(When) Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

13 May


“It’s sad, so sad; it’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd.
It’s sad,  so sad; why can’t we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me, that sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
– John & Taupin. All rights reserved.

We’ve all been there; that awkward moment at the funeral home or in the hospital, or elsewhere, where our want to express SOMETHING – something kind, something meaningful, something appropriate – gets washed away by saying something really inappropriate, such as:

     “You’ll have more children.”

     “It was God’s will.”

     “God needed another angel.”

     “You still have your other children.”

     “You’ll survive; you always do.”

     “He/she lived a long life.”

     “Everything happens for a reason.”

What do we do (or not do) and say (or not say) when someone is in great pain?

What Not to Do

  • Ignore the person. “Surely they are already swamped by other well-wishers.” “I don’t know what to do/say, so I’ll do/say nothing.”
  • Give long-term advice. If asked, a kind, “Perhaps you should take some time to think about it,” is appropriate.
  • Send regrets via a) Facebook, b) Twitter, c) e-mail, d) text message. Remember, we are talking about someone CLOSE to you!
  • Do extraordinary things that the hurting person or someone close to him or her did not ask you to do. The house may not need another tray of lunchmeat. That photo montage you thought was precious may bring unintended pain. Your gently used linens are awesome, but they don’t have a bed, let alone a queen-size bed.

What to Do

  • Be in touch. If you truly believe this would be overwhelming, send a note card or make a phone call. Either can be dealt with when there is time and the will.
  • Be in touch later. Often there is a rush of kindness when the event occurs, but it is in the coming weeks, months, and years that hurting people need a friend. (Hint: Write anniversaries of painful events down so you will not forget them.) You may think people do not want to be reminded, but the opposite is often true. I often contact people “the week of” so it is easier to Segway into why I am calling.
  • Offer assistance. A simple, “What do you need?” is a powerful question. Asking, “What can I do?” is not the same thing.
  • “Just” be present. Don’t feel like you have to talk.
  • If you know the person’s religious beliefs, offer to do something meaningful that reflects that tradition (pray, light a candle, etc.). If you do not know, and I cannot stress this enough, do NOT make assumptions. Ask if you can pray, light a candle, etc.

What Not to Say

  • Any of the previously mentioned statements, all of which are often said in a very well-meaning manner.
  • “I know just how you feel.” No, you don’t. Everyone processes situations differently.
  • Any story that compares this person’s feelings to yours or anyone else’s. See previous item.

What to Say

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I’m here if you need to talk, scream, laugh, or anything else.” Then be there. Listen.
  • Ask, “What do you need?”
  • If the pain is over a person that you are sure there was a good relationship with, ask sometime in the coming weeks, “How did you meet?” “What were some of the fun things you did together?” “What were some of his/her funny habits or sayings?”

This month’s synchroblog is on giving suggestions for what to do (or not do) and what to say (and not say) in love and caring for those around us who are experiencing great personal loss, pain, tragedy, or disaster. For other responses, see:

18 Responses to “(When) Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”

  1. GlennGlenn May 17, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    Practical, helpful, and sensitive! Thank you!

    • damannwrite May 20, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

      Happy you found it helpful.

    • davidderbyshire May 22, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      I agree. I think the quotes are particularly helpful in phrasing things right.

  2. Jeremy Myers May 17, 2013 at 4:32 am #

    Yes! That idea about not ignoring them really struck home with me. We often think that someone else is taking care of the people in pain. But often, nobody is, and God is laying them on our hearts and minds so that we can go be with them.

    • damannwrite May 17, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      I have seen it so many times when people were paralyzed by not knowing what to say, or thought the person was already surrounded by love, and the truth was, the hurting person was just waiting for that individual to make a connection.

  3. Carol Kuniholm May 16, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Wonderful, really practical advise. Especially the encouragement to remember the loss later – next month, next year. I know how comforting it can be to have someone, a year, two, three years later, write a short card, drop off a small remembrance, share a story of the loved one. Thank you!

    • damannwrite May 17, 2013 at 8:11 am #

      I sort of chuckled when I wrote about sending a card – does anyone send “real” mail anymore? I miss getting mailed invites to things like baby showers and graduation parties; it seems everything is done online now.

  4. Chris Jefferies May 16, 2013 at 6:38 am #

    Good, thoughtful, practical ideas, clearly based on lots of experience of life – thanks for posting.

    • damannwrite May 17, 2013 at 8:11 am #

      Hi Chris – I’m glad you found it helpful.

  5. Sheila May 13, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Thanks, Doreen – good points. Um, does this mean you don’t want that French Fry Casserole?

    • damannwrite May 17, 2013 at 8:12 am #

      LOL. So far, I’ve been behaving myself, but I’m sure the first time I hit real stress, I’ll be craving potatoes of some sort!


  1. what seems to help in the midst of pain « Geography of Grace - June 2, 2013

    […] When Sorry Seems to b the Hardest Word – Doreen A Mannion […]

  2. The Ministry of Presence | Glenn Hager - May 15, 2013

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  3. What He Told the Hometown Crowd | Full Contact Christianity - May 15, 2013

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  4. Manifesting the Spirit | Minnowspeaks Weblog - May 15, 2013

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  5. what seems to help in the midst of pain | kathy escobar. - May 15, 2013

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  6. Mourning with those who Mourn | Till He Comes - May 14, 2013

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  7. Being with Those in Pain LINK LIST | synchroblog - May 14, 2013

    […] When Sorry Seems to b the Hardest Word – Doreen A Mannion […]

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