Stupid & Hurtful Things People Say

People say [unkind] things to relieve themselves of feelings of pain, anxiety, and loss, not to offer you any relief. It is, in fact, a denial of your humanity to say those things. Accepting it without response may keep the peace, but it won’t be your peace.

The Dying Time, by Joan Furman & David McNabb

People say stupid and hurtful things to the dying and their caretakers. They also say stupid and hurtful things after someone dies. 

I have a list of stupid and hurtful things people said while our daughter was dying, or after she died. I can’t say I recall what, if anything, I said to people when they made these stupid comments.

One nice church lady came calling with pie, turned to my dying daughter and said, “Honey, you’re really blessed to know you’re going to die ahead of time.”

Another day, I went to a prayer group I then attended, and must have exceeded the daily limit of emoting, because one of my prayer partners leveled a stern gaze at me and exclaimed, “You are full of doubt and unbelief!”

And then there was the family member who worried out loud after the funeral, “I just hope you don’t have to lose any more children any time soon!”

Over the years I’ve seen that people make their most serious relational mistakes when friends suffer deeply or when they succeed stupendously. They talk about themselves while you are in anguish. They call to get your advice when you are exhausted. They pick fights and utter threats while your child dies, and it’s not about you or your child at all. It is about their anxiety, their doubt. It is about the loss of courage and the lack of balance they feel when they encounter a dying child, anguished parents. Sometimes it is about their lack of compassion; they want your child and you to get it overwith, stop suffering, so that life can go on.

These people are those who do no conscious work on their own dark materials; they don’t have to, because they throw their shadows outside of themselves, neatly side-stepping their responsibility for this part of themselves. The dying and bereaved become the shadow-bearers in these situations. And why not? The dying person is headed for darkness. Sleepwalking people want the dying and suffering to take their darkness, too. Then they will be able to return to their lives of non-suffering and ways-of-escape. Dying children and their anguished parents remind people that there is no way of escape.

That’s the thing, though: the no-way-of-escape is the way.

Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of Carl Jung’s, explained it this way:

Jung has said that to be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of the process of individuation. It is meant to be a situation without a solution: the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that the man has to realize that whatever he does is wrong, whichever way he decides will be wrong. This is meant to knock out the superiority of the ego, which always acts from the illusion that it has the responsibility of decision. Naturally, if a man says, “Oh well, then I shall just let everything go and make no decision, but just protract and wriggle out of it,” the whole thing is equally wrong, for then naturally nothing happens. But if he is ethical enough to suffer to the core of his personality, then generally . . . the Self manifests.

In religious language you could say that the situation without issue is meant to force the man to rely on an act of God. In psychological language the situation without issue, which the anima arranges with great skill in a man’s life, is meant to drive him into a condition in which he is capable of experiencing the Self. When thinking of the anima as the soul guide, we are apt to think of Beatrice leading Dante up to Paradise, but we should not forget that he experienced that only after he had gone through Hell. Normally, the anima does not take a man by the hand and lead him right up to Paradise; she puts him first into a hot cauldron where he is nicely roasted for a while. (from Interpretation of Fairy Tales, New York: Spring Publications, p. 4).

Realizing that there is no way out, and that you have got to go through it, paradoxes and all, is enough to make grownups cry. I understand the compulsion to make the suffering shut up or go away, I really do.

But I have to say that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to handle when one sees it. One of the best examples of the insanity of remaining insensible to other people’s suffering occurred three days after my daughter’s funeral. An acquaintance dropped by to return a book she had borrowed, and when I opened the door, she practically bounced through the door on winged feet. A huge smile lit up her face, and she brushed past me energetically, inviting herself into my entry. She was so cheerful that I thought she must not realize that my daughter had died. By that time, I was so bone weary and numb that I couldn’t recall whether I had seen her at the funeral or not.

This lady had lost her husband in a car accident some six years prior; I knew she had experienced great loss in her life, so stupidly told myself, again, that she must not know that our daughter had died. Otherwise, certainly she wouldn’t be breezing into my entryway, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“How ya doin’?!” she exclaimed, engulfing me in a big hug. I stood there mutely, thinking I had entered the Twilight Zone.

