what not to say

When I wound up in a car crash followed by a long recovery I had incredible support. I also encountered people who didn’t always think before speaking. These people have good intentions, but it comes out all wrong. It happens to the best of us. Indulge me in some unsolicited advice on what not to say to those who have been given more than they can handle. (For those of you who are used to more serious posts from me this is more tongue-in-cheek with a side of serious)

When someone is relegated to a hospital bed and has been for months, don’t say, “You have so much time to rest now. Didn’t you say you wanted to be ‘less busy’?”
This isn’t what I meant when I said I needed rest. Being in and out of surgery brings its own brand of busy and I would gladly trade agony in the hospital for my active prior life.

Sometimes it’s best not to relate. An acquaintance said, “I totally thought of you today when I stubbed my big toe. It hurt like hell.”
Hell is toe loss, my friend.

Don’t ever say, “God can still use you.”
Um, what? Still?

Don’t offer up clichés.
It could have been worse.
I don’t know. Losing my limbs and a large portion of skin is pretty bad.
At least you’re alive.
Refer to previous answer.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even though I love that new Kelly Clarkson song it doesn’t quite…fit.
God won’t give you more than you can handle. Again, refer to first answer.

Don’t tell them in an outburst of love that he/she is an angel. We’re not. I’m not. For those of us who are going through trauma we are trying to get through. We do not have wings. We don’t possess superpowers, although we secretly wished and prayed for them. There are no rules for grief and we want to get to the other side in sometimes the only way we know how. By hanging on.

Give the person who is going through the worst time of her/his life grace.
We want to see our loved ones restored and return to their bright, shining selves. We want them to be okay. One afternoon, heart-deep in mourning, Scott asked me, “When will you stop being angry?” I said, “When I stop.”
Know they want to return. They want more than anything to feel good and whole again. In the 2 years after the crash I would often be in my wheelchair, my mind screaming, when? When? Because, my God, I just wanted to feel alive again. And not this half-person I’d become. Your beloved longs to be okay more than you want them to be okay.

Finally, don’t judge. No one is an expert on pain. Love, have patience, and be there.

I’m working on a guide for my book, something practical and helpful to add to the end of my story.  A little how-to with some step-by-step. So, this is something I’m trying out. I’ll write a post on what to say/do soon. For now, do you have any advice on what not to say?

119 thoughts on “what not to say

  1. Alison@Mama Wants This

    Heidi, I’m so sorry you have to deal with this sort of thing in your situation.

    I know it’s hard for people to know the right thing to say, and sometimes it’s best to a) not say anything or b) say I’ll be here for you, no matter what. And that should be enough.

    1. heidi Post author

      Oh, I hope everyone doesn’t think I wrote this to gain sympathy…I wrote it because some of it now is pretty funny to me and I was just so amazed at what came out of people’s mouths. 🙂
      I’m with you on a and b. I stand by those 2. Especially telling them you’ll be there. I think you can never go wrong with being supportive.

  2. Emily

    Great advice! When you’re floundering and sad, searching for the right words and longing to give comfort, it’s good to have this kind of wisdom to fall back on. (Not that “it could have been worse” would ever seem like the right words…ugh!)

  3. Katie E

    Wow, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. What I would say (and basically this is the one on your list about not trying to relate) is to never say “I know just how you feel” because you probably don’t, even if you’ve ever been in a similar situation. It’s different for everyone. That’s something that drove my husband crazy when his father died at a young age.

    1. heidi Post author

      I knew there were other people out there that could relate to people trying to relate. 🙂 People want to help and mean well, but sometimes it’s best not to find that thing in common just then.

  4. Kim@MamaMzungu

    YIkes. I can’t believe people actually said this stuff! Trying to commiserate with a stubbed toe!?! But I guess people really don’t know what to say and sometimes terrible stuff comes out even with the best of intentions in an effort to fill what is an uncomfortable void of not knowing. What were some of the things people said that did bring you comfort? Or was just being there for you enough?

    1. heidi Post author

      I’m working on a ‘what to say’ which will be far more helpful than what not to say. This is more tongue-in-cheek and outright things to avoid. 🙂
      An old friend of mine visited me in the hospital and he was just so heartbroken and said so, and in that moment it was just what I needed. To hear how awful it was and to hear the sincerity behind it meant the world to me.
      And, yes, having people simply be there was definitely enough and welcome.

