child.
“Don't worry, you'll be pregnant again soon.”
Here again, a well meaning person makes what amounts to a flippant remark, making the mother feel that what happened really isn't that important. It disregards her feelings and makes the baby sound easily replaceable. A subsequent pregnancy will not replace the baby who has died. That baby mattered and was loved for herself, no matter what her gestational age.
“At least it happened early—it's not as though you lost a real child.”
When a child dies after birth, regardless of the age of the child, society sees it as a tragedy and extends comfort to the family. After all, that child had a place in the family, a seat at the dinner table, a car seat in the van. But when a baby dies in the early stages of development, people don't see things the same way. After all, no one could see this child. We didn't know his/her name or often even its gender. Maybe the mother never felt it move. So how could there be a bond already there? Why should we mourn something that wasn't really a person?
Many people look at a miscarriage as having lost a pregnancy, not a living baby. But that heart was beating and now has stopped. This little person was real, was unique, and was loved whether anyone could see it or not.
“Be thankful for the child/ren you already have.”/ “Having a child already must be such a comfort to you.”
I think many people assume that if you already have a child, then losing a baby doesn't hurt as much. After all, your living child must be a comfort for you. And that is true, to some degree. However, just because I already have a child doesn't mean that this child who is gone was wanted or loved any less. Having a child already doesn't take the place of the one that is gone, or ease the ache from that loss. And having children to care for means you don't get the time to heal physically and emotionally following a loss—you are forced to get back into life.
On the other hand, you are forced to get back into life and at least go through the motions of each day. There were plenty of days when all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and hide from the world—the world didn't understand how much my heart was hurting, after all. But I couldn't do that. I had two little boys who needed me. And as hard as it was to care for them and feel I was doing a good job at it, they forced me to get out of bed and continue living. So yes, I thank God for my children each day. But that doesn't change the fact that there are four other children I still miss.
“I can't begin to imagine your pain.”
This sounds like a nice thing to say to someone, since no one can ever understand what another person is feeling at the time of a tragedy. However, one bereaved mother I met told me that this was the worst comment for her to hear. It made her feel as if her experience was so awful, so unique, no one could understand it. Although she realized this person was trying to say they weren't going to pretend they could understand what she was feeling, it also made her feel as if she was so far out there that no one could even try to reach her. It left her feeling more alone than ever.
“Are you going to try again?”
I hate the phrase “try again.” To me, it implies that I failed at something. But I didn't fail at anything. My baby died—there is a big difference. It makes it seem like an opportunity was lost, not a member of my family, and so invalidates the baby. The question also makes it sound as if success is dependent on trying hard enough. If you want to have a baby badly enough, just keep trying and eventually you will succeed. But that is so often not the case. I began using the term “have another” when people asked. For I had this baby, however briefly.
“It was God's will.”
I think this is the statement with which I have the most difficulty. I heard this from friends after Nicholas died, and it infuriated me. I know when people face a friend undergoing tragic circumstances about which no one can make sense, they often respond with a “will of God” philosophy because it takes tragic circumstances out of human control and relieves people of the burden of trying to make sense of a situation that has no explanation (like “Why did the baby have to die?”). But I have a very hard time believing in a God who would deliberately take my child away from me. That just doesn't mesh with my image of a loving God. I can deal better with medical science saying, “This is tragically unfair and never should anyone have to face this.” It is much more difficult to imagine God saying, “I think I'll inflict this horrible pain on you just because I feel like it.” I much prefer the image of a loving, caring God shedding tears with me and holding me close through my pain.
“God needed another angel in Heaven”
I never personally heard this comment, but I have friends who have. It is another way of saying it was “God's will,” and I have just as much trouble with this statement, for the same reasons. The thought that God would give me something and then say, “On second thought, I need that child more than you do” and take it back just doesn't mesh with my image of a loving God. I don't see God giving things and taking them back on a whim.
“God never gives you more than you can handle.” /“When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”
I think this is a way of saying, “I know you are strong enough to get through this.” And of course, it is true that every person will find a way to survive whatever tragedies are thrown at them in life, for what choice is there? However, I put these statements in the same category as “It was God's will.” It implies that God chose to inflict this experience on me, singled me out for this horrible nightmare. Was He testing me to see exactly how much I could take without breaking? Or did He decide that I am stronger than someone else and could handle it better? I have a very difficult time accepting that my babies died in order to somehow make me a stronger person. I may be stronger as a result of these tragedies, but I can't believe that God deliberately inflicted them on me.
As hard as it is to hear these kinds of platitudes that really don't help, I think the worst is when people don't say anything at all. Silence can be just as hurtful, even more so, for it makes the parents feel isolated. At least the people who say the wrong things are acknowledging that you have had a difficult experience, even if they inadvertently say something hurtful. But the friends who are silent can make you feel as if what you are going through needs to be kept quiet and not talked about. Now, most of those folks are not trying to say that at all, and would be appalled that anyone mistook their silence for uncaring. Most of them would say one of the following things:
“I didn't know what to say to you.”
There are no words that anyone can say, even those who have themselves been through it, that will make you feel suddenly better. The only thing that truly helps is time. There are three little words that do help, though: “I'm so sorry.” Really, that is all we want to hear, right? “I'm sorry for your loss” validates what you are experiencing and lets you know they are thinking of you.
“I didn't want to make you feel bad/remind you by bringing it up.”
This one always confuses me—as if mentioning the thing that is foremost in my thoughts right now is going to make me feel worse! Believe me, you are not going to be reminding me of something I've forgotten! Most of the women I have talked to needed to talk about their experience and their feelings. They needed to validate the importance of this short little life by hearing people acknowledge that it existed.
What is the best way to deal with people who say things you find hurtful? That is a personal decision. For the most part, I kept quiet and didn't say anything directly to the person, particularly if it came from a friend. I would stew about it in my head or rant about it to Aaron later, but I tended to refrain from responding to most of these statements.
However, there are times when I later felt that I should have said something and perhaps educate the person. Perhaps if I tell them how hurtful their comment was, they would think twice before saying it to someone else.
If you choose to respond, you should be careful how you do. Educating someone calmly and gently will encourage them to have a different view of your situation and how they speak to others. Yelling at them will probably make them think poorly of you and not allow what you say to carry over to other situations. In the same way ignoring or showing anger to someone for what they have said, without explaining why you are hurt by what they said, will only damage relationships.
It is important to remember that most of the people who say stupid things aren't trying to be mean. They honestly don't know what to say to bring comfort, so platitudes are all they can find. We've all been guilty of making the same mistakes to others, knowingly or not. If you don't feel it is worth risking otherwise good relationships, take care with how you respond.
© 2009 Kathleen Olowin All rights reserved.