A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Greetings from North Carolina! As part of the four-way covenant, the agreements made in my ordination, I committed to sharing my thoughts with you in the “Tidings” on a regular basis. This month, I am excited to be starting a multi-month series on how to best support people in difficult medical situations, including people facing loss, people who are sick and dying, and people who are caregivers. The information shared in the next several articles is a combination of research around these topics, my personal reflections from my training in Clinical Pastoral Education, and my experiences with families who have someone at the end of life. So, to begin the series, I want to review the Top 10 Things NOT to Say to people who are sick, grieving or faced with loss.

The NOT Top 10!

1.     “At least…” According to Brenè Brown, research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, “Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic response begin with at least.” [1] These statements minimize the person’s feelings/situation they have shared, while trying to put a silver-lining around something incredibly painful. For example: “my son is failing out of school… At least your daughter is a great student” or “I just had my 3rd miscarriage… At least you know you can get pregnant.” Can you see how “at least” statements divert the focus, and dismiss the painful and vulnerable reality?

2.     “We statements” We statements such as “We will get through this round of chemo together” or “we will get your son back in school” put you in the middle of the other person’s crisis. Unless the person you are speaking to is your spouse or child, you will likely not be with them every step of the way. Reminding your friend that you are here to help, or offering concrete ways you can actually help the situation (like a professional referral to a physician or tutor) would be much more beneficial than we statements.

3.     “Just try…” or “I’ve done some research and…” Both of these statements suggest that there is an easy solution that the person who is sick or experiencing a medical crisis such as infertility hasn’t yet explored. Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and cancer survivor sarcastically shares “I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns out that I should be listening to you.” [2]

4.     “Let me know what I can do for you.” While, on the surface, this seems like a helping statement to someone who is sick or faced with loss, it actually puts significant pressure on the person who is grieving or in crisis. A statement like this puts the responsibility of follow-up and follow-through on the bereaved. It will likely not happen, which is unfortunate, because they really need your help. The grieving or sick person is likely overwhelmed with numerous details (funeral plans, choosing a new course of treatment, figuring out life in their new normal, etc).

5.     “When I…” Similar to we statements, statements that begin with “When I…” shift the focus from the person who is vulnerable, and instead puts you at the center of attention. I think we use statements about ourselves to try to relate to the other person’s struggle. Often sharing our own stuff does nothing for the person who is sick/grieving, but instead lets us explore a similar pain that is being stirred up. “When I” statements could be appropriate if the bereaved asks you a specific question about your experience. Ex. “When you did chemo, did you get a wig? How did you get a death certificate after your husband died?”

6.     “It’s God’s Will/Timing/Plan” I think we make statements like this because there is no tangible or concrete explanation for why bad things happen to good people. But if you think about the statement, it really is counter to our theology. Did God really want someone’s child or spouse to die… or for someone to lose their job… or for a woman to have a miscarriage? If you say something like this to a person who is grieving, it is putting a theology on them that implies God wanted this awful thing to happen. Instead, remind the bereaved that they are loved by God and that God will never leave them!

7.     “Everything happens for a reason.” A statement like this suggests that you know the reason, yet the reality is that some things just can’t be explained. Statements like this stifle the conversation the grieving person is trying to dive into. This statement leaves little room for the bereaved or sick to explore their own feelings and faith perspective around what is happening and why. “When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver, is handing them a reason.” [3]

8.     “You can use this experience to…” Yes, someday a person who has lost a child might be able to write a book, or a person who survived a trauma may become a motivational speaker to others with similar experiences. But now is NOT the time to remind them of this. When a person is in crisis or is grieving, they want support in the here and now. They don’t want to (and really don’t need to) think about how this experience will help them in the future.

9.     “I know exactly how you feel.” Simply put… no you don’t! You may be able to image how they feel, or imagine how difficult a situation might be for them, or what a situation might feel like if you were in the middle of it. But you can never know exactly how someone feels because no two people’s experiences with grief and loss are the same. Two people may have lost a parent, but their experience with death will be different, because their relationship with their parents is unique to them, their relationships with their surviving family are unique, and their experience with death in the past is unique.

10.  “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.” As Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author, educator and grief counselor, might say, “True, but not helpful.” Sickness, grief and loss affect all aspects of our being: physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual. [4]  When we walk with the bereaved, we need to honor their darkness and let them work through it, not feel the need to push them into the light or future if they aren’t ready.

After reading this list, please don’t fret if you have said some or all of these things to someone faced with grief or loss. Give yourself some grace that you were doing the best you knew how to do. I hope that the next time someone is vulnerable with you, you’ll remember this list and do your best to avoid the NOT Top 10. Be on the lookout for next month’s article that will offer some suggestions of what TO say and do when supporting someone who is sick, grieving or faced with loss.

[1] Brenè Brown on Empathy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

[2] Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Random House, New York, 2018.

[3] Bowler, Kate. Ibid.

[4] Alan Wolfelt, The Art of Companioning the Mourner; Workshop hosted by Hospice of Davidson County, 10/17/18