  5. Toriz

    Sometimes it’s best to just say nothing and be there for the person. Unfortunately, most people don’t think of that (or, if they do, then they think about it too late).

  6. tara pohlkotte

    i had my own stint in the hospital in the ICU for massive blood clots and I found myself nodding my head along with you, people who were trying to be supportive that made me tired and well. angry… and my experence was so much less than what you have had to endure. I love your advice about giving grace. It is a hard fight back into feeling like ourselves, and when people just want you to go “back to normal” nothing will make you feel further from it.

  7. Trish

    Your courage and ability to forgive those blunders is lovely. Since I have caught myself saying something stupid, your grace makes me smile. 🙂 I AM getting better as I age, if that’s any encouragement.

    1. heidi

      I have said some horrifically dumb things myself. 🙂 Who hasn’t? That’s why I did this.
      Me too! I’m getting better with age. Do you think that’s like a fine wine thing…better with age? I hope so!

  8. my honest answer

    I’m definitely looking forward to the ‘what to say’ post. Sometimes silence can feel so heavy, but actually it can be relief to sit in silent company sometimes.

    1. heidi

      I didn’t mind silence either. A good friend of mine would bring a movie or we’d just watch TV together. Some days it was all I could do and I loved that she was so willing to just ‘be’.
      I will work on that post. I don’t know if it will be here for the next yeah write, but it will happen.:)

  9. Susan

    I read your story. Wow. I cannot imagine what you have and continue to be going through.
    I just met with a blog friend last Friday who writes about a similar experience (she was a pedestrian hit by a car and suffered a brain injury) and we talked about this very thing. What to say. What not to say. And when it’s best to just say absolutely nothing.

    1. heidi

      Hi Susan! You’re right, most people are after support. The knowledge that you’re there for your friend/loved one is enough or an ‘I’m sorry’ is good too.
      I hope your friend is doing well.

    1. heidi

      That made me laugh! I think we’ve all been victims of that. Or the one where “you look HEALTHY”. I like that one too. 🙂

  10. Greta

    I HATE the whole “God has a plan”/”things happen for a reason”/”God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle” pieces of “encouragement”. You’re right, it doesn’t help, and it doesn’t make anyone feel better.

    1. heidi

      It really didn’t for me. I know the intentions behind it were well-meaning, but it somehow made me feel powerless and empty, you know? Most of us are just doing the best we can with what we’re given.
      Nice to meet you, by the way!

  11. IntenseGuy

    During a recent stay at a hospital I was laying in the bed trying to catch my wits when someone came in to visit and saw the bed had a digital “patient weight” display on the end of it and they looked at it, looked at me, and before even saying hello, they said, “Hey man, you really need to loose some weight.”

  12. Andi Brown

    As an ICU nurse I have been around heartache and horrible situations most of my career. I want to print this out and hand it to visitors and family. It is great advice.

    1. heidi

      Andi, thank you. That just made my day. I have been doubting this post all last night and this morning. I’m worrying that it’s too much or too sad or too harsh. Knowing that you’re a nurse and you approve makes me feel miles better. Truly, thank you.

  13. Beej

    Hi Heidi!

    Great advice. My kiddo spent almost all of her first year in the hospital, and sometimes people would inadvertently say the most heartless things. Even knowing how well they meant, it was difficult to not rail against them at every turn. Andi, you should indeed hand these out – they are great points!

    1. heidi

      Beej, I loved your post today. I can’t imagine what you went through and how hard you fought for that little girl of yours. I’m so glad she’s here.

  14. Ado

    You’re right – that stuff IS funny. A comedy script. Unbelievable! It reminds me of a book I’ve just finished, on manners – called “Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?” Wish you had it on your bedside table all those months and could leave it open on certain chapters. (-:
    Glad you are all better.
    But that idiot who stubbed his toe! OMG.

    1. heidi

      Ado! Oh, the stories I have. This isn’t even half of it. I didn’t think it was time to pull out the big guns just yet.:)
      I’ll have to take a look at that book…

  15. Postdoc

    Last year I faced a complicated medical situation with a hospital stay, multiple surgeries, long recovery, etc. It was so much less than what you’ve gone through, but I was also nodding along with your “what not to say” list – I certainly learned a LOT in those months about what to say, what not to say, and certainly learned who my real friends were and weren’t.

