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.

First Things First, Avoid These Words

In our 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.”

Why Do People Say Such Things?

If you’re reading this, you may be looking for an answer the age-old question, “Why do smart people say dumb things?”

The truth is, 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. Here are a few reasons why someone might put their foot in their mouth:

  • They may feel nervous about making you feel worse
  • Lack of experience talking about hardships or loss
  • They may be suffering from their own hardship and struggling to cope
  • They think cliché sayings are what people want to hear

The most important thing you can do in an uncomfortable situation like this is to remember that no one is perfect, and even the closest people in our lives may just need some guidance when it comes to what to say.

Translate the Message

Claire Schwab with friend.

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.”

The next time someone stumbles, try mentally replacing the words they say with one of the previous sayings. Remember that the last thing they’re trying to do is make things worse for you.

When others lack the verbal skills to comfort you, this is an opportunity for you to step in and be honest about what you need to hear, and also about what you don’t. The more comfortable you get with sharing what you need, the more others will be able to give it to you.

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.

Comments (45)

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Jane Sep 25, 2019 10:46am
Several people said “what can I do to help?” I didn’t take any of them up on their offer but one friend who said I will be glad to come over and stay with your husband while you go and do your shopping. I did take her up on her offer since it was specific What she was willing to do.
Cheryl Smith Sep 15, 2019 11:11am
May God Comfort you he knows your heat and needs.
Cheryl Smith Sep 15, 2019 11:05am
May God comfort you. He knows your pain and sorrow.
K Aug 17, 2019 10:49pm
My mother died unexpectedly last night. My father is alone in a cold house in New Hampshire. I am so sorry is all I can say. It is how I feel having lost her, it is how I feel that he has to endure such pain. I am sorry, I am so so sorry is how I feel. I am also so so mad. Mad and sad. But for him, for her loss, my loss, the world’s loss, my sorrow is bottomless, painful, and not a platitude.
Judith Aug 13, 2019 11:17am
My daughter lost her grown son,, Zachary, whom she was sooooo very close to two years ago. It has been such a tough two years. Since I was also very close to him we share a bond in grief, and joy. She feels I am the only one she can really be real with. She works five days a week and has to come off as ok then. It is hard for her to smile and go on a lot of days, but she does. I pray that someday she can focus on the live and joy they had with each other. I often send her silly dog, horse, cat and other animal videos as she is a lover of animals and that helps her find joy in days that are very difficult. There is no pat answer in trying to help her. It depends on the day. Since we both have faith and trust in the Lord, that is the one way we can see blessings in the pain.
Carol L Morrisey Aug 13, 2019 2:08am
A friend who lost her husband suddenly said that my card comforted her. It was to the effect that if she had to choose whether to be the one left behind or to leave her husband alone, she would have chosen to be the one to suffer. I also feel the same, having lost my own husband. I'm glad he didn't have to go on without me.
Janice Littrell Aug 11, 2019 6:49am
A few things said to me at different stages of grief, that helped me thru my loss: * Your hurt and pain is a reflection of your love, the depth of your love. Lives end, love doesn't, that's why it hurts so bad. * Time seems to stand still at times when the boulders of grief surround us. * It may not feel like it now, but you are going to be OK. * Please be kind to yourself. * Trust in the love you shared with ....
Danna Jun 27, 2019 9:03pm
Don’t even ask if they need help, just bring food, clean something, (if you’re both comfortable with that). Insist on helping and ask for specifics and if they can’t Think of any ways for you to help then brainstorm with them or offer some suggestions yourself. Most people will just say no, I’m fine it’s OK when really they could use the help. I’m not saying to be obnoxious about it but just take charge and don’t take no for an answer unless they are really clear that they truly do not want any help. I know from my own experience that it’s easy just to brush people often say, no I’m ok, but thanks”. Often it’s too much just to manage people to help you so if you can manage the people who want to help, it’s a huge help . Just try to relieve the stress in someway large or small. Heck just hug . I recently heard we need 13 hugs a day. I get one if I’m lucky. Just sayin’.
Carmen Jun 27, 2019 6:07am
What can I do for you? Can I hug you?
Lyvonne in Tucson Jun 25, 2019 10:17pm
