How to say what you mean

*Platitude is a trite, meaningless, biased, or prosaic statement, often presented as if it were significant and original. The word derives from plat,the French word for "flat." Whether any given statement is considered to have meaning is highly subjective, so platitude is often—but not always—used as a pejorative term to describe seemingly profound statements that a certain person views as unoriginal or shallow. Examples of statements which could be considered platitudes could be "You only live once", "The power of friendship", "Go with the flow", "Everything happens for a reason", "It is what it is!", "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be", and "We need to do what we can do."

Over the past year and a half, I have written a lot about what not to say to a grieving parent.  What hurts us, what makes the loss even more painful, what pushes us away and makes us feel completely removed from the rest of society.  Often, I get defensive responses - "We didn't MEAN it that way!".  I know you didn't mean it that way.  I am not sure that is the point though.  You didn't think it through.  You just said it because "that's what people say" - that's what makes it a platitude.

If you are reading here and you haven't lost a child, I assume it is for one of a few reasons: 1) You are just curious about how a person deals with the ultimate loss 2) You are someone who knows me directly or indirectly and you want to know how we are doing or 3) You are actually interested in knowing how you can be more sensitive towards the feelings of people who have experienced a tragic loss.  Many of my readers are here for reason three.  If you are one of those people, please pause before you feel defensive.  Know that you are reading the words of a woman who has lost a child, the words of a woman who has spoken to many other people who have lost children, the words of a woman who has been reading the words of other bereaved parents for almost 17 months.

When I tell you that it hurts us when you say "I am going to hug my children tighter" and then I explain to you why it hurts me....try not to defend yourself.  Trust that when I tell you that it hurts us, that it in fact DOES hurt us and then just don't say it anymore.  It doesn't matter what you meant - I know you think you are saying something incredibly empathetic - perhaps even profound - you aren't - it hurts.  We are often without the ability to step back and logically give you the benefit of the doubt - especially when we are early in grief.  We don't care about giving you the benefit of the doubt because our heads are spinning and our hearts are breaking, we can barely breathe and we don't know how we will take one more step into the future.  What you meant is just about the last thing on our minds.  We are extra sensitive and vulnerable and our defenses are on high alert.  You do have control over the words that you say and the message that you impart.  I am telling you that it hurts because I don't want you to say something that might be taken in the wrong way.  I don't want you to hurt anyone - even when you didn't mean to.  I want you to be able to comfort your friend who is hurting, as I know that is what you would like to do.

And, yes, as I said in my post this past weekend- you SHOULD hug your children tighter.  You should never assume that they are safer than anyone else's children.  We actually want you to know that you should relish every minute you have with your beautiful children because you never know.... BUT - like many things - it is one thing for us to tell you to hug your children and it is another thing for you to just offer up that information.  You may not grasp the difference, but please trust me.  I am not leading you astray.  And if you read the other blogs that I referred to with that post (here:, here:, and here:, you will see that I am not alone in feeling very hurt and misunderstood when people have said this to me.  And maybe there are some parents out there who love hearing these words, but since you don't know who does and who doesn't, wouldn't it be better to err on the safe side?  Believe me, my point is not just to criticize you - my point is to try and help you have more empathy, so that you can say the right thing and comfort those in pain. You don't even have to understand WHY it hurts (although my post was an attempt to explain to you why), you just have to believe me that it DOES.

Human communication can be so complicated.  We say things all of the time that are taken out of context and misunderstood.  We think we are being funny and we are really being insulting.  We think we are expressing anger and people think we are trying to be funny.  We hurt each others feelings unintentionally.  We forget things we've said and things others have said.  We put our feet in our mouths - I do it too, all of the time.

