what to say when you don't know what to say

When we were going through the loss of our babies the cruelest thing someone said to me was this:  "Maybe you're not meant to be a mother. Think of all the places you can now travel to!" Even typing these words stings and brings tears to my eyes. I know this mother, this very nice kind friend didn't meant it the way it came out and at the time I wasn't thinking "She means well." At that exact moment my world imploded and I agreed with her. Maybe God didn't think I would make a good mother so he took them back.  Looking back I know now that she said what she thought would comfort me. It didn't, but she didn't know what else to say. In her albeit misguided way, knowing that I like to travel, she thought she was making me feel better.

I thought about this moment last week when my friend Louise called to tell me our friend Andy's wife had unexpectedly died. She was young, lovely, a mother and a wife and it was a tragic accident. It was beyond sad and we all felt terrible for Andy who we have known since high school. What do you say to a young man who loses the love of his life? It's interesting how the instinct now is to go to Facebook to get news, leave a message. After I got off the phone with Louise I did just that. There was, of course, an outpouring of love for Andy but I sat there paralyzed looking at the screen. I wanted to be sure that what I said comforted him and his daughters.

When people hear bad news (i.e. someone is getting a divorce /dies /loses a child /a pet  /a job) the immediate instinct is to make the affected person feel better but they end up saying things like:

  • "He's better off in heaven."
  • "God wanted her next to him."
  • "You can get married again to someone better next time!"
  • "They didn't treat you well. Steal everything you can from the copy room before you leave."
  • "We always hated her. Think of how miserable she'll make her next husband."
  • "He was just a dog.Why don't you get another one right away? You'll forget all about Danger."
  • "She's now playing in heaven with all the other babies." 
I've heard all of these said by well-meaning people. The last one was said to me and I literally collapsed thinking of all the dead babies in heaven or worse in limbo all alone in the dark for eternity. The thing is though, that people mean well. They really do. I can't imagine a world where people would say something horrible to someone in grief.  So I sat and stared at the screen and I said I was sorry and I was thinking about him and his girls. What else is there to say? I thought of what comforted me at the time when all I wanted was to smell our babies' sweet little heads. What brought me solace was simple. It was a hug or a note from someone saying "I love you. We're thinking of you and L. and we're keeping you in our prayers." They didn't say "It will be OK" because it wasn't OK. I still have the cards from friends who simply wrote "I love you!"

It IS OK if you don't know what to say or you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you do have a heartwarming story of someone, that's wonderful. Go for it. It's normal and human to want to take someone's pain away but they have to experience it. Unfortunately there is no shortcut through grief.  It is going to suck. Period. The worst thing is not saying anything at all or ignoring someone. Grief isn't catchy. What happened to them won't happen to you.   All you have to say is "I'm thinking of you. I'm sorry." That's all. That's all.