What People Mean to Say When the Wrong Words Come Out

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All of us have either said something we regret, or been on the receiving end of remarks that were supposed to be helpful, but turned out instead to be hurtful.

So why do insensitive and downright dumb things pop out of the mouths of people who truly mean well, especially in response to serious health situations? The short answer: human nature.

Cure for Foot-In-Mouth

In our last article: 7 Things You Should Never Say to Patients or Caregivers, we offered tips on how to keep foot and mouth a fair distance apart.

As a reminder, pinch yourself—really hard—if any of these words ever begin to tumble from your lips:

  •  “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “This is God’s plan.”
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  •  “At least it’s not cancer.”
  •  “Just think positive thoughts.”
  • “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
  • “At least you have one healthy child.

Everyone Means Well

And now for a longer answer to the question, “Why Smart People Say Dumb Things?”

People almost always mean well. Most CaringBridge users would probably find this to be true.

But sometimes when people are trying to say they care, or that they feel really bad about what is happening, things get muddy.

If only there was an international signal for “Stop Talking! Right now! Please!”

Translate the Message

It is often helpful to look for the sentiments that lie behind clumsy expressions. What are people actually trying to say when the wrong words come spewing out?

Probably they are trying to say they feel terrible, and would do anything to take away pain and suffering. It’s just not easy to say.

CaringBridge users have said that nearly every mangled communication about a health situation is an attempt to express one or more of the following:

  • “I care.”
  • “You’re so strong.”
  • “I have faith that you’re going to get through this.”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “My story that is similar shows I have a glimmer of what you may be going through.”

Care to Share Your Own Tips?

Please add to the conversation by sharing in the “Comment” section below how you may have translated the actual meaning of something that has been poorly said.


Post a Comment

Bob Clarke Aug 16, 2017 8:33am
Great advise.
Critter-Girl Aug 12, 2017 1:02pm
Share more articles like this. I'm finding I have to educate everyone around me. The teaching needs to happen BEFORE i get really sick. Most people have not dealt with being really ill. They don't understand the consequences.
Pat Derenburger Aug 11, 2017 10:14am
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my "best friend" of 25 years treated me like I had the plague. All she would say was, "I just don't know what to say". As a result, she said less and less until she more or less disappeared from my life. Another friend told me she was praying for me, sent frequent, chatty e-mails, made short, light-hearted calls, and sent cards or notes. That meant the world to me. She found things for us to discuss that weren't connected to my cancer. We found lots of things to laugh about. Getting my mind off my condition and treatment was the best therapy in the world.
Beth Aug 11, 2017 8:04am
Do we HAVE to say something? Just showing up means the world to one who is suffering. A hug, not meaningless words, means more than can be expressed.
Lisamolloy Aug 11, 2017 4:30am
As the mom of my son who amazingly survived three transplants I can only say I remember people's kindness . Of course we will always have people say inappropriate words or phrases, in my experience it was always in good faith. Humor , smiles and hugs help us heal as well.
LuAnne Miller, RN, BSN, PCCN, PHN Aug 10, 2017 11:15pm
Don't ever think that what you say to someone can make them feel better. That's what we all want to do, but you CAN'T make them feel better. Nothing you say will make them feel better. What can help is knowing how much someone cares and maybe to hear them say they are hurting with you. Then the person may not feel so alone.
Gaye Cramp Aug 10, 2017 10:18pm
When I was sick it helped to hear of others who had come through it and were healthy again.
Donna Blauw Aug 10, 2017 10:07pm
One thing that just came to mind was; is there anything you need help wit, laundry, house cleaning, or anything you can think of let me know.
Betty M Brown Aug 10, 2017 10:00pm
Appropriate comments--might help take the hurt away from inappropriate comments that well-intentioned folks use. Hope so.
Sylvia Goldman Aug 10, 2017 9:23pm
Thank you SO much for putting this out there, CaringBridge! I think the best thing that someone can do sometimes in a situation when they're with a person who is very ill is to either say, "I'm so sorry" or don't say anything at all & just give them a hug or hold their hand. People maybe mean well when they say some of these comments, but if they would just stop & think before they speak about what they sound like, perhaps they won't say it!
Nancy Miller Aug 10, 2017 8:28pm
When my son died, I used a shortcut for "Forgive the stupid people,". FTSP!! All my friends and family knew the signal for when someone was trying to help, but said the most inane things to someone experiencing extreme grief. It made us laugh and lightened our hearts, while forgiving their mistakes.
Priscilla Peterson Aug 10, 2017 8:08pm
My mother died after a 14-year struggle with Alzheimer's. Most of that time I was the family member in charge of her care, and when she died I had such a mix of emotions: I had come to feel as though she was another one of my own "children" that I was taking care of, and as though I had let her down; I missed her terribly, not just because she was my mother but because we had been professional colleagues and true friends. Amazingly, someone actually said to me after she died, "You must be so relieved"! I wasn't at all sure how to take that (relieved because she died? because I didn't have to take care of her anymore?), but I chose to hope that the person meant "relieved that she is no longer suffering." When a person dies who has been ill for a long time, never assume you know what the family or caregivers are feeling!
kay newberry Aug 10, 2017 7:44pm
Great tips for what to say or not say.
JO BRAY Aug 10, 2017 7:41pm
After having lost 4 close family members in the last few years I would suggest that telling someone that they are strong isn't the best thing to say to someone. That is an assumption that may or may not be true and telling a person what you hope they are isn't very helpful. I suggest that be taken off the list. A simple "I'm sorry " or 'I'm sorry for your lost" is a very good, simple thing to say. It also takes in a lot of considerations such as how long ago did this happen, how.close you are to the person and also where you are where and how many people are around. I believe letting the survivor lead the direction of the conversation is very understanding and kind. If you think of something to say and you wonder if its appropriate, it probably isn't. Just being there can bring sa lot of comfort.