Wrong Things to Say to Hurting People
When someone is going through a trial and they confide in us, we spontaneously try to comfort, encourage and support, or we get uncomfortable and turn into a buffoon or a jerk. Unfortunately, when a person is in the throes of suffering is the time when the most hurtful, idiotic words come out of our mouths. Let's face it, we've all done it - said and done the wrong thing when someone shared with you their trial.
I can remember once running into an elderly friend at my workplace. I was headed to break and we stopped to chat. She was aware that in the recent past I had been struggling with depression and was on meds. I had put some weight on since I'd last seen her. At one point in the conversation she said "You know the reason you have a potbelly is because of your meds." To say I shrugged it off would be a gargantuan lie. I was humiliated and hurt, then I was mad. This precious lady was elderly and a former nurse of 30 years. On more than one occasion I had witnessed her lack of inhibition and sensitivity when talking about human anatomy, even if it was the body of the person she was talking too. I look back now and laugh; but at the time it hurt, especially since I was at a delicate time in my emotional life.
What is the reason behind these foot-in-mouth, insensitive remarks?
Why People Say the Wrong Thing?
There are a few reasons people say and do the wrong thing when someone they know and love is suffering a tragedy or crisis in their lives:
The worse a crisis situation is, the worse our fears tend to be. We are uncomfortable, and often overwhelmed by the person's pain; thus we feel a desperate need to make sense of their tragedy or adversity to them so they won't hurt and we will feel better. Of course we are not usually cognizant of this in the situation, but it all boils down to that.
Some people are naturally closed off to the suffering of others. They lack empathy and compassion. These people are often the worst offenders. They don't appreciate or comprehend the devastation of losing a loved one or having losing and job and a home. These people tend to be flippant or just plain uninterested. Their remarks are cold, dismissing, and arrogant; but indifference is the most painful reaction of all.
Some people really mean well. They may think they know how someone feels in a given situation, but as they have never experienced it, they really don't. These people tend to say they know how you feel, or give pat answers. Their perception of the gravity of the situation fails them because they have not walked down that road in their own lives.
Just say "No" to flowery sentiments
James McDonald's Five Speech Errors During Trials
To begin, I want to share something I heard in a sermon by James McDonald. His message was What to do With Trials. At one point in the sermon, he listed five speech errors we make when someone is sharing their trials. Here is the list:
Counseling to the person's flesh. McDonald gives the example of blurting out an encouragement to seek revenge, like "He did that to you? You should just go back and do (fill in the blank). There are many other things you could use as an example, but I think you get the picture.
Saying too much. It is uncomfortable when someone shares their pain. When some people get uncomfortable they immediately open their mouth and start babbling about what happened to them, or someone they know, and the story goes on and on, all the while the person who shared is feeling burdened by listening, and burdened by the total lack of compassion and feeling of being dismissed. One minute they were sharing their burden, and the next someone was sharing with you their burden in a way that says, "That's nothing. You should have seen what happened to..." When I was in high school one of my closest friends always said, "You think you've got a stomach ache, you should see how bad mine is." Drove me nuts. Don't make someone else's trial all about you.
Too pious: This is probably the most common. What is meant by being too pious is that these are usually people who pile on the sappy or melancholy platitudes and pat answers. Nine times out of ten they are either stating the obvious, like, "Well, you've just got to have faith." or they are saying stupid things. When a loved one dies, sometimes people will try to comfort the grieving one and say, "Well, God needed another angel so he took her home." Or "Well, he's in heaven now, so you should rejoice." There is an element of truth to the latter, but in the throes of fresh grief, all they know is that they miss that person and want them here now.
Saying nothing. Once again, seeing someone's pain is very uncomfortable to some people. They are at a loss, or worried they might make the person cry or say the wrong thing, so they say nothing. Sometimes they say nothing because it reminds them of the pain they experienced when they went through the same thing. To say nothing, the person suffering feels like they and their pain and loss are not significant.
Saying the wrong thing. This ties in with the first two. We say the wrong thing, it hurts, is completely irrelevant and unhelpful, or downright pathetic. If someone just lost their child, don't say, "I know how you feel (and they don't) we just lost our dog. Open mouth, insert foot. That shouldn't even need an explanation as to why that was just plain wrong. I have a church friend who tried for years with her husband to have a baby. Eventually they adopted a little boy from another country. A few years later they adopted a precious little girl from China. A few years later she became pregnant and had a baby boy. When people found out she was having a baby, they said some really dumb things, like, "Oh, I'll bet your thrilled you will have a child of your own (or real child)."
Compassion, love, prayers, and support are the best comforters, not judgment, minimizing, explaining, saying you understand, or offering shallow, sugary platitudes.