    On my own “what not to say” list: A “friend” of mine knew I had been very sick for a while, and that for a few stressful weeks they thought it might be cancer, but then the surgical biopsy showed it wasn’t. She wrote to me saying “I’m glad to hear it wasn’t cancer!” (“what to say”) Then a few days after that she wrote asking if the wedding gift we had said we would send her had gotten lost in the mail, because we had said that we would get them a wedding gift and they hadn’t received anything from us yet. (“what not to say”) Um, sorry, I was sidetracked with three weeks straight of high fevers, doctors telling me I probably had cancer, and surgery and recovery?

    Same “friend” wrote a few weeks later while I was still very sick – she said she had had a pretty bad week with ear pain following “diving in Tahiti”, and wrote an impossibly lengthy description of her subsequent ear wax problems, how it required a doctor to remove her ear wax buildup, etc. I’m not making this up – my jaw was on the ground. That week had been particularly bad for me – at that point I had been very sick and battling high fever for two months straight, and that week alone I had had a bone marrow biopsy, blood transfusion, CT scan, and two days after that I was admitted to the hospital for a week because they thought I had endocarditis. So yes, often the “Oh, I can relate!” is *nowhere* near being able to relate. 😛 And needless to say, we’re not friends anymore (more to that story).

    Another thing not to say: “Let me know if you need anything.” Oh, we needed so many things back in those days! Meals to take some off the cooking stress of my husband, because I was basically bedridden, and my husband was exhausted from working all day, caring for me, and running the household by himself – maybe some company – a ride home after surgery… But a sick person is never going to call you up and say “Um, can you bring me something for dinner? I’m still feverish and basically bedridden, our fridge is looking empty, my husband is exhausted from all the months of work/medical stress, our dishes haven’t been done in five days, the dust bunnies seem to be mating, and I could just really use some company…” So much better to just ask someone if you can drop by with a meal, maybe a movie, a grocery run, a little company if they’re up to it, etc… Just offer a variety of specific things you can do, and the person is sure to take you up on something.

    I know what I went through is nowhere near what you’ve gone through, but I am definitely nodding along to some of the almost-comical “what not to say”s. 😛 Long-time reader, first-time commenter – your strength and grace (and writing ability) are amazing, and you are such an inspiration! 🙂

    1. heidi

      Oh my gosh! I’m so happy to meet you!
      Okay, first. Your friend? That is awful. And when I say I’m sorry, I really mean it. You needed a friend. Not someone who was going to complain at you about an ear thing and a wedding gift. The nerve!
      Second, that is a great list. You’re right, it’s so helpful if someone can bring a meal or pick up groceries… Many people brought my family meals, gave them rides, sat with them when I was in the hospital. Thank you for your perspective!
      It sounds like you went through your own hell and I truly hope you’re better or on your way. Thank you for making yourself ‘known’. I loved hearing from you. 🙂

      1. Postdoc

        Heidi, you are so incredibly sweet… thank you so much for the kind thoughts and well-wishes!! I’ve come to realize that there’s almost a “secret club” of people who have been through their own versions of medical hell – and those people are some of the sweetest, most thoughtful and empathetic people you’ll ever meet.

        I’ve very recently discovered that the reason my body was so devastated by a rare infection last year was because of an underlying glitch in my immune system… turns out I have lupus on top of all that. Trying to grips with that now and what it means for my life and path and career… re-evaluating life priorities… trying to find my “new normal”… Ironically I’m a biomedical researcher, which comes in handy to read about illnesses, treatment plans, etc! Interestingly, I read (and loved) your blog even before I became sick, but then it took on an even deeper meaning to me… you really are an inspiration, and I love seeing that you’ve come out the other side from the depths of hell, and with such a gorgeous family to boot… gives me hope! So great to “meet” you! 🙂

  16. Jamie

    In my own experiences I’ve learned that people can be total idiots. But it usual means they care. Even still, it makes no difference =8-0 Unfortunately there is no rules book on how to act – sounds like you may be writing one for us though!