“What’s wrong?!” she prodded, still smiling.

“Uh. . . well, did you know Olivia died last week?” I weakly asked.

“Yup, sure did. How was it?”

How was it? How was it? How was what? Her death? Her funeral? My reaction? My grief?

I stared. I shrugged. She bustled herself right back out of the door.

And that was when I realized that I was in this grief thing by myself. I had to go through it as my own companion, just as I’d been my daughter’s companion throughout the dying process, promising her that I would not leave her side. I would have to hold my own hand to make it through this parched landscape, because it was for damn sure that I was surrounded by silly, self-absorbed women who hadn’t the grace to extend a simple condolence while returning a book, much less the grace to offer a steadying or comforting hand.

And that was a good thing to discover.

20 responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I am truly sorry your daughter died, I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. When my husband was dying of cancer, my (adult) chldren and I could not believe the insensitive things that were said to us, and we started writing them down. The Cancer Society had suggested we have a journal to record appointments and what various specialists had said, as our memory would be confused, and that was such good advice, and into this journal we wrote all sorts of things, and enjoyed a sort of black humour from sharing the insensitive comments of people who were mostly friends and relations. My own mother said to me “when are you going to get over this and go back to work? People can be dying of cancer for years!” about a week before he died, as I had taken leave to nurse him, and it being pancreatic cancer, was not a long time.
    My best friend went on a course, and rang me every day, saying she would come back if he died. Well he did, and she didn’t, but she was there for the funeral…. it’s easy to feel deserted by those who “should” support you. It has made me much more compassionate to others going through dreadful pain I think.

    • Marie, I’m sorry for your loss and suffering, too. My daughter was a year or so along the path of dying before we knew she was dying–before then, she had regular trips to the ER and near-death experiences. It was grueling. I, too, kept a journal because confusion is just one of several results of the shock and trauma of living with the dying. I know you know this.

      Years ago, my specialty was to work in counseling for childbearing and related losses. Clients had stillborn children, babies born with handicaps, older children or partners or spouses suddenly disabled, dying children, dying spouses, foster children grieving yet another move, adopted kids who did not see new parents as “mom” and “dad.” No matter what the loss, in every case there were always insensitive, self-absorbed bystanders who didn’t have the capacity to witness another’s suffering and simply be there, so instead they said and did hurtful things, or simply disappeared. To date, I have not met anyone who has lost a loved one who hasn’t afterward experienced significant relationship changes. Often it is the best friend. Sometimes it’s a family member, such as a mother or father, son or daughter, who betrays an illusion of love and trust with cold reality.

      Is your best friend from the time still your best friend? Or did you find the relationship faded away after your husband died?

      • Thank you Eve. No, she is still my best friend. I am aware of how hard she finds it to “do the hard stuff” and I think she really just had no idea how much I needed her.at that time. Recently a dear old lady who lost her husband a short while ago, came up to me after Church and said “oh I am so sorry! I need to apologise! I went around visiting and offering comfort to the bereaved and truly I had NO idea! I thought I did!” And I can’t imagine her causing offence or distress, she certainly didn’t to me, but I think until you go through things you really DO have no idea. I didn’t either. (But I also hope I wasn’t as insensitive as some!) I think I have lower expectations of other people now, and sometimes I am very pleasantly surprised! But everyone is absorbed in their own lives, and I expect that now.

        • Marie, this touches me: “But everyone is absorbed in their own lives, and I expect that now.” How difficult it is to love, and how rare.

  2. “It’s part of life”, “I know how you feel, I had to have my dog put to sleep”,
    These are a couple of things I was told right after my 19 year old son’s funeral. That was over 4 years ago. I had to learn to forgive these stupid comments. Both were from people I had been close to over the years. I avoided these people like the plague for a long time. It was clear that I would be getting no useful friendship from either of them. They just wanted to be away from the pain. It was pretty much this way across the board. Grief over a child is excruciating. And lonely. You learn not to mention it to anyone new you meet. They look at you like you’re from outer space.

  3. People do truly say some stupid things in times of grief. My father recently passed away on December 14, and I blogged about some of the things people did and/or said. It’s amazing. In addition, my mother just told me today that someone asked her, “How long are you going to wear that [my father’s wedding ring] around your neck?”

