When Words Bruise…..and Make Things Worse

During my grief journey, I’ve come to learn that there are a myriad of words and phrases that can be meant for good, but ultimately end up causing greater heartache to those we intended to help. I almost feel like a certified professional in this area. Having lost two husbands (in addition to experiencing some other traumatic, life altering events) I’ve been on the receiving end of every trite, but well-intentioned cliché and misused passage of scripture, one could imagine. For a while, I just complained to my close friends, but once Don was diagnosed with ALS, my filter was dismantled. In its place, I began honestly sharing how hurtful those well-meaning comments and passages of scripture were.
Since then, several things have transpired. First, I do hear fewer insulting comments – so that’s a win for me – however, I’ve also learned that people are now hesitant to make statements about grief or feelings, for fear of upsetting me. So, it might appear that I’ve unintentionally created a double-edged sword for myself.
Therefore, I’m writing a multi segment piece in an attempt to address some of the more common phrases that get flung at the wounded hearts of many. It’s my hope to shed insight and perspective’s not commonly discussed, and to give those who genuinely want to offer empathy, some information that enables their success. While the statements and sentiments I plan to focus on are fairly universal (amongst the hurting and grieving), they are couched from my perspective.
I know people mean well, but however well intentioned a statement may be, it can still cause a great amount of unnecessary suffering. There also seems to be this unspoken expectation for the person on the receiving end of such comments, to keep their mouth shut, smile and say, “Thank you” – rather than for society, as a whole, to pause and delve into a study of what is and isn’t helpful. What often happens instead, is that someone offers up some cliché banality, that is about as helpful as a hot poker stabbed into one’s soul.
Many of these comments aren’t just hurtful to people who have suffered through death, but for anyone who has experienced a situation that is truly devastating. Perhaps you have a child who has an addiction problem; a family member who is struggling with their marriage; you know a person who has been traumatized by rape or other sexual abuse; someone you know is facing a medical situation that is terrifying or a person or family is staring at a terminal diagnosis …. the list is endless, but I hope you are getting the gist of what I’m trying to say. Pain is pain and sorrow is sorrow. Fear and anxiety grip us all and for every reason under the stars – and in each case – our hearts hurt, we are ragged and worn out, and what we need is fresh authenticity and not stale, overused, phrases.
Words can hurt – we all know this. We’ve all experienced it, but to me, there is no hurt like words that are flippantly tossed my direction the way one tosses a used tissue towards a trash can. If it falls inside, great, and if not, meh. Words spoken with no regard as to how they make me feel not only pain me, they can actually make me furious. When words and statements leave us feeling like a grenade has gone off in our heads and wounds us at our core, something is wrong – especially when we are already holding onto life by the barest of threads. It’s in those times that we need words that soothe, not burn; words that offer sincere compassion, not placated sympathy; words that express our utter lack of understanding and leave us speechless as to how to truly express our sorrow and concern, not ones that just hang in the air, suspended like a balloon on a string. We need words and emotions that are genuine, authentic, vulnerable and raw.
I hope these next series of posts offers some validation to those of you whom may have had the equivalent of verbal vomit spewed all over you, and serve to offer some awareness as to what is soothing and helpful to those whose world feels ripped apart and spinning.
After all, it’s just as easy to say, “I have no words…” than to pelt another person with a slew of utterances that do no more than marginalize their suffering.
Let’s get on the same page. Let’s begin to be willing to say exactly what we are thinking. After all, the person enmeshed in heartache is likely already thinking whatever it is you are not saying. Let’s get on with ‘being there’ instead of talking at the situation. The heart that is in a prison of agony needs a companion, not a visitor. True empathy stays and grieves. It brings a pillow and a blanket and says, “I’m here for you in whatever way you need me to be”. It doesn’t show up for a moment and then leave, and it is often quiet. Don’t get me wrong – we want people to talk to us, but sometimes the words steeped first in silence, can very well be the solace our tender hearts need.
Join me as we discover the unfiltered truth of grieving, and learn what it can feel like to be bruised instead of soothed, and why anger can rise up so easily when this occurs.