    1. heidi

      Ha, the emoticon! Love it.
      We’ll see. I’m to put together a guide and I’m going to try parts of it out here. So far I’m blown away by the feedback. People have some good, wise words to share.
      Keep those emoticons coming. 🙂

  17. Delilah

    Man, I thought I was socially awkward but even I know better than to say those types of things. One of my favorites when I was just fresh out of my PPD psychosis experience was a neighbor (who knew the whole story) who jogged all the way up the street in her teeny weeny jogging bra and short shorts to tell me that she was so glad to see I’d lost the rest of the baby weight. Um….thanks? Don’t let my twitching and foaming at the mouth distract you from what’s important in life.

    1. heidi

      Delilah, I don’t know how I missed you when I was responding to comments earlier… This made me laugh, not at you…with you and at that ridiculous neighbor. Honestly! That’s just stupidity. She could have asked the most basic of questions like, how are you? Baby weight – puh-leeze.

  18. Stacey

    Great advice! I would add, “Don’t tell them how they *should* be feeling.” The times I have gone through difficult times (although nothing like what you’ve experienced), that has been my biggest gripe/trigger, even though it’s always done by people who love me very much. Love this post series!

    1. heidi

      Yes! That used to (and still does) make me crazy. Let me have my feelings! I would say that often. Or I just need to feel this. I did. We do. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  19. Jennifer

    This is brilliant advice, Heidi. People seriously don’t know what to say so they just say things they’ve heard on tv. Gah. I heard similar things when recovering from cancer & it would’ve been helpful to have this printed out to hand out to friends/family/strangers! 🙂 Neurotic meltdown not necessary. There is no self pity in this. XOXO

    1. heidi

      The things on TV…so true. I have almost an entire chapter of my book devoted to my reaction of ‘TV’ responses.
      My new friend, I didn’t know you had cancer. How are you?? We should talk.
      You were especially good to me today. Thank you for taking my meltdown on the chin and talking me off the ledge.

  20. tlc

    At least you don’t have to shave….

    Sometime people just need make sure the brain is working before the tongue starts.


  21. Amanda

    love this post, Heidi!
    my thoughts on what not to say…
    -gushing about how terrible it must be to be in pain, so young, loss of abilities, not have a mom etc. don’t gush on me… if i want to have a pity party and lament loss for a bit fine but to have another person go off on how horrible they fill for me listing all the things i can’t do etc is the worst!!!!
    -responding to the odd pity party or fit that i might have had with a it can’t be that bad… and then they pull some thing that happened to them out in comparison. like the toe comment you had!

    to do:
    -offer help, list specifics…much easier for me to take someone up when they specifically offer then some blanket whatever you need…. i will never make that call unless you are my nearest and dearest
    -if you feel you have a story you can relate to….don’t share it…use the empathy it gives you to internally think of better ways you can support the person. example you once had a bad back and couldn’t walk for long periods for a month or so… so now when out with someone with a chronic bad back suggest breaks or offer to sit with them for a bit not try and get in one more store. etc

    i could go on and on but i’m rambling now… i like that you are doing this. we all could use what not to say or to do… some people more then others! 😉

    1. heidi

      Amanda, I know you get this a lot. Thank you for your advice and tips. They are genuinely helpful and needed. Especially the portion where you suggest people using their empathy/sympathy to offer better support for their loved one. Brilliant! And be specific…I like that too. Thanks for this.

  22. anna see

    Wow! This is a very helpful list. Great suggestions from your readers, too!

    In my case:

    Don’t tell someone whose son has died that your dog died.

    Don’t tell someone whose son has died that she needs a puppy or a baby.

    1. Postdoc

      Love these. Reminds me of one from my friend, whose baby girl died of cancer: Don’t tell me that you know what it’s like to have your daughter die because you’ve had a first-trimester miscarriage.

      And one more from me: Don’t tell me you understand what I’ve been through with my above-mentioned medical situation, because you’ve had a c-section!

    2. heidi

      Anna, I can’t believe someone dared to say that to you. It makes me shake.
      Thank you for this. My plan is to, at some point, put together a list of what To say as well, so if you have anything to offer you know I would love it. 🙂
      Love you.

