“At least he died as a baby. It’s more painful to lose them when they’re older.”
The burial had concluded moments earlier. We sat under a green canopy, rain dripping lazily off the sides and watched as funeral workers tidied up the area around my son’s fresh grave.
This was not something that I wanted to hear. Not today, not ever.
“At least he died as a baby…”
These words were offered to me by a much-loved family member, an individual who was clearly struggling with painful memories of their own. I knew this comment wasn’t meant to cause pain – in fact, it wasn’t really about me. This was simply the truth as they saw it. But it didn’t make the words sting any less; it didn’t make them any more appropriate for that moment. It may have been “more painful” to lose an older child but I still would have given anything for a little extra time with him.
After the loss of my infant son, I began to notice the vast number of minefields that we navigate during every conversation. Seemingly innocent questions such as, “How many kids do you have?” can be surprisingly difficult or painful for someone to answer.
These silent triggers are, for the most part, unavoidable. Questions like, “Is he your first?” or “Do you have kids?” are standard conversation starters. Parents who have experienced loss know that these questions are going to be asked. For the most part, they know how they’re going to answer, how much information they want to share, and with whom.
Most questions are borne out of curiosity, a desire to get to know someone better, or a need to fill empty air. While we should all take time to become more aware of the silent triggers for those around us, these statements are not necessarily thoughtless. The comments that bruise deep don’t usually come from the woman standing behind you in the grocery store or the stranger on the bus – the statements that hurt the most tend to come from those who know about your loss.
In grief support groups, one frequently comes across angry or tearful rants about insensitive remarks lobbed at individuals by their friends, family members, co-workers, or acquaintances. These comments are usually variations of the same underlying themes: “Cheer up!” “Move on!” “Be thankful for what you have!” or “Don’t worry – everything is going to be okay!” Rather than helping, these statements only seem to dig into an already tender wound.
“Man, can you imagine how tired you would have been with TWO?”
“You’re young, you can try again.”
“At least he died before you got to know him. It’s harder to lose an older child.”
“You should just be thankful that you still have one.”
Most people don’t start out with the intention to cause additional pain. In fact, most of these comments are actually spoken with the desire to provide comfort or to help someone find healing. But while there are certain aspects of truth buried amidst each of these tactless statements, this is not the appropriate way or time to broach such topics.
We all know how difficult it is to find the right words in the midst of loss. We flounder around for something comforting and instead end up blurting out, “I can only imagine what you’re going through. Just this past week our cat ran away. I don’t know how I’m going to tell my son that Fluffy’s not coming home.”
That was a conversation we had with our funeral director. Looking at flower arrangements and caskets, it seemed too ridiculous to be talking about a lost cat. In a clumsy attempt to sympathize he ended up comparing the loss of his pet to the death of our son. While I do not negate the deep pain felt over the loss of a beloved pet, grieving parents will find this comparison at best, inadequate, and at worst, offensive.
It’s easy to say the wrong thing when trying to comfort someone. Even individuals who work with grieving families every day can slip and make a thoughtless remark. And despite our best intentions, there will inevitably be moments when we speak before realizing the potential pain caused by our words. That’s why most people ignore grief – it’s too awkward, too messy.
I applaud those who are still trying, despite the fear of blunders, to comfort and stand alongside the hurting. Thank you for remembering that actions speak louder than words; that sometimes all a grieving family needs to hear is, “I’m so sorry,” and “We’re thinking of you.”
For those of us facing these unintentionally stinging comments, we will try to remember that we too were once unaware of sorrow’s intricacies. In our frustration, we will remember that these words are born out of a desire to help. We will respond with grace and acknowledge that while our friends may not fully understand, they are trying. And as we continue to learn from one another, we will remember to share our experiences and remain thankful for those who have the courage to speak.