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The Trouble with Condolences

 “What’s the worst thing someone ever said to you?” I’ve gotten this question so many times in the twenty-seven years since I lost my son Christopher. Newly bereaved parents often asked it in disbelief after well-meaning friends and relatives said exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. Older grievers, like me, sometimes asked it in solidarity when we recognized our common grief.  

For me, the answer to that question was: “At least you had him for seven years.”  

When I heard “at least you had him,” the translation in my head was “you’re being ungrateful for the seven years you had.” What I heard in my head was you’re not entitled to be sad because he wasn’t supposed to live in the first place or, at the very least, you had seven years to prepare for this.  

You’re never prepared.  

There were other miscues. I sometimes heard variations on this theme: “If I lost my child, it would kill me.” What I heard was, if you are still standing, your grief must not be so bad. Intrusive questions were just as hard. 

I am not alone in this. Each of us has our own horror stories. They’re in a better place; you can have another baby; you’re not given more than you can handle. None of these are the comfort they’re intended to be. I have said all the wrong things myself to others who are grieving, words I immediately regretted flying out of my mouth. 

There are reasons we say these things, even when we should know better.  

What happened? 

People who ask, “What happened?” are really trying to build a case for why it can’t happen to them. Same with its corollary: “Everything happens for a reason.” If there’s no reason – that’s an intolerable thought. What they are really saying is, I can’t permit you to grieve because it means I might have to grieve someday too. They’re afraid. I understand that. I’m afraid, too. 

You’re so strong. 

When people say, “You’re so strong,” or some other version meant as a compliment about how well you’re “handling it” or how successful you’ve been at “moving on,” they are indirectly admitting their own fear and insecurity that they are not up to the task of consoling you. This makes them feel powerless in a way that also makes them feel vulnerable. It’s a weird rationale, but people reach for it. It must have happened to you because you can “handle it.”  

I know just how your feel. 

When people say “I know just how your feel. My (fill in the blank) just died,” they are also saying, I don’t want this horrible thing that happened to take you away from me. They want their own experience to cleave you to them. They may also be sending up a subconscious flare that the news of your loss has triggered old losses for them as well. They seek comfort from you in the moment you need comfort from them.  

It’s gotten easier over time to stand back and be able to consider what lies behind the words people say. I no longer get the hot flash of anger when people say the “wrong” thing to me. I try to remember to be grateful people tried, no matter what gets said, and to recognize it takes courage on their part to say something to begin with. The truth is, there is no one right thing to say. What’s comforting to one person may not be to another. Not only that – what’s comforting one day, may not be the next.  

All these years later, I don’t remember the exact words people used during the acute stages of my grief, but I do remember their faces and the fact they tried to comfort me when I was most in need. 

It’s worse to say nothing at all. 

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Comments (19)

  • For me, it’s not worse of they say nothing. That’s better than platitudes and false comforts. My true friends simply say how sorry they are and that “there are no words.” For me, “there are no words” means they have some concept of the depth of my grief and they understand that beyond “sorry,” words can bring more pain than comfort.

  • Dear Carol,

    Thank you for writing this piece and sharing your experiences with people who may have meant well but made remarks which were often hurtful, ignorant, or misguided. Our eight year old son died 26 years ago. As you know, some days it feels like a lifetime ago, other times if feels like yesterday. One of the worst remarks I received which I remember well was, “At least you know he is now in a better place.” The comment I wanted to make but I held inside was, “Well, which one of your children would you like to send to that better place?”

    The best comment I ever received was, “I can’t imagine how you feel, and I am so sorry for your loss and pain.” I have used that one myself, even when I do have an idea.

  • That was an excellent article. I remember some of the ridiculous things said to me although after 16 years some of the hurt from them has softened a bit! I do hope that newly grieving parents read this and find some comfort in it!
    Thank you!

  • In my opinion, and although there have been countless postings that have been amazingly presented over the years, this particular subject-line has always struck a cord with me..and I thank you, Carol Smith…today and always. We are all connected by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the loss of a child.. Peace to all grieving parents out there. We are one!

  • I remember some comments after noting my son died, the follow up comment “my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago “ …and went on to to tell me how they survived that. Another was “my dog, or cat”, and I am an animal lover however the comparison was too close too fast, commenting right after I tell someone my son dies? The comparisons were relentless. The “ he’ll Rest In Peace , he’s with God now and “how did he pass?” More often than not, I find it intrusive that people even ask that question. If I believe he’s with God, fine, but I don’t want anyone off the street telling me.
    “How many kids do you have”is often asked and I always say two, and even once (years later) as a joke said “one son lives at Pierce Brothers”; which went right over their head even though Pierce Brothers is our local funeral home and cemetery. People in general try to fix the subject of death, stay away from it, think it’s contagious, won’t use the word death but instead say “pass” or “Loss” or “Lose”. There are many children out there who are lost whose parents are looking for their babies. I didn’t lose my child. I believe the finality of the word death is important, he died. And lastly there are those who simply whisper “I’m sorry”, very sincerely making eye contact. And it’s in that moment that reminds me after 26 years, I would do anything just to be with my boy for five more minutes.