  23. Julia

    Yes!! I can’t imagine what you have been through. We have all had our difficult situations, and I think that there is always someone who, I suppose in an attempt to comfort, says something that just makes you think, “Did you really just say that?!”
    My most difficult situations have been the death of my father when I was 18 and the horrible pregnancy/delivery/recovery experience I had with my son, that makes me not want to go through pregnancy again. After the death of my father someone told me they knew how I felt because they lost their dog. Losing your father and your dog are not exactly the same thing. I am still processing the events of my son’s birth, but there is so much pressure for me to have a second baby and I’m just not ready. My mom even told me to “just get over it.” Not exactly helpful to my emotional healing process.
    Sigh. Thank you for this post, and starting the conversation about what not to say.

    1. heidi

      Oh, someone compared the loss of their dog to the loss of your father..No. Just. No.
      There is no timeline to grieving, Julia. This is just my opinion, but if you’re not ready to have another baby don’t do it. Give yourself time and grace, as much as you need. If and when you’re ready, you’ll know.

      1. Julia

        I find such comfort in your words and presence. “There is no timeline to grieving,” LOVE THIS. Thank you so much for sharing your story and listening to mine. I am so glad to have found you!

  24. Lenore

    Gosh Heidi, this is tough, as you know.
    I remember when my Dad died (I was 25yrs old), a coworker was asking me about him. She asked how old he was and I told her he was 65. She looked at me and said, “Oh, so he was old.”
    What?! I’m sorry … are you trying to console me?!
    Sadly, my Dad died nearly 20 yrs ago, and I still remember the woman’s face and tone when she made the comment, just one week after losing my Dad. Bitter much? (smile)
    Your post is excellent; thank you for sharing.

    1. heidi

      Lenore, that’s terrible. Both you and your dad were so young, too young to have lost each other like that. At any age it hurts. I’m really sorry she said that to you.
      Thank you for sharing this.

  25. stephanie

    Hi Heidi. Great post! Well-meaning doesn’t give people a pass to say idiotic things. This should definitely be included in your book. My experience with stupid things people say happened when my mother died – someone said to me, You should be glad you had her as long as you did. I was 30 at the time. Didn’t seem long enough to me. I turned and walked away. That will stay with me forever! I look forward to reading your book!

    1. heidi

      Stephanie, I hear that a lot from friends who have lost parents. The whole ‘you should be glad you had her as long as you did’. Yes, and you wish they could have been with you longer. I’ve never understood that. Thank you for sharing this and your kind words.

  26. Sandy@Sinsationally Me


    First, I applaud how far you’ve come. You have survived an awful ordeal. I also think you serve as an inspiration, even if that isn’t your intention.
    Second, your list is funny, in that tongue-in-cheek way. I think Dolly Parton’s character in “Steel Magnolias” said it best: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
    I think people have the best intentions and sometimes they feel nervous and awkward so what they say comes out wrong. Other people are just plain stupid lol.

    1. heidi

      I love that movie and I love Dolly Parton in that movie and I love that line!
      You’re right – people get all tongue-tied and then you get those that just don’t get it. 🙂

    1. heidi

      I’m glad you found it amusing. I was worried about offending people, but it was definitely meant to poke fun. And hopefully to serve as just a small lesson on what to avoid. 🙂

      1. Michelle Longo

        You have to have a sense of humor about the difficult things or you will go mad. At least that’s my perspective. I’ve been on the receiving end of some dumb stuff said by people not knowing what to say (though not at all similar to your situation) and if I didn’t laugh I’d cry and that’s just no fun. 🙂

  27. Sarah Reinhart @littlewhitewhale

    superb advice Heidi! I think sometimes people, mostly those with good intentions, just don’t know what else to say. It’s like nervous chatter or something and blah–out comes a cliche. At least I hope that’s the case. But then you do have your run-of-the-mill idiots out there too. I know a few of those. Good for you for putting all your thoughts together for your book!

    1. heidi

      It’s hard to avoid the cliches. I’ve been guilty of it for sure and as soon as it came out I was horrified, knowing that I totally messed up.
      Thanks for the good wishes!

  28. Mayor Gia

    I can’t believe people are dumb enough to say things like that to you! I mean, I guess if they’re nervous/uncomfortable and blabbering, maaaybe I understand how it slips out. But a thought-out comment? NOT OKAY!

