What to Do When Words Hurt
“If this baby dies too, do you think you’ll have another one?” A little girl I barely knew stared at my swollen belly, as my eyes filled with tears and my mouth dropped open. We had buried our third child just over a year earlier. The little girl posing the question was young enough that I knew she hadn’t thought it up on her own; she’d overheard adults talking about us. I could imagine the conversation and my cheeks flamed. Why did people think they could discuss our family plans around the dinner table?
As we navigated life after the shock of burying our baby, so many people surrounded us. We were amazed over and over again with the support, both from our close friends and acquaintances. However, there were also people who magnified the hurt, often without even knowing it. There was unsolicited advice, insensitive comments and uncomfortable questions that left us reeling. We were presented with questionable theology and trite answers to the deep hurt in our heart. People we counted as precious friends quietly disappeared from our lives, seemingly without a trace. We politely endured stories of others “just like us” whose babies had been healed, magnifying our own empty arms and questioning why our story didn’t have a happy ending.
In the months following our daughter’s death, I found myself anxious whenever I had to be around large groups of people. I would arrive at church just in time for the service, slipping in to hear my brave husband-pastor deliver the sermon. I’d slip back out during the closing prayer, going to his office and hiding away. I couldn’t face the people. I knew I’d eventually be stronger, I knew Jesus would heal my heart, but I just needed so much space. Absolutely everything that I thought I had known about life was shaken, and I felt so vulnerable and exposed.
I had spent so much of my life making sure I was prepared for new situations: marriage counseling before we got married, birthing classes before our baby, talking to other moms as our family expanded. I read books on each milestone and studied up. But nothing prepared me for how to grieve my baby in community. The combination of my own sorrow and the well-meaning-but-not-so-helpful comments made me irritated. It was uncharted territory and I have to confess that I wasted a lot of time harboring anger.
A few short months later, however, I suddenly found myself on the other side, as a comforter to the grieving. At the funeral home, waiting to talk to the family standing next to the casket, it hit me— knowing just what to say to someone who is suffering is really hard. The weight of having just the right words overwhelmed me.
It was a moment of startling clarity. A turning point.
I couldn’t control what others said, but I could control my own response. I could be sensitive and edgy to people’s words, or I could choose to be generous and kind. I decided to let go of my anger, working to hear the intention behind the words others offered me. I started to see the bravery it took for others to reach out, realizing they loved me and they were simply trying to help. It took a lot of forgiveness and grace on my part. You know what I learned? People mean well. They long to be empathetic and carry some of the pain. They want to love and care, but they just don’t know how. So the wrong words come out, or worse, they avoid the entire situation. It’s hard. It’s awkward. It’s unfair. And sometimes I would still have to escape and have a good cry.
We’ve all come alongside the grieving, in the hospital rooms or funeral homes. We’ve listened to others as they’ve received the diagnosis or been served the papers. And we’ve all been at a loss for words. Sometimes we get it right … sometimes we get it horribly wrong. But I’d venture to say that whether we help or hurt, the intention of our heart is love.
Choosing to hear the heart behind hurtful words allowed me to knock down barriers I had built. The power to choose peace came as I allowed Jesus to heal my broken heart. I quit hiding and I started listening, truly listening, to the intention behind the words. Slowly, my anger disappeared and I was able to move forward. Choose to see the good. It’s what I hope someone would do for me.
Sarah Damaska is a regular contributor to Soul Care Collective.