  4. Makes sense…however, I am far more sinister as to their motives…

    Granted the ego is doing…what the ego does and that is to avoid suffering EVEN when the suffering belongs to others…but I have observed a little added kick in the groin in that I see the bearer of these comments wishing to instill guilt on the sufferer…as if they have no right to feel the way they do…and so therefore go into this tirade of all the things “other” people are going through that are far worse…and they go into detail..sometimes long drawn out stories…and generally they end it all with a “so you see….you don’t have it so bad after all”….

    Now…this being said the kick in the groin, for me anyway, isn’t so much that I think they are trying to cheer me up…as I do believe they just want me to “pretend” that I now feel better after they engage in their ritualistic “stories”… How I actually “feel”…is of no interest to them…only that I “pretend”…

    Funny thing is….at this point in my life I have no interest in making them feel more comfortable or “cheered up” by pretending to cheer up…in this way even my ego could care less about their “suffering” about my “suffering”…

    I won’t walk around with an idiotic smile plastered to my lips…as I contemplate the tragedy that is my life…nor will I amuse the wretched world…with a song and a dance.

    • Mona, what a powerful comment. I apologize that it’s taken me so long to respond; life has been happening. There have been several times when people have reacted to my suffering and it has seemed that they do in fact want me to pretend that my own suffering is relieved. I think you put it very well: “How I actually feel is of no interest to them, only that I pretend.” Thank you for your comment.

  5. I think the worse comment I ever heard was, “Cheer up! Things could be worse.” I have a good retort for that one.

    “Yes, things could be worse…thank you for reminding me that just because they are not “worse” right now…doesn’t immune me from getting worse…and by the way…things “COULD” be better too….or they could be any other way…then the way “things” are.”

    Or…

    “Yes…I understand some people have it worse..however, “understanding” that doesn’t make my situation any better nor does it impel me to “cheer up”.

    People hate to see other people in grief because it make “themselves” uncomfortable…they don’t want you to cheer up for yourself…they want you to cheer up for themselves.

    • Mona, I think it’s true that people try to cheer others up sometimes because they feel uncomfortable. Something I learned last year in my Jungian studies courses was that the ego’s main goals are to survive, and to avoid suffering. I think this is true, even when the suffering one tries to avoid belongs to others. I wish you peace.

  6. What a great post. My mom’s Memorial Service was Saturday. My pastor actually came up to my brother. I introduced them, and he said, without a great deal of feeling, “Sorry for your loss. These things happen.” Couldn’t a pastor come up with something more compassionate? Or just stop with, “Sorry for your loss.” “These things happen” just doesn’t cut it for me.

    • Sparkle, I’m sorry you lost your mother; what a terribly insensitive thing for a pastor to say, I agree! Losing your mother is one of the biggest loss of a person’s life. Even when a relationship has been bad, the archetypal underpinnings to the mother-child relationship are universal and deep.

      “These things happen” is so shallow that I can only guess that the pastor has his own mother knot (complex) or shouldn’t be in the ministry at all–it certainly sounds suspicious, anyway.

  7. thanks for this excellent post. I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Your post has helped me process several stupid comments people have made to me recently. Comments that are albeit true, are hurtful to the receiver, but to the sender allows them to be ‘off the hook’ so to speak…comments that fill the space because they are uncomfortable.
    From the deepest part of my soul, thank you for this post!

  8. I totally understand you. I told a co-worker that my mum was dying and the next day she cheerily asked me how my mum was. I had taken so many stupid comments from people by that point that I snapped at her “She’s STILL dying!”. Every tactless comment from people cut me like a knife and I think it taught me what not to say to someone in grief!

  9. Hiya, Jade. I think a good response is a smart punch in the nose! If I merely imagine the scene, it makes it all better! ;o)

  10. Amen, Eve.

    It is an incredible burden on the grieving to have to understand these things. I wish there was a handbook of retorts and responses that could lead to a perfect outcome of understanding and empathy, but there isn’t.

    My sorrow goes out to you in a deep wave–and I send you positive thoughts to buoy you somehow.

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