Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dear Ms. B: What's Wrong With My Condolences?

* For those of you new to Ms. B, she is an alter-ego who offers well-meant advice here at bythebrooke.  You are by no means expected to agree with her or follow her advice.  Sometimes she responds to real e-mails from blog readers, other times she makes things up to keep herself busy.  She's no where near perfect, but she is earnest and well-meaning, as is the advice she puts out there.  Also, she talks about herself in the third person. *

Dear Ms. B,
A good friend of mine from church recently lost her baby and I have been trying to be really supportive of her grief.  I take meals to her and her husband, I send cards, and I call or text to see how they are doing.  I want to say things to her that I know would make me feel better, so I've told her that God has a plan and that these things happen for a reason.  I know that she is a Christian, but she told me that she does not want to hear those things, and I don't understand why. I know that she used to believe these things are true!  I hate to think that the loss of her child has resulted in the loss of her faith, but I'm really worried for her.
Church Lady

Dear Church Lady,

Oooh, this is sticky territory.  Ms. B hesitates to address issues of religion/spirituality because they are SO intensely personal.  Please, please, please keep in mind that Ms. B cannot speak for your friend.  She can only speak for herself, and her views may be quite different from that of you OR your friend.  However, she will try to address your question because she thinks it is an important one, and one that many people wonder about.  You are obviously coming from a good place, and trying to be kind and supportive.  Why is it that your comments, made with the best of intentions, seem to be upsetting instead of comforting your friend?

Here's the basic answer:  Your friend's world has just been turned upside down.  She may feel like the God she believes in, the one she prayed to for the health of her baby, the one that she feels has blessed her life in so many ways, has suddenly betrayed her.  She doesn't know how to reconcile what she has been told about a loving God who answers our prayers with the reality of her life.  It is a painful and difficult place for your friend to be, and she has to work through those questions in her own time.  You cannot rush her, and there's probably not a lot you can do to help her except to listen.

As for your comments, you obviously mean well.  Here's the problem:  God has a plan, to a bereaved parent, sounds a lot like God wanted your baby to die.

Everything happens for a reason comes across as another way of saying Your baby was defective.  

Or, You were not meant to be a parent.  Or, You needed to learn a lesson, and this is how God is teaching you.  Or, Something else will happen to you eventually to make you realize it's actually a good thing that your baby is dead.  Or, God is a Machiavellian whose ends will justify His means and if you're a good Christian, you won't question it.  

You may or may not believe any of those statements are true, but Ms. B can say with certainty that none of those is a particularly comforting idea.  And none of those is likely to be exactly what you actually mean when you say "God has a plan" or "Everything happens for a reason."  It may be nice for you to think that there is a greater plan at work in this world, and that there is an explanation for all that is scary and unknown.  But your friend is experiencing an eviscerating grief.  There is nothing that could justify to a bereaved parent the loss of their child, and few parents will find peace in the idea that their much-wanted and much-loved child was conceived only because he or she was meant to die.

Ms. B would encourage you to think carefully about what you really mean when you seek out a phrase like "God has a plan."  Do you believe that God is continuing to care for their child?  Do you think their baby must feel safe and loved in the spiritual realm of heaven?  Do you believe that God received their baby with open arms and seeks to comfort them in their grief?  Do you think that someday they will see their child again?  Do you mean that the love of God is more powerful even than grief?

Those are all pretty uplifting thoughts, yet none of those is expressed when you simply say, "God has a plan."

When you say, "Everything happens for a reason," do you mean that this world is full of mystery and tragedy that none of us will understand in this lifetime, and its unfair that your friend must go through this?  Do you mean that when faced with adversity, we have to find a way to trust in the greater good?  Do you mean that when tragedies happen, we have to rely on faith because logic cannot make sense of them?  Do you mean that their child can continue to be a beautiful presence and influence in their lives?

Those ideas are not communicated when you say "Everything happens for a reason," even though you may intend them to be.  Suggesting there's a reason for such a loss is almost like saying, You're supposed to learn a valuable lesson from this,  which is pretty hard to swallow, especially if it's coupled with the implication that if the parents are good Christians, they will quickly be at peace with their loss.

Ms. B knows that you're not trying to compound the suffering that your friend is already experiencing, so she  simply encourages you to be very careful about the way you choose your words.  Don't just reach for a ready-made phrase that gets printed on signs at Hobby Lobby.  Really try to speak from your heart, and if you can only say, "I'm sorry.  I wish this were different for you," then that's all you need to say.  Try to take some time to articulate exactly what you think.  That doesn't mean your friend will agree with you, but it also opens up the opportunity for a conversation instead of coming across like a judgment.

Many people want to believe that there is ultimately a divine way to make sense of the world, but that we won't understand it in this life.  Some people find great solace in believing that God is ultimately in control of everything that happens.  Others are able to reconcile their faith in God with the idea that human tragedy is random, not caused or condoned by God, but grieved by Him as well as us.  They do not believe that God is in control of the pain and suffering of this world.  Ms. B's understanding (after considerable research, reading, and conversations with therapists, counselors, and pastors) is that either perception is compatible with a Christian faith.