    1. heidi

      Gia! It’s worse somehow, isn’t it? When it’s planned and then spoken. I could see you doing a fantastically funny illustration of the crazy things people do/say!

  29. Galit Breen

    Oh my, Heidi! I’m cringing at the thought of the things that i may have said and hopeHopeHOPE it was none of these!

    (I love where you’re going with this for your book, by the way!)

    1. heidi

      Galit, not possible. Not even a little possible that you would say something so, so inappropriate. And here’s the thing. Even if you did, you have a heart of gold. I can tell, just by that gorgeous stuff you write on your blog. 🙂

  30. jessica

    After my divorce I heard all kinds of stupid bullshit. It got to the point where I just didn’t want to be around people. I know they don’t mean to be unfuckingbelievably annoying and trite, I know….

  31. christy

    “You won’t be given more than you can handle” is such a crock of shit. It’s totally one of my pet peeves. As I’ve mentioned to you, we had a family member given way more than anyone could handle and to hear people say that drove me CRAZY.

    Really great, and helpful, post. Now if only we could figure out a way to disseminate to the world at large, it would be a happier place.

    Looking forward to reading what TO say! xo

    1. heidi

      ‘“You won’t be given more than you can handle” is such a crock of shit.’ Oh my gosh! I laughed when I read that. It is completely, totally one of my pet peeves too.
      You’re the sweetest, Christy. I mean it.

  32. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms

    Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! This post is perfect. FANTASTIC advice. I’m buying a case of your books when they come out.
    People really do try to be nice, but they are just so awkward. The torture results from having to bear this awkwardness 500 times. People really do need a guide that begins with there are no rules for grieving…

    1. heidi

      Awww, you are just so kind!! Thank you. The manuscript is finished and now I’m working on a field guide to add to the end that would include resources and advice…that kind of thing. I think this is definitely something I will use! 🙂

  33. Janice

    I guess people feel obligated to say something–it’s our culture maybe, I don’t know. They feel like they have to offer some sort of advice or bolstering comment to help you. Sometimes, though, the only things you need to say is, “I’m sorry,” or “what can I do for you?” or even nothing at all. Much harder than it sounds.

    Thanks for sharing, not just in this post, but through your entire blog.

    1. heidi

      Exactly. “I’m sorry” or “What can I do?” are great examples of what to say. Most of us just want to know our loved ones are there for us.
      Thank you for your thoughts and comments!

  34. Susan

    This is great, poignant advice, and while I get that people are trying to find the “right” thing to say, I often think that what they’re saying is (subconciously) designed to help themselves feel better and cope (especially the “God has a plan” bit). I’m not trying to be jaded or judgemental because God knows I say the wrong thing 98% of the time, but I think – I hope – just being there is the best way to go (because otherwise I have totally messed up. which wouldn’t surprise me, really, but still.). Anyway, I would love to read your advice about it!

    1. heidi

      Hi Susan, it’s true…we’re often at a loss as to what to do/say. Most of us want to help and don’t know how. You’re right, you can’t go wrong by being there.
      I will work on it and hopefully have it ready for next week!

  35. christina

    wow. i love that Kelly Clarkson song as well but yeah, i can’t believe some of the things people say. and i know they don’t mean to be asshats but … yeah, those are some really bad ones! 🙁

  36. Mama and the City

    So true.

    I offer think, or at least try, from the other one’s shoes. I often imagine if a tragedy stroked me, someone do something very bad to a family member, I know I would be thinking and wishing differently. It doesn’t make us bad people, just real. We are humans and we are allowed to feel.

    And this post reminded me of that thought I once had.

    1. heidi

      It’s a great thought – to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and treat people how we would want to be treated…love that.

  37. Katie @ Chicken Noodle Gravy

    You know I think sometimes it’s just best not to say anything at all. When you’re going to say something callous or thoughtless, just keep your mouth shut, you know? Great advice. Some people in my life need to read this. It’s not that I’ve never said the wrong thing, mind you, but usually, I just go with a simple “I’m sorry.” That speaks volumes and doesn’t judge anything.

    Great post! And what an incredible story you have.