Loss of a Job
At this time in our nation, many are suffering from job loss. It's especially hard for families. The fear of bankruptcy, not being able to feed the family or provide medical insurance and homelessness is frightening. And despite what many think, most homeless are not people with mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. Certainly there are many, but according to the United States Conference of Mayors, in 2008, the three most common causes of homelessness for persons in families were lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment. That was four years ago. The stats are even higher now. Here is what not to say when someone loses their job or has been out of work for a long time:
Don't worry, you'll get unemployment. While that can be somewhat of a relief, the point is that losing your job is devastating. Firstly, no one wants to be on unemployment. Secondly, the money received from unemployment typically is significantly less than what you made before and may not cover all the necessities. Receiving unemployment is not the same as being gainfully employed. Thirdly, not everyone qualifies for unemployment. We need to be careful not to make assumptions.
Don't worry, we won't let you go homeless. I've heard this one a lot in my life. The reason it didn't comfort me is because of the people who said it to me. They were people I knew, but not well, and it was not said as a sincere promise. They were blowing me off with an empty promise. And really, it made me lose hope even more being reminded that it could get so bad that I might be at risk for homelessness. Thankfully, I have a true and trusted friend who did say this and who meant it. She made a way for me to have an affordable place to live. So the moral of the story is, if you have no intention of helping the person, that's fine, but don't make a promise you have no intention of keeping.
Just take whatever job you can get. Some people will take issue with this one. I have mixed feelings. I think for parents with children at home, that is what it may take. But if you have a $1,200 mortgage and three small children, and mom and dad are both working minimum wage or slightly higher because that is all they could find after a months or a year of searching, that is not going to be enough to even cover the barest of necessities. Also, for me, when I lost a job once, I knew the job market was very bad for most kinds of jobs so I took the first one I could find. I had absolutely no skills for this job and it didn't work out well. I feel very good that I tried, but the stress of trying to do that job was more immense than any job I've ever done. I immediately took another job I wasn't qualified for, and within three days I lost the job because I couldn't keep up in the training. There is a fine line here. If you have a family to support and there is nothing out there, you do what you have to do until something better comes along, but for some people, it's really not helpful if it ends badly.
What you can say is "I'm so sorry you lost your job. Is there anything practical you need that I (or we, or the church, or the community or other group) can help with?" Perhaps you could buy them groceries, fix their car, give them transportation, or offer other practical resources they might be able to access. Love and kindness and walking with them through the journey is better than empty sentiments and promises.
Offer hope, not this
Loss of a Pet
People who are not animal lovers have a hard time relating to the pain of losing a beloved pet. They are the people who need to refrain from judging this kind of loss as trivial. Pets for many people are an integral and intimate part of the family. Losing a pet is not as devastating as losing a child, spouse, or close loved one, but nonetheless, for many, pets are a part of the family and it hurts and we grieve. Some people who have pets are not intimately bonded with their pet and if the pet dies, it is only slightly distressing. Try to refrain from saying the following:
It was only a... Not to the people who loved that animal. We have relationships with our pets. When they die, it is a loss, especially if the relationship was particularly intimate. To many people who live alone their pet is their closest friend. Families often get very attached to their pets. Fido is an integral part of the family and brings much comfort and joy to all.
You can get another one. True, but give the person time to grieve. Depending on the person and their relationship with the animal, they may never want a pet again, or they need a long while to grieve. Do not go to the pet store or pound and bring home and unexpected new pet. They need to be the one to choose the time and type of pet they want when they are ready.
Rather say "I am so sorry you lost spot. I know how much you loved him." That's not too hard is it?
Losing a pet hurts
Miscarriage or Loss of Infant or Child
You can have another one. Stating the obvious does not always have the important message we need to be sending. If you drop your cell phone in the toilet, "You can always get another one" is perfectly appropriate. But not when someone has a miscarriage.
Miscarriage is devastating. A couple gets used to the idea that they're going to be parents; they've felt this little one kicking; seen his heart beating and his bone structure and sex on the sonogram. The mom and dad's hearts are swelling with love and expectation more every day for this little person they have created out of their love for one another. Then one day there is bleeding, a trip to the ER, and the loss of their flesh and blood, and their dream of parenthood is gone. Devastating.
Saying you can have another child, in the womb or out, is saying that this life was not of any significance; that this person is easily replaced, no big deal, there's more where that came from.
If it's a miscarriage, "Well, at least it happened before it was born. First of all, "it" is not a proper term. The "it" you speak of was a child, their child. It is a loss wether he or she was born yet or not. The bond that parents have with their unborn babies is very powerful. Don't dismiss a miscarriage as a minor disappointment.
I know how you feel, our dog died and I'm all torn up inside. Losing a pet is absolutely nothing like losing a beloved child. Some pet owners would argue and say, "But my dog is all I have and he is my whole life. I love him as if he was my own child." It is not the same kind of grief. Losing a pet can be devastating, and certainly their loss is to be grieved, but losing a pet doesn't even come close to the loss of your own flesh and blood child.