Instead is "I'm sorry for your loss" which sounds so plastic and distancing "I'm sorry ... But it's your loss" try just " I'm so sorry. " they know why.
Rebecca Cone Jun 25, 2019 5:41pm
Talk about beauty. Talk about gratitude. Talk about wonderful memories. And sometimes, just shut up. Be sure to listen very carefully. "I admired you so much when...." I had so much fun when we...." "You are made of stardust, and you will always shine." "What would you like to tell me?"
M Henning Jun 23, 2019 11:45pm
If you are in grief rather say nothing or just give a hug. You don’t even have enough energy just to get up,now you still have to think that the other person means it well etc- it hurts and you are in pain
Dorothy Trinen Jun 23, 2019 2:08pm
How about a simple, "What can I do to.help?"
Mary Conner Jun 23, 2019 10:21am
The problem is a phrase which is good for one person is not for another. I have had stage 3 C Ovarian Cancer since 2015. I communicate online and in person with other people diagnosed with cancer. Some of the phrases you listed as never to say, are fine with me. On the list of things you can say " You're so strong." makes me angry as does "I have faith that you are going to get through this.". I believe the best thing to say is " I am here for you. What can I do to help? ". It is also OK to say "I don't know what to say but I would like to help." We need help. Even if at first we may politely refuse it. Leave your contact info with the person and check with them off and on. Maybe we just need a ride to a doctor's appointment or get out of the house to a movie, church, go on a scenic drive. Perhaps something more substantial like mowing the grass, going grocery shopping, taking the garbage out, vacuuming, caring for a pet ect. During chemo or radiation we may have severe fatigue and our immune system may be compromised so we may be more isolated than other people. Call, text, go by and visit. Offer specific things you can do to help. The one I would put on top of the list of things not to say is "You don't look sick.". This has been said to me by a well meaning friend. I prefer cancer thriver to cancer survivor. Other people are fine with cancer survivor. Another thing that angers me is "He lost his battle with cancer.". I hate that. Just say he passed away. Thanks for trying to help. It is just not a situation that a list of magic phrases of what is best to say can be applied to everyone. Your actions are more important than what you say. Sometimes you just need a hug. Sometimes you don't want anyone touching you. Let people know you care.
Jim Lovestar Jun 21, 2019 9:26pm
I say, "Would you like to walk with me? Talk or not is okay."
marcia hornok Jun 21, 2019 7:07pm
Never tell your own story unless they ask. Saying you know what they may be going through minimizes their experience and makes your story the important one. If you are a survivor of exactly what they have you can ask if they'd like to hear something that helped you, but otherwise, focus on their suffering not yours.
wendy carson Jun 13, 2019 9:42am
I have a friend who just told me she has ALS . My comment that blurted out was oh Fuck which made her laugh. I then told I am here and I care
Robert Ericson Jun 11, 2019 9:57pm
I love to hear people talk about my wife. It means that she was special to them. Some avoid mentioning her name because they think they are protecting me from grief. It helps to hear that she was special to people. One of the hardest things I had to do was to dispose of her things, clothes, shoes, jewelry. I was blessed to have special people (daughter-in-laws and otherfriends) offers to help. Notes from friends telling me they are praying for me. A call inviting me over just to visit. Being included. I have three wonderful supporting sons,but not livng close to me. After my wife passed away they expressed concern that I would living alone so they they set it up that I text all six (their wives and them) every morning and every evening to be sure that I was OK. That kind of concern is precious.
Bob Meehan Jun 11, 2019 10:22am
Not all care giving works out the way you imagine. When some loved one doesn't recover the tough conversations come. Someone always asks "how do you feel?". as if in deep grief anyone can answer that question without emotional explosion. The only answer I had when my son died was "life is different". Attitudes, priorities , relationships and outlook are all different. When you finally get through the woulda, shoulda, coulda period of reflection the only thing left is the good memories and moving forward with better intentions. For someone in grief try just saying " Life will be different from now on and I'm here for you if you want me to be".
J. H Dudek Jun 09, 2019 7:02am
Be a foul weather friend. When the poop hits the fan, help clean it up. Send stupid, silly cards such as ridiculous un-birthday cards . Snail mail . Something other than a bill in your mailbox is a nice surprise. A daily laugh not related to crises is worth an immeasurable amount.
Helen Banner Jun 07, 2018 1:13am
Sounds like many people in pain. So sorry. Helen B
Karen Nov 22, 2017 3:58pm
Your going to miss this. You need to take a break for a few days. When you would really enjoy an hour.
