What We Say, What We Mean to Say, and Why "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Always Help a Grieving Kid

A good friend recently enlightened me about how to handle well intentioned people who say unhelpful things to grieving adults and children. We all do it, we're all human, and even the most professional grief worker can find herself regretting word choice. Loosely relating poet Maya Angelou's thoughts on fallibility, until we know better, we're not going to do better when it comes to talking with a child or adult who is in pain. (And when we know better, we'll do better!) We all have a lot to learn about how to talk to grievers. And when we find ourselves bereaved, we need help interpreting gentle and not so gentle communication during grief. My friend, who was mourning the loss of a loved one at the time, was given this beautiful advice by her caring and capable funeral services provider:

 "Many people will say things that don't help, and may hurt, but what they mean to say is, I love you and I'm here for you. No matter what someone says to you at the funeral, what they really mean to say is, I love you and I'm here for you. Try to hear them that way, dismiss what they may really say, and it will help."

It did help her. My friend said that translating people's words into a more nurturing and simple message of love and presence was a great comfort to her and to her family.

When children and teens at The Dougy Center www.dougy.org are asked, “What’s something you wish people would stop saying?”, they reportedly break out in a chorus of “I’m sorry!”

So what's wrong with "I'm sorry?" It's not that the words are so terrible, instead think of the sentiment as an interrupter to grief. In an excerpt from the Dougy Center article, Alternatives to "I'm Sorry", children and teens explain: 

  • “How am I supposed to respond? It’s okay? I mean, really, it’s not okay.”
  • “Um, it’s not their fault, why are they apologizing?”
  • “It’s just so awkward. It’s like a total conversation stopper.”
  • “So many people say it, even people I’ve never talked to before, it feels kind of fake.”
  • “I know they mean well, but it just gets old.”

Read the full article to learn what children and teens say does help: 

 http://www.dougy.org/news-events/program-articles/alternatives-to-im-sorry/1626/

It occurs to me that if we all knew that being there (not just at the funeral, but over time) is what really matters to a mourner at any age, it would be okay if we simply shared our own version of, "I love you and I'm here for you." It's all a grieving adult or child really wants to hear anyway. So teach children about distilling what friends and others really mean to say when they try to communicate loving care, but slip-up. And give children agency during grief by encouraging them to think about what they want people to say, and help children to ask for THAT. 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.