    1. heidi

      Yes to this. “I’m sorry” can speak volumes. I know it did for me. And when you don’t know what to say, I say fall back on this one.
      Thank you. Is it weird to say I love saying your handle…chicken noodle gravy…it makes me happy. Please don’t think I’m too weird. 🙂

  38. Kristin

    This is very helpful. For me, it’s helpful more because of getting inside your head rather than knowing what to say. I’ve found that I tend to default to just plain old “I’m so sorry.” or “Life really sucks sometimes.” or “What can I bring you?” because I am no good with accepting sympathy myself. And I’m not religious, so anyone would know I was just humoring them. And *I* HATE being humored!

    Reactions are so personal, and grief is so intensely personal. This is a fantastic post and I can’t wait to read your PdJ profile and book!

    1. heidi

      All of your suggestions are great!
      I wholeheartedly agree with you that grief and reactions are so personal. It isn’t a predictable thing at all. You just have to kind-of go with it.
      By the way, you should not have worried about your post. I really enjoyed it…well written and engaging. 🙂

  39. Loraleigh

    Hey there, I’m throwing in my 2 cents on the topic. 🙂
    Great post Heidi. It’s not offensive.
    You know, for the most part I think people in pain are just looking for someone else to join them in their hell. They don’t need all sorts of “encouragement” or “look on the bright side type advice”. I think for the most part they just need someone there who is willing to acknowledge the truth and join them in their hell. I think just joining with someone (not necessarily doing anything) is a physical act of prayer. When you enter into someones hell zone it’s like you are yelling out to God: “HEY! Don’t forget about her I’m not forgetting, you can’t either!”
    It’s a big commitment to cross that invisible line into someones hell or stay out. I think it’s why people always say in times of pain/tragedy you find out who your real friends are. It’s cause those are the friends who were willing to enter in….the others are the ones who say “it could have been worse” and then they go on, forget about you, and admire their new flip flops :-).

    Sometimes I just want to tell people “Just stop talking!” I used to visit this lady at the Menno Hospital. She was a teacher, young, 35 I think and was in some kind of accident (I never did get the whole story), the accident left her mind in tact, but the rest of her was pretty much paralyzed, she couldn’t really speak only groans and moans, she had only slight mobility in her hands, and that was it. It was like when people say they are a vegetable, but only it was reverse, it was her body that was the vegetable, not her mind. I couldn’t believe the things people would say to her, and she couldn’t even respond back! Things like (all cheery like): “it’s a beautiful day out there you should get out and enjoy it!” And then they would walk away. Ummm….I don’t know if you noticed but she’s in a body chair, you know, those kind that require another person besides the person that is in it to move it??????? Seriously? How should she get out there and enjoy it???????? She used to spend days crying her eyes out. I used to read to her, but sometimes it was all I could do to sit there and cry with her. I wanted to tell her “don’t let anyone ever tell you it could be worse!”

    It seems like such a simple thing to do, think before you speak, and just stop talking, but so hard sometimes.

    Great post, it has reminded me that when people open up their lives to me either by choice or by circumstance, I’m walking on sacred ground.

    On another note, I really miss you. Where’s the emoticon for happy/sad tears all in one?

    1. heidi

      What’s an emoticon for eyes filling up with tears, but not full wracking sobs? Something with squiggles and brackets?
      Yes to all of this. To an act of prayer, to sacred ground (oh, the sacred ground of it all), to joining in their hell. I’m going to work on a ‘what to say’ post and I will draw from your wisdom toward that.
      Thank you for joining me in my hell and walking through it with me all those years ago. I love you.

  40. Jay- The Dude of the House

    I think people often say things because they are nervous and don’t know what else to do. They should keep quiet and just be there. That is often enough, from what I’ve learned.

    Helpful list. Will definitely consider what you said next time I’m in a position like that.

  41. Kate Coveny Hood

    This is good advice for so many situations… Anna has been saying, “they just want to show us love” about all of the things that people do and plan for them. The things they say…all of it. But I think every single one of those well meaning people would appreciate a little guidance.

    Love you Heidi. (by the way 94 comments??? holy crap)

  42. julie gardner

    You’ve obviously struck a chord with this post, Heidi – looks like including a do say/don’t say guide in your book is not only a good idea but something people NEED to read.