Sandi Bowen Nov 22, 2017 2:36pm
Please DON’T say, “I know how you feel.” Or, “Oh, that’s just like me, too.” Don’t say, “Closure.” Use , “Resolution,” instead.
Pam Nov 05, 2017 7:51am
I want to thank every one who has posted comments! My uncle was recently diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We want him to know how much we love him, how much we care and think about him as well as the rest of the family. Even as an adult, trying to find the right words is difficult which is why I ended up here. All of the comments posted below have helped tremendously. I've had experiences in my life to understand the importance of letting people know we are there and thinking of them rather than not being or saying anything at all but that's all I know. Again, thank you all so much for your comments to this support resource page!!
Debbie Smith Oct 20, 2017 9:08pm
I'm a stage 4 cancer patient. It scares people around me. This is a terrific article that most people who are close to a cancer patient should read!
Rosellen Oct 10, 2017 7:24am
Dear Susan ~ It was great to see you last Tuesday. You are such an important part of my life for the past 44 years! Wishing you strength to overcome both the big challenges and also the not-so-big challenges that pop up along the way. You seem to meet them with great courage and with the spirit you draw from deep within yourself. You are truly an amazing woman!!!
Jane Grudt Oct 05, 2017 9:26pm
I may agree with the "never say" as a caregiver of a spouse in the late stages of Alzheimer's, but it is also damaging to us. You are turning away people that we need to let us know they have not forgotten us. We caregivers are not weak - let us handle those who care enough to show up. I hope my supporters never read any of your writing!
Mavis Sep 16, 2017 3:05pm
thoughtful and helpful article!
June Paul Sep 05, 2017 7:37pm
Upon learning that I had cancer among some other things going on in my life someone told me "It's good for you to suffer." Now, Nobody in even their right mind wants to hear those words. At least that what I thought in the moment and I was hurt. It sounded so uncaring. . . but thinking back, I think the person knew that radiation treatment for cancer is no walk in the park . . . this person had even told me they knew other women who had gone through breast cancer treatment and survived. I think this person meant to say that even though I'm suffering, the treatment will bring a good result. I think - I don't know for sure - but that's what I think - the person who said was in their right mind, I wasn't. I' admit that - I was feeling anxious and nervous. And I remember when a friend of mine told me she had cancer and I said, "I'm sorry you are going through this. Let me know if and how I can help. She said, no - no - no - I don't need you to be sorry for me. I will talk with you some other time, and so all I did was pray and wait until she contacted me again. Different words touch us differently at different times in our lives - and that can put stress on relationships - but Love, Hope and Compassion Are Powerful . . . so is understanding and grace . . . sometimes saying something that might be misunderstood or misinterpreted is better than saying nothing at all . . . at least it shows you care enough to say so . . .
Delores McAllister Sep 02, 2017 7:34pm
Nancie, I am waiting for you to rally! Like you said you have 3 more trips you want to make. I am praying for you and the rest of your family, You can call on me to help in any way. I spoke with Kate and this is the websit.e we are supposed to use to sign up. I can help you tomorrow at 8:30 until 6:00, Also the same for 9/4/2117. Let me knowif this is ok.
Caren Aug 28, 2017 12:40pm
Hello, IN JANUARY 2017 THE LORD PUT IN ON MY HEART TO VISIT A YOUNG WOMAN . I ONLY MET HER 3 TIMES WHEN IS VISITED MY CHURCH .Her Dad was my Bible study teacher at one time ,and we always prayed her. I couldn't possibly imagine the pain that her Mom ,Dad, sister, husband ,daughter 15, son 12 were going through., over the past ten years.I decided to take her a huge pan of hot lasagna, pot full of meatballs ,sauce ,fresh Italian bread, and a chocolate cake. You would have thought it was Christmas . Her face was beaming with joy as she clapped her hands and thanked me over and over. As I sat with her and just talked about her kids and anything funny , I was crying on the inside. It was not only an unexpected surprise for her ,but what an amazing lesson for me. We sometime forget to spread Gods amazing glory in the simplest ways. I continued bringing her meals every other week for the next four months..... Then on April 8th she went home to the lord at forty two. For over ten years Rebecca always praised the lord and worried more about blessing others. What an amazing woman of faith. A few weeks later I continued with the meals.More importantly I was there to hold her daughter in my arms as she cried uncontrollably . I didn't need to say more than " go head let it out. ..... and I love you. ". Showing Gods love is foremost . ..... Blessing to everyone,
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.