How Euphemisms, Platitudes, Jargon Push Away the Bereaved
Understanding the real effects of our words on bereaved parents.
Posted Sep 30, 2019
The previous post explored how euphemisms, platitudes, and medical terms marginalize parents’ experiences around the deaths of their babies, and why parents feel so hurt.
But these words do more than just inflict pain. They actually create distance. While we may intend to bring the parent in for a verbal hug, the parent is actually feeling shoved away.
Platitudes are meant to offer encouragement, but instead give parents the impression that you’ve moved on and left them behind. While you are telling them how to look at the bright side and intend to bring them along with you, they are still moored in the dark. While in the depths of their grief, they simply cannot find a way to climb out of the pit of despair. Even if you offer them a ladder, they cannot use it. There is mourning to be done, and grief that needs to find expression. So while you’re out in the sun preaching platitudes, they are many insurmountable miles away, feeling abandoned and misunderstood by you.
When people use words other than “baby” or “death/died” they are taking the easy way out, as in, if we don’t really talk openly and honestly about this, I don’t have to connect with these parents, their grief, their baby, or this tragedy.
These terms are scientifically accurate, can be employed to encourage parents to see their baby as “not really a baby.” Jargon also isolates parents by denying the existence of their baby and the reality of death. And they resent the implied effort to protect everyone from the emotion-laden but accurate phrase “your baby is dead.” So while the caregivers are medically diagnosing “fetal demise,” the parents feel entirely alone as they emotionally struggle with the death of their baby.
What to Say?
Platitudes, euphemisms, and medical terms all create distance between parents and people who might otherwise be potential sources of support. So, is it better for people to say nothing at all?
While platitudes, euphemisms, and jargon are hard enough to hear, silence can be even harder. Parents may be quite sensitive to the fact that many friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues avoid the topic of their baby’s life and death. The word “death” is often avoided; the baby’s name is often avoided. Parents notice the insanity of people not wanting to remind them of their baby’s death, which already consumes their thoughts 24/7. They notice the cowardice of people who remain silent, not knowing what to say, when an honest “I don’t know what to say” would bring immeasurable comfort. They notice the insensitivity of people who avoid them, as if tragedy were contagious, or “out of sight, out of mind.”
The distance created by inappropriate words or silence makes many parents feel even more sensitive about the words used around them, especially when they rarely hear the validating, affirming, reality-facing, honest words, such as, “I’m so sorry your baby died.”
I'm so sorry your baby died.
These simple but powerful words support parents’ efforts to face the unvarnished reality. Using plain, honest words also validates for parents that yes, they’ve experienced great tragedy and yes, their profound, prolonged grief is justified, not weak or crazy. As an added bonus, when we can say your baby died, we are also acknowledging that your baby lived, which parents find extremely affirming.
In contrast, when we're unable to speak plainly, openly, and honestly about babies and death, we’re merely covering it up, which reinforces our collective ignorance, shame, judgment, and horror. It’s a vicious cycle. We could reduce the distance between bereaved parents and their potential sources of support by making it a cultural mission to speak more openly and honestly with each other about perinatal death, dying, grief, and mourning.