    I’m a notorious talker (my childhood nickname was motor-mouth – how horrifying?) but when it comes to awful situations in which my loved ones need support, I’ve found simply listening to be the best course of action.

    It must be maddening to hear people try to tell you (or anyone who’s suffering), “I know EXACTLY how you feel.” Or better yet, “I had it worse.” Or “I know someone who…”

    Really? Did they even ask how you were feeling? Were they listening? Or were they looking for a break in the conversation to jump in and share their own stories?

    I know most people mean well. And we all make mistakes, say things we wish we could suck back down our throats. But I think a lot of error is a result of self-centeredness. Some people like to see the lives of others as mirrors and/or filters of their own: How does this relate to ME?!?

    These are the people to let go in your life.
    It is wise to embrace the ones who can (occasionally) shut up and listen.

  43. Pingback: what to say | Fancy Feet

  44. heidi Post author

    Yes, this. “I know most people mean well. And we all make mistakes, say things we wish we could suck back down our throats. But I think a lot of error is a result of self-centeredness. Some people like to see the lives of others as mirrors and/or filters of their own: How does this relate to ME?!?”
    I see and hear it a lot – that need to relate for the wrong reasons. Often it is best to simply listen.

    Your comment really struck a chord with me today. You have a way of doing that – whether it’s here or on your blog something you say just grabs a hold of me. And, let me tell you, today the timing of this is perfect.

  45. Sarcasm Goddess

    How do you feel about people saying, “Everything’s going to be okay?” This one really gets under my skin for a lot of reasons, but mainly because they have absolutely no way of know if it’s going to be okay.

    1. heidi

      That’s a tough one. I had people who had gone through painful experiences of their own who would tell me ‘it gets better’ and that helped because they had lived it. But, “it’s going to be okay” is different, especially if it’s said too early on because you can’t hear that just yet and no one know if it’s going to be okay. I totally understand how that would get under your skin. 🙂

  46. Caroline

    Is it really inappropriate to say “At least you’re alive?”

    I know cliches are usually not welcome, but I feel like expressing how grateful you are that someone is still with you is different… I don’t know, I guess I’ll have to be very careful about what I say from now on!

    1. heidi

      Caroline, of course it’s a wonderful thing to express how grateful you are that your loved one is alive. Absolutely. I think sometimes it’s all in the wording. I had that offered up to me as comfort, as if I should just be thankful I’m alive and that should be enough. My friend died in that crash and I didn’t. So ‘at least you’re alive’ was hard for me. But, when you love someone and what you say comes from your heart you can’t really go wrong. 🙂

  47. Michelle the Sardonic

    How to make the dog comparison somewhat acceptable: I know how you feel; I just lost my dog…I loved my dog more than my father. My father is an asshole.

    What else not to say: I hope you get out of this hospital soon…hospitals are so “germy”…you could get MRSA…

    Thanks for the reminder that I DO have a social clue!

    1. heidi

      Oh my gosh! I laughed at the ‘hospitals are so germy’! I did get MRSA, so the irony of that is funny. Yeah, it doesn’t help to say ‘hope you get out soon’ when you have no way of leaving when you want to. 🙂
      Thank you so much for this!

  48. ASL

    I know I’m late finding this, and it’s a wonderful post.

    In seven days, I’m having my second brain surgery in less than five months. The comment that is causing me to go ballistic and feel isolated and alone is, “You’ve already been through it once. This’ll be a piece of cake.”

    Umm. No. Surgery is not cake. It isn’t even vichyssoise. And just because I’ve had one surgery doesn’t make another one easy. In fact, knowing what I’m in for, in some ways, makes it more difficult.

    Grrr… I know they mean well and care about me, but minimalizing what I’m going through is neither helpful nor supportive.

    1. heidi

      I know I’m late coming to this, but I just wanted to tell you how moved I am by you, by your honesty, by your fight.
      You’re right – when you know what to expect it’s somehow much harder than when you come into a surgery not knowing. I really get that. When you know how much it hurts and how long the recovery is…you can’t get away from it. Sometimes the unknown is easier.
      I hope, hope, hope your surgery went well. Thank you so much for being here and contributing to this. It means so much to me.

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