They mean well, but….

Today, I’ve decided to follow up on an exchange in the comments in response to The Story of Benjamin, Part 2. When we’re dealing with a tragedy like the loss of a child or the inability to have a child, we really want people to acknowledge the tragedy — to help validate that people understand that we have been through something terrible and that they support us. Unfortunately, though, many people don’t really know the right thing to say and inadvertently make us feel worse.

Among these are “oh, you’ll have another child and you’ll forget all about this one”; “it was a ‘mis’, you’ll get over it”; or in my anonymous commenter’s case, “just adopt and you’ll get pregnant.”

George Carlin once said “there’s no such thing as bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words.” In this case, we’re talking about good thoughts, good intentions, and words that have the opposite effect.

And it’s not just unthinking comments in the wake of a newborn death. It can just be innocuous conversational questions, the kind that you’d ask anybody else. For the first six years after we lost Benjamin, any time anybody would ask “do you have any kids?”, it hurt like hell and we had to figure out whether or not it would be appropriate to tell his story, whether the person asking really wanted to hear about it or not. After The Kid was born, the question became “do you have any other kids?”, or even “how many kids do you have?” To the person asking us, it’s just a standard getting-to-know-you type question. To us, it brings up painful memories, and we relive those moments again.

In my response to the blog commenter, I noted that The Kid and I had been at the orthodontist getting his new retainer and conversation with the tech turned to my wife’s retainer and how she got it at the same office 25 years ago, and how her braces came off five days before we were married. The tech asked if we’d really been married for 23 years, and when I said yes, she asked The Kid if he was the only product of the marriage. The Kid knows about Benjamin, and is himself sad that Benjamin is no longer with us. He hesitated, then answered yes.

I talked to him at bedtime that night, and he feels the same wriggling discomfort with the sibling question that we feel when we’re asked how many kids we have. It’s just easier to answer “one” than to explain Benjamin to someone who meant to be sociable by asking the question and really isn’t prepared for the full answer. He understands that in most cases, sharing the pain is not appropriate, and it’s better to deal with the pain quietly and give an answer that will satisfy the questioner and let the conversation move on. It’s a shame that he has to deal with that at his age, but there’s really no avoiding it.

That’s an OK process. The scars may never heal, but not reopening them to the public at every opportunity is the path of least resistance.

When someone says unknowingly says something innocuous with good thoughts and good intentions that inadvertently hurts, pause; acknowledge your pain quietly to yourself; and then answer them in an honest but brief fashion to let the conversation move on.

If it seems that someone might actually be interested in the story, you can give your response in a slightly-more-informative fashion that still gives them the option of not taking the bait. One format that I use is:

“Is he your only child?”
“The only one that made it.”

This gives them the option to just accept the answer or acknowledge with a simple “I’m sorry” and move on with no further need to acknowledge.

When people are trying to acknowledge your tragedy and end up saying something stupid, you’ve got the option of either the “grin and bear it” option above or (if you think it necessary or worthwhile) thanking them but also explaining that they are incorrect in their assumptions.

“You’ll have another kid and you’ll forget all about this one.”
“Thanks, but even if we do perhaps have another kid, we still won’t have this one, who we loved so much.”

You’ll need to gauge your relationship with the person making the original statement, though, and how your response will affect that relationship.

If you’re on the other side — if you want to acknowledge somebody’s tragedy but don’t really know what would be appropriate to say — go with a simple “I’m sorry.” If you really mean it, you can add “please let me know if there’s anything that I can do.” (It’s a lot worse to offer to help and then back out what asked to do so.) The simple “I’m sorry” will go a long way in acknowledging their pain, yet will not make them uncomfortable.

The hard thing sometimes is remembering that people who ask questions that bring back your pain are not doing it on purpose. Saying something hurtful back, or responding with information that they really don’t want to — or can’t — deal with is not helpful on any level.

So what kind of well-meaning comments or questions — either meant to acknowledge your tragedy or not — have people made to you, and how have you responded?

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5 Responses to They mean well, but….

  1. pffulton says:

    Great post, Mark. Thanks for addressing this. And thanks for sharing these painful memories.

  2. Adrienne K says:

    Hi, I’m late again with my response but I’m going to respond anyway about one thing I found after we lost our first baby (and let me be clear that while my miscarriage was a long, drawn-out over weeks and painful process, I also know it was tame in comparison to many others, including yours, Mark!) On the opposite side of people who make comments that are painful – I think many people do not appreciate that a simple “I’m so sorry” can mean so much. Because I wasn’t really showing when I lost my baby, there were people who inevitably asked “How’s the pregnancy going?” before they knew it was over. I felt so bad for those people because they were obviously uncomfortable and felt bad for me. I wanted to say: “It’s not like I totally forgot about it and your question brought back all the pain!” The fact that they felt sorry for us and empathized even if they didn’t understand or hadn’t gone through it personally, was enough.

    I have learned to say “I’m so sorry. I wish I could say something to make it better.” or “I wish I knew what to say.” “I wish I had the words to tell you how sorry I feel.” Because that is always, always true.

  3. Mark says:

    Unfortunately, there’s no handbook for “what to say to parents who have lost a child,” or if there is, it’s certainly not widely read. I’ve gotten to the point where I try to take any comments in the spirit in which they’re given and only ascribe malice where it’s obviously intentional, but sometimes I have very little patience for the people who say what makes them feel more comfortable instead of thinking about the pain that they must know others are going through. I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I do have my limits. 🙂

  4. Susan@2KoP says:

    I almost hesitate to respond to this beautiful but heart wrenching post for fear of being one of those people who inadvertently tramples on your pain. I hope, though, that since you are writing about it, you will first let me say that I am so sorry for your loss.

    Our story is different. Our pain is different. But we encountered many insensitive questions and comments along the way. Most of them were unintentionally insensitive, some were just rude. It took me a long time to understand that everyone eventually experiences a kind of pain that other people will not understand. I try to remember that. It doesn’t always help, but sometimes it does. Thank you for sharing your story in support of the March of Dimes at Bloggers Unite: Fight for Preemies. My best wishes to your family.

  5. Mark says:

    I am glad that you responded, Susan. One of the main purposes of writing this blog is to help those who have been through similar situations by letting them know that they are not alone and helping them to find ways to deal with what they’re going through. By having others share their experiences as well, we can provide more perspective for those who could use it.

    I have yet to really talk about our second son, who was born at 28 weeks and has his own share of issues, but there will be plenty of stories from that angle coming in the future. I took a quick look at your blog. I’m very glad that your two 24-weekers made it. I’m sure that you’ll have plenty of interesting stories to share about them.

    Thanks for being a part of March of Dimes at Bloggers Unite: Fight for Preemies. Best wishes to you and yours, as well.

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