Many people have found comfort in the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner.  It's significantly different from the Max Lucado brand of spiritual literature.  It's major premise is that God does not cause or prevent bad things from happening.  The gift of free will to human beings necessarily means that God cannot intervene in the course of human events.  But that doesn't mean that God is powerless.  Prayer is still important because it connects us to God and to each other as we struggle through this world.  When we pray for God's influence in our lives, it does not happen in back-from-the-grave miracles (no matter how hard we pray), but we can experience God's grace through the gift of inner strength, and also through the presence of other people, who do the right thing at just the right time and in doing so are truly gifts from God.

You and your friend may or may not find you have similar perspectives on this issue, but Ms. B hopes that you can respect each other's perspective.  Above all, please try to keep in mind that rejecting the notion that "God has a plan," or that "Everything happens for a reason" does NOT necessarily mean that someone is rejecting his or her faith.  Faith is plenty large enough to accommodate variety in points of view and even uncertainty.

Also keep in mind that your friend's ideas about faith are likely to evolve as she processes her grief.  This should not be an issue of whether she is right or wrong, but it may be an opportunity for the two of you to find common ground.  Ms. B encourages you to keep in mind that pushing your agenda or your own specific beliefs on someone who is grieving (especially if you've never experienced the loss of a child), is not helpful and is not likely to have the result you desire.  Abiding with your friend in her grief, and helping her find her way back to love?--now that sounds like the kind of spiritual comfort that anyone would appreciate.

Ms. B

P.S. As always, Ms. B welcomes additional comments from blog readers.  Because this is a sensitive topic, please keep your comments respectful.  Any comment that seems disrespectful or judgmental or mean will be deleted straightaway.


  1. Two words: Perfectly written.

    And oh... those Hobby Lobby signs found their way to Target apparently and they're printed on a nice burlap.

  2. Well said.

    I would just add:

    "Everything happens for a reason," also implies that "maybe you did something to deserve this".

  3. This is so beautifully, respectfully and thoughtfully composed. You've really hit the mark here.

    Could you now write one for the "just relax" people who try to help out with infertility issues? Ugh.


  4. I love this. I wrote a similar blog yesterday about what not to say to someone who's miscarried or lost a baby. It's painful when well-meaning folks say these cliche lines and don't think about how they can be misconstrued. I'm really sick of hearing the above and, "maybe you should give your body a rest." Means "maybe if you'd wait you wouldn't keep losing babies."

    Love this. I shared, hope you don't mind.

  5. This is amazingly good, Brooke.

    Just wanted to add that sometimes people reach for the easy sayings because they are afraid themselves - the death of a baby, considered deeply, can lead to all kinds of questions about faith. Asking those questions is probably a good and worthwhile spiritual exercise, but it's also a scary one (as many grieving parents can attest). I don't know that there's much to say to Church Lady about this besides noting that self-awareness can be a real gift when abiding with grieving parents.

  6. meganalisonsmithMay 29, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    I know people mean well, but unless they're experienced some form of baby loss,they don't understand how some of their comments can come off. I actually had a very close friend say to me that "usually when this happens, the baby shouldn't have lived b/c there was going to be something wrong with it." Or something along those lines. It's like I'd been stabbed right in the heart. I try not to take things too personally though b/c I am sure I have been guilty of such comments when I wanted to help or say something to make someone else feel better. I know better now...or at least I think I do. I'm sure I've said something unintentionally that has hurt someone in similar situations.

  7. Oh..yes. Absolutely, some people don't get it, unless they have been through it. Again there are another kind of people who just pretend like nothing happened and expect you to be back the same happy-go-lucky, as you always were.

    I too have heard phrases of profound wisdom, like
    "God only gives someone pain, exactly how much he can take it; not an ounce more nor an ounce less",
    or, "God is testing you!" or, "This is to make you a better person". It is like hammering someone real hard, while she is neck deep in the ocean of grief. I just feel like looking up to the heavens and say "REALLY! now I have to handle this too keeping my sanity intact??"

  8. Just perfect.

    Because "everything happens for a reason" definitely sounds like, "You don't deserve a living baby..." just as "You're not given more than you can handle" sounds a lot like, "this was destined to happen because you're strong enough... It couldn't happen to me".

  9. yes yes yes. thank you for writing this.

  10. I have read blog for a little while with a special interest since I am a grandparent who never got to hold my granddaughter. My daughter has gone through a similar loss as you and you have echoed so many of her thoughts and feelings. My granddaughter would be 7 years old and not a day goes by that I don't think of her. I am so sorry and wish that life was different for you and for her.

  11. This is awesome. I'm not religious and when people tell me my daughter died for a reason or that she is in heaven or ... I just get so angry. Sometimes I think what people mean to say is that sometimes good things eventually cone out of the tragedy but those are different words and I don't want the secondary. I wanted the primary- my daughter. Anyway. I wish people would stop saying that shot to me. It makes me wish I had never opened up and given information about Camille in the fist place. Sigh.

  12. So. Awesome. I recieved a card saying I should be happy that my son is in Jesus' arms. I would much prefer he be in mine if it's all the same to you.
    Her faith may very well be shaken, and all that she believed is being questioned, but we are not responsible for her relationship with god, just our relationship with her. Support, kindness, understanding, respect. This is what she needs. I hope church lady can be that friend.

  13. Perfectly written, thank you for so beautifully summing up what many of us who have walked this grief journey have experienced.

  14. Brooke, thank you for writing this. I echo everyone, perfectly written.

  15. Awesome post Brooke. I might cross link back to this when I can get some sane thoughts out..