Maybe God was protecting him from something bad. There are some horrible things that can happen to people, and possibly there are times when God is trying to protect them from some future tragedy, but seriously, there isn't too much worse than dying. The bottom line here is that unless God specifically spoke to you in a supernatural way, you don't know that's why. So if you don't know, don't say it, because it doesn't stop the parents from missing the child, for knowing that they will never see their child experience the joys of life (e.g. marriage, parenthood, career success, achievements, and perhaps even a conversion experience if they were unsaved as an adult child).
A better response to these situations is love and understanding is helpful. "I'm so sorry," "I love you," I'm praying for you," "I'm here if you need to talk," are all appropriate repsonses.
Don't minimize the sorrow of losing a child
The Bible tells us to weep with those who weep, not explain it."— Pastor Greg Laurie - Interview with Dr. James Dobson
A Rebellious Child
"You just need to exercise a little more tough love!"
"You're too hard on him."
"Your too permissive."
"What did you expect
"It's just a phase."
"Face it, he's never going to change."
"If that were my kid I'd..."
The list goes on. Usually people who say these things have not had a rebellious child and don't know what their talking about. And if they do, then they need to find a helpful, compassionate way to speak into these parents' lives. There is no easy fix to a wayward, rebellious child. I had a few of them and when friends I have go through it, I usually try to give them hope. All of my rebellious children hit adulthood and came around. They may not have their lives all together, but our relationships were reestablished and they realized I actually knew a few things. Now they are parents.
The best thing to do is not to judge. Be helpful in a kind, compassionate way, not out of superiority and arrogance. The parents do not need to hear your judgment on the child's character.
Child With Disability
Don't try to make it make sense. You don't know the reason why they were born with a disability, so don't offer one. Only God knows. Love that child, love and encourage his or her parents by listening, offering practical help born of compassion.
It's very important for the child not to be identified the by his disorder or disability. Calling Johnny "a Dyslexic," or Suzy "a deaf mute" is defining them by their condition. Johnny and Suzy are Johnny and Suzie; their disorder is something they have, not who or what they are.
And don't visibly recoil when you see the child if he is disfigured. If you truly are uncomfortable around the child, deal with it and operate some self-control. Acting loving and accepting often turns into loving and accepting.
What is the Goal of Responding to Someone Who is Under Trial?
Compassion. Help. Comfort. Love. Encouragement. Friendship. Those are pretty simple really, and not as hard to do as you think. Some people are better at it than others. As Christian's, we are to have compassion for everyone who hurts. It's the only option. If you cannot find compassion in your heart easily and often for people suffering, then perhaps a time of examining your life under the lens of the Word of God is necessary. The longer you wait, the harder your heart will get. Think of the most difficult time of your life and what people said and did that helped, and what hurt or was useless. Be to others what Christ has been to you.
The goal is not to take away their pain, say I told you so, minimize or trivialize their situation, make yourself feel better, or to play comparative tragedies. If that is your goal, it is best to stay away. Staying away will hurt a bit, but it will be a lot less hurtful than saying or doing the wrong thing.
Has anyone ever said something hurtful or unhelpful when you were going through a trial?
How Should We Respond?
- I love you and I'm praying for you.
- I am so sorry, how can I help? (Then do what they suggest).
- I have no words (This shows you understand that their pain is bigger than words can express).
- How can I pray for you? Can I pray for you right now?
- Can I call every so often (or every day, week etc.) and see how you're doing?
- Hug them.
- Tell them what helped you when you went through this. But be sensitive, discerning, and know that what worked for you may not work for them, or they may not be ready yet. Don't push. If they don't receive it, don't take it personally. It just isn't what they were ready for. Move on.
- If you want to talk I'm here (then be there).
- There is hope. I'm in this with you. You are not alone.
Offer practical help. If someone needs to look for jobs but has no computer, let them come over and use yours, or loan them a laptop. Offer to do household chores or run errands, or take the person to the doctor. Take them out for lunch. Weep with them. Laugh with them. Take them to church. Think practical. Be discerning. Put their needs and welfare first. Don't do for them what you think they should want. Ask before you cross certain boundaries, like praying, doing housework, etc.
Share books or Scriptures that might be helpful.
Do everything out of love.
Change Your Thinking and Attitude
It may shock some people reading this, but no one knows everything. Think about a time you had a tremendous trial and some well meaning, or not so well meaning people offered their advice, opinion, or attempt at comfort that was totally inappropriate and did more harm than good. Had these people been through what you were going through? Often times not. When we haven't experienced trials that our friends or family are going through, remind yourself that you don't know what it's like, and remember how much it hurt when you were going through a trial with people who couldn't relate. Ask yourself "What would have helped me?" Ask yourself "How can I be a good friend and be helpful without judging or thinking i know the answers?
Since I have suffered through some trials that have devastated me and been judged or had hurtful things said because they were ignorant, I have determined to educate those people and try to keep the attitude that if I come across someone who is suffering something I don't understand, not to judge and find out how I can help.
Learning to be compassionate and a good friend or family member when others are hurting will help them and help you grow in character.
Think and care before you speak!
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© 2014 Lori Colbo