I know you are wondering what you can say.  I have been told that I have too many rules.  Here is what has felt compassionate but obviously it should come from your heart:

1) I/We am/are always thinking about you guys and Max.
2) What happened to Max is so tragic.  He should be here with you.
3) Max was a beautiful baby/ Max was so sweet/ I love Max so much/ I miss Max
4) You and Ted are wonderful parents.  I am so sorry that Max isn't here.  It isn't fair.
5) I heard what happened to Max and I was shocked/stunned/ angry/ hurt
6) I know you will never be the same.  I will never be the same either.

I encourage you to *think* about what you are saying instead of just saying what you think people want to hear.  Don't just repeat my list above. Don't just repeat things you've heard.  There are many hurtful platitudes:
1) god needed another angel
2) He's in a better place
3) god doesn't give you more than you can handle
4) You can always have more children
5) You are still young enough to remarry

In fact, I feel weird making a list of what to say....because it's best to speak from your heart.  I think it is important to direct your comments to the family and keep them about their loss, their child (or spouse or parent....unless perhaps you have also lost a child, a spouse, a parent), the unfairness that has visited their lives.  You can also talk about how you feel about their child not being here (not about how their loss makes you feel lucky....they know that....they want to know that your heart is broken too).

My intention here is to save you from hurting someone who is already hurting.  My intention is to help you express yourself in a way that your intentions are felt because I am sure you DO mean to be compassionate.  That's it.  Take it or leave it.

* Wikipedia definition of Platitude


Taryn said...

Thanks Abby! I appreciate this post...and no, I don't feel like you are making a list of good things to say, rather you you are modeling some appropriate ways to express yourself that are generally not hurtful. Thank you!

Fiona said...

I couldn't have put it better, I hope people get the message. Lots of love to you all over the holidays.xx

Chantel said...

I appreciate your comments. I had a cousin and a neighbor both lose children on the same day last December. The last thing I want to do is hurt them and I have often used things I have read on blogs like yours to know what to say to them.

Becca said...

I'm a mom who hasn't lost a child. I started reading your blog when it was linked from Molly's (she is a friend of a friend), and I kept coming back 1) because your story and your little Maxie just stuck with me and 2) because you ARE able to write so eloquently about your grief and how we can be better at sympathizing and supporting people through grief. My best friend lost her little brother and a good family friend lost their son/brother in August (both young men in their 20s killed in accidents). I think (hope) I was able to respond to both these tragedies and be a better support to the families than I would have had I not read your words.

If anybody deserves the benefit of the doubt it is the person experiencing the grief, not those trying to comfort them. I do think most people are just doing the best they can, but its not your job to validate them in that.

Thank you for writing.

Jayden's Mommy said...

Well said. I wish everyone will have gone and research what to tell us when we just lost Jayden. And it was a minority compared to all of our family and friends who said stupid hurtful comments; but they stuck with us and we can't see this people the same way. I hate the phrase: "at least you have 2 other kids". It doesn't make a difference. Thanks for writing, and we do think of Maxie and Mo and its completely unfair not to have our babies right now. Love, Kira

Hannah Patterson said...

Hi there - I've found your blog and am so sad to hear of Maxie's death. What a stunning little boy he was and so full of character, judging from all the lovely photos. I am here for the third reason. I have never lost a child. My mother has - my younger sister died in 2004. She was only 32. I've heard some tactless comments over the years. I think the 'I will hug my kid/s tighter tonight' comment would hurt from the following reasons:

1. It reminds you that you are their worst fear. The woman whose child died.
2. It reminds you that they still have a child to hug.
3. You know that they are only saying this to console themselves and defend themselves from the reality that such a tragedy could happen to anyone, even them.

When my sister was ill, one of my friends reacted in a way that I found very unsettling. She told her three small children, in front of me, to get down onto their knees and pray for thankfulness that they were not ill. It was awful and I just felt lonely and angry.

I am not saying, for one minute, that dying at 32 is the same as dying in infancy. I am not saying "I know how you feel" or anything like that. I just want to say that I am thinking of you and that both your children are very cute. They definitely have a brotherly likeness. Take care :) xx