    • Yay to you for saying death! How can one be expected to even pretend to heal from grief if they can’t face the finality of “s/he died”?
      If I could make eye contact with you right now, either tears lining my eyelids, I would look at you, take your hand in mine, and whisper “I’m sorry”.

  • There are no words that can console in the loss of a child. BUt it is worse if they say nothing at all . Or worse yet the ones that don’t even show up because they say they don’t know what to do.

  • So very true that none of us know what to say to others who are grieving,just a “thinking of you”or bringing coffee,tea,or anything and quietly sitting says volumes.Of course,these lessons come after we,too,have lost a loved one.

  • When my 6 year old son died in a truck, bicycle accident (it was 12 days before his 7th birthday), my best friend said “What a precious memory you have”. I went bonkers! I shook her and said “I don’t want him to be a precious memory, I want him to be in this room right now with me”. I apologized to her later. I knew she was trying to console me. That was in 1962. My heart still hurts. In January, 1980 my sixteen year old daughter was killed in a head on collision. It was almost too much but I have survived over the years and try to give comfort to others when I can. Most of the time I just sit and listen to them and give hugs. My pain is still here but it is not like a knife is being slashed into my heart. I will always miss them and they are forever in my heart. I love it when someone mentions their name. I never want them to be forgotten!

  • Thank you Carol for this article. It has been 20 years since our only child, Lauryn, passed. I remember at the funeral home a co-worker came in and stood in line to see my husband and me; when he reached us he just took our hands and put his head on our shoulders then walk away. I knew he was just unable to say anthing, but for me it said everything. He didn’t try to make us “feel better.” The worst thing that anyone ever said to me was “Except for the fact your daughter died you have a perfect life.” I wanted to smack her but knew that wasn’t the right thing to do so I just walked away. people do say some crazy things but that is to be expected – they have no idea what our daily journey is like. Thank goodness for TCF and the meetings in those early years I lived for those monthy meetings where you could be with others who DID know how you felt. We were able to share our feelings and help each other.

  • Reading that has been very helpful especially today as it’s my son Philip’s birthday. Lost him to heaven 9 years ago. I’ve been a member of The Compassionate Friends since 2012 and find sharing stories is knowing you’re not alone in your grief. 😢❤️🙏

  • Loved the article. It’s been 16 years since I lost my daughter and I still can’t say, “she died”. It sounds so cold and makes the pain feel even more real.
    I remember thinking within the first months, I don’t like this new relationship I have with her now. This was thrown at me and now I have to figure out how to be a new me, how do I treat my other 2 daughters, husband, even our dog. Everyone looked different. Eat, sleep, work, everyday tasks were impossible. I just knew I wanted to be with her so that the pain would go away.
    So here I am 16 years later still asking, “why?”

  • I’m glad to see your article, Carol. It’s so common to hear people ask/speak of this at monthly meetings. Someone gave us an excellent response to the question: “How did he/she die?”. Her response was “Why do you want to know?”. That’ll stop them in their tracks and reflect on their question, hopefully never to use again. It’s not a gentle response from the griever and a gentler response can be a mere “I can’t speak of that right now”. As grieving parents, we realize that a role we soon take is one of “teacher” to those that just need to be “woke”,

  • My daughter was 18 and in her first year of college when she was killed in an auto accident. One of the people I work with said, well, at least she wasn’t living at home. What??? That makes it better??? I found that any comment that begins with “at least” is going to be a bad one.

  • Great article about such a delicate topic…12/18 will be five years since losing my precious daughter. To this day I still have a hard time saying she died…. Maybe SOME day I will be able to say it…. It’s a heart wrenching LOSS… We are all here for the same reasons… an organization we all would rather not be members. The worse comment a coworker said to me was “God picks his favorite flowers first…..” I immediately burst into tears… Later after consoling myself I wanted to say…. Well then why didn’t he pick yours??? Unfortunately we don’t forgot those comments… I have learned that saying I’m sorry is the best thing to say. Acknowledgement of the loss is so important. We all don’t want our precious children to be forgotten.

  • My son was killed 5 months ago. A coworker stated to me two months ago that she is sick of walking on eggshells around me. People would much rather avoid you which has been my experience so far. What happened to all the people who said they would be there for you.

  • I think the worst thing was when a person who well knew I had lost my daughter the previous year, asked me, “How’s your daughter?”

  • This article and reading the comments reinforces my feeling that losing a child is so unnatural and unexpected that there is no right thing for people to say or do because us bereaved parents don’t know either and we are so sensitive that we react based on our own unique instinct. I am still newly grieving and remember what it felt like before…having no idea what to say to someone who experienced this loss. But now that I’m in this position, I just know what worked and didn’t work for me. The best comment I got was simply “I love you.” Or “please know I’m thinking of you.” I hate hearing “how are you?” And I can’t stand when people acknowledge the anniversary of my son’s accident…as if I’m not acutely aware. I am different in that I can’t say death but use terms like lost… But the one thing it seems that we all agree on is that saying or doing nothing at all is very loud and hurtful. God bless all of us parents navigating this unimaginable pain.

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