Say What? Stupid things you shouldn’t tell a grieving parent

I took dinner to a friend recently whose husband died suddenly. When I got there, I said something I never should have.

The whole way there I kept telling myself, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it.”  But the first three words that blurted out of my mouth when she opened the door to let me in were, “How are you?”

“How are you?” She just lost her husband, the father to her five children. I am sure she didn’t want to answer that question – even if she had an answer.

I felt like chucking the food tray up the stairs to her kitchen then running back to my car and driving off in shame. I was horrified, mortified.

I promised myself after Luca died that I wouldn’t ask anyone that question. It is one of the absolute worst things to say to someone who is mourning.

Yet I blurted it out to a friend robotically, without even thinking.

Unfortunately, our American society uses those three insincere words as a basic greeting. We all say it – all the time. But how often do we mean it? Do we really care how one another feels? Do we stop and let them respond?

Obviously I am guilty of speaking before thinking, but my most recent experience got me thinking about other stupid things we say.

I’ll never forget walking into the mortuary with a tiny white tuxedo to dress my lifeless little boy just four days after I had delivered him. A mortuary worker opened the door for my husband and I, saw the suit and said, “That’s a nice outfit, where is the baby?” All we could say was, “I hope you guys have him.”

Seriously? I don’t know how someone who works at a mortuary could have said something so stupid.

But we all make mistakes.

I’ve compiled a short list of phrases I hated to hear after Luca died. There are more, but these are the most common, ridiculous ones. Hopefully if I can focus really hard, I will avoid saying them to others who are grieving.

“He’s in a better place” – Really? Now I know it’s been at least 28 years since I was last in heaven, and it probably still is a pretty nice place, but is my home all that bad? Would living with me be the worst thing that would have happened to him?

“I know how you feel” – I have met several women who have had stillborn babies and although their stories are very similar to mine, I still have NO idea how they feel, nor do they know how I feel about my loss. So how can I expect someone who has never given birth to, then buried their deceased baby, to “know” how I feel? I think we say this way too often. We may have good intentions in trying to understand how others feel, and we may be able to relate, but we will never know how each other feels.

“I just keep thinking about all the missed opportunities you are going to have” – Thanks. I hadn’t actually thought about the life span of my deceased infant and all of the major life events I am going to miss out on. I needed the reminder that I won’t get to see him take his first steps, play his first t-ball game, walk into kindergarten for the first time, etc.

“I had a friend whose baby almost died…” – ALMOST died? I don’t even want to hear about it. For some reason there are a lot of people who when they hear about my experience, feel the need to relate by telling me of someone they know who almost had a baby die. I don’t want to hear about your acquaintance’s miracle baby. I don’t want to know how they too had a baby’s whose cord was knotted. I don’t care how awesome it was that their child is still alive. It makes me too bitter.

“At least you didn’t really know them.” – Right. I think not knowing them adds to my heartache. At what age would you chose for your child to die? None? That’s what I thought.

“Aren’t you going to hurry and have another one?” In case you didn’t notice, I just endured a 9-month pregnancy then delivery. I should probably pay off my hospital bills and let my body heal before working on having another baby. And who knows when my heart will feel ready to try again.

“At least he is safe from harm. Now you won’t have to worry about him as a teenager” – As crazy as it may sound, I would have loved to have worried about him as a teenager.

“You’ll get to raise them someday” – Now this one I honestly believe and I am completely looking forward to, but I still don’t like to hear it. I wanted to raise my son NOW. While he could play and wrestle with his brothers. While we were all in the same home. It’s hard to remember eternity with empty, aching arms.

Nothing. – As scary and uncomfortable as it may be to speak to someone who has recently lost a loved one, I think avoiding the death and pretending it never happened may be worse. It becomes a giant elephant in the room, threatening to stampede at times. If you can’t think of anything, “I’m so sorry,” is a good place to start.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jaclyn
    Jul 19, 2012 @ 09:30:18

    I know that I have said stupid things before to many people, possibly even you. If I did, I am sorry. I think you are right when you say most of us have good intentions, we just don’t think before we speak. And unless we have gone through something like that, we can’t truly relate. Also, like you mention, even if we go through exactly the same thing, we all feel differently about it – very good point. I struggle with knowing the right things to say and sometimes I do go silent. Thanks for your list, it helps those of us who struggle with knowing what to say (or not say).


  2. Wendy
    Jul 19, 2012 @ 13:26:40

    I like that you gave us an acceptable starting point. “I’m sorry.” That’s good. I just want to say that I’m so impressed by you and your willingness to share some of the most personal things about your life.


  3. Rebecca H.
    Jul 19, 2012 @ 15:15:07

    Im so sorry!
    I love you!!!
    I’m here! (as long as they really mean it)
    Those were the three best things people have said to me when ever I was grieving.


  4. amourningmom
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 19:25:07

    I have done the same thing. Every time I speak to my father-in-law (my mother-in-law died last year) I have to seriously restrain myself from saying those 3 words. Somehow they have still slipped out of my mouth and I am still kicking myself. . .

    You are so right there are so many stupid things people say – I try to rationalize it that they don’t mean to break my already broken heart with their words they just do not know what else to say. Rationalizing with myself does not always work either. Take care. xo


    • Natalie
      Jul 25, 2012 @ 23:17:08

      I think your rationalization is good. I need to give more people the benefit of the doubt. I should just be grateful they are trying to talk to me 🙂


  5. Kenni
    Oct 20, 2016 @ 22:40:40

    You sweet, sweet lady! I just read a couple of your blog posts and my heart aches for you. I am so sorry that you’be been given such a hard trial. You are an awesome woman and I’m happy that I’m going to know you. I didn’t know if Luca and your experience with losing him was something you would want to talk about or not so I didn’t really ask much about him. I know that all people grieve differently and some like to talk about it and others don’t. I lost an older brother 3 years ago and while I won’t pretend it’s even kind of the same thing I do know what intense pain can come from losing someone so close and at any point in time. Anyways I hope your heart can continue to heal. You are one tough mama.
    Kenni Cole


    • Natalie
      Oct 21, 2016 @ 22:30:55

      Thanks Kenni. I love to talk about Luca. He is a part of me. We’ll have to chat more about him, and I’d love to hear about your brother. Losing someone close has changed me forever. I am sure it has you too. Thanks for your love and support.


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