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Say the Right Thing

Lisa Bertrand, of St. Louis, felt sad and alone after her pregnancy ended at nine weeks. Her friends and family tried to be supportive, but some of their remarks were piercing and painful. "One friend said, 'The baby must have had a lot of problems,'" she recalls. "To me, it sounded like she was saying, 'It probably wasn't a perfect baby, and so what's there to be so upset about?'" What helped was talking to a friend who cried with Bertrand when she told her the news. "That friend really understood how I felt, and I ended up being the one reassuring her, saying, 'Don't worry; I'll be okay,'" Bertrand said.

No matter how clunky their reaction, most people genuinely want to make a friend who's lost a baby feel better. "Even the most insensitive things that pop out of their mouth are usually motivated by an impulse to make everything okay," says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Pregnancy Books. With a miscarriage, what often gets minimized is the depth of the loss -- or at least that's how it can feel to someone who is hurting. "Even a very early miscarriage is the loss of a baby, and that causes grief," Douglas says. In addition, a woman who loses a pregnancy often feels guilty, as if it's somehow her fault. Friends who don't acknowledge what happened can compound that feeling. "If you aren't sure what to say, just say, 'I'm so sorry,'" suggests Douglas. "It might seem generic, but in most cases, it's the most appropriate thing to tell someone."

Don't say...

  • "It just wasn't meant to be." It's easy to be philosophical when it's not happening to you.
  • "Are you going to try again?" When someone's grieving the loss of an unborn child, she doesn't really want to think about another just yet.
  • "At least you know you can get pregnant!" Right. But she also knows she can lose the baby. Not something she wants to be reminded of.

Do say...

  • "I'm so sorry to hear about what happened."
  • "I'm here if you feel like talking about it."
  • "Can I watch your kids or run errands for you? I'd like to help in any way I can."

My friend Sarah separated from her husband when their son was 4, and she was stunned when a casual acquaintance reacted to the news with a cluck of the tongue. "She said, 'Oh, your poor kid' -- as if I hadn't thought of him in all of this!" When Katie Allison Granju, of Knoxville, Tennessee, first told people she was parting with her husband after three kids and 13 years of marriage, a clueless friend asked, "Have you considered counseling?"

The common thread in these reactions is the assumption that a friend who's getting divorced is overlooking something. But odds are that she's been considering this move carefully for a long time. No matter how resolved she is about her decision, though, a divorce still brings out all sorts of feelings: anger, guilt, shame, sometimes even a sense of relief. "The best thing you can do is listen," says Randi E. Platt, a psychologist in private practice in Philadelphia. "Emotions run high when a marriage breaks up, and your friend needs someone who can help her deal with her feelings."

Don't say...

  • "Was he cheating?" Never press for details -- it's none of your business unless your friend needs to vent.
  • "Did you think about how this will affect the children?" Yes, your friend has probably thought about this far more than you can imagine.
  • "My parents got divorced when I was a kid, and I used to wish they could get back together." Your story is not relevant -- unless your friend explicitly asks for your memories on this subject.

Do say...

  • "I just called to see how you're doing and to tell you I'm sorry that you've been going through such a difficult time."
  • "How are you holding up? Let me know if you'd like to meet for coffee."
  • "You're going to get through this."

When Andrea Young, of Richardson, Texas, grappled with infertility she heard all the classics: "Just relax and you'll get pregnant." "My brother's friend's wife took vitamin E and finally got pregnant." "You could always adopt." She got so used to these kinds of comments that she almost became numb to them. "But some really stung, especially ones that implied infertility was a weakness on my part," Young recalls.

If you haven't dealt with infertility, it's hard to understand how consuming and emotionally challenging it can be. Someone who can't conceive often finds it tough to be around pregnant women and new moms -- and her feelings of self-esteem are probably at an all-time low. Infertility can put a strain on a couple's relationship, and the medical treatment itself causes emotional ups and downs. "It's important to be extremely sensitive to how difficult the situation is for your friend," Platt says. If she wants to share details of the ordeal, be available to listen. But if she doesn't offer information, don't pry. Above all, take cues from her about what kind of situations she can -- and can't -- handle.

Don't say...

  • "I just know you're going to get pregnant soon!" Actually, you don't.
  • "That's awful. You must be so depressed." It's presumptuous to assume you know how someone else feels. And a person in crisis doesn't need to be reminded of her pain.
  • "My husband just looks at me and I get pregnant!" Talk about bragging -- and rubbing salt in the wound.

Do say...

  • "I'm so sorry you're going through this. I wish I could help."
  • "I'd love to hear about what's happening, if you feel comfortable talking about it."
  • "Call me anytime if you need to vent."

Melinda Wenner Bradley, of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, was shocked by how one woman reacted when she told her that her toddler had cancer. "She said, 'Aren't you terrified?' right there in front of my older child," Bradley recalls. "What I wanted to say was, 'No, I don't have time to be terrified. And even if I was, I wouldn't want my kids to know.'" Now that her son's prognosis is good, she encounters people who talk about how relieved she must be that his illness is over. "I know they mean well," Bradley says. "But the reality is, cancer isn't ever over. He'll be undergoing tests every few months for years."

People are usually eager to help when a friend is dealing with a medical crisis. But unless offers of help are specific, they can be overwhelming. Since your pal will be spending a lot of time at doctors' appointments and the hospital, let her know exactly what you can do: pick up her other kids at school, deliver a hot meal for the family, or send an e-mail update to friends she doesn't have time to contact. She'll need emotional support as well, so tell her you're available if she wants to talk. And make sure she knows that your offer to help is not a one-time thing. "Be there for her on an ongoing basis," Douglas says. "It takes months -- even years -- for people to come to terms with a major event like a seriously ill child. Your friend will appreciate having your support over the long term."

Don't say...

  • "Oh, I know someone who had something like that, and he's fine." Unless it was exactly like that, please don't share. Also, never talk about kids who had a similar diagnosis and didn't make it.
  • "I hope it's not terminal." Not something your friend wants to contemplate right now. And if she does, let her bring it up.
  • "Is it contagious?" You may be concerned about your own kids, but this question sounds selfish and insensitive.

Do say...

  • "I'm sorry to hear your son is in the hospital. I'd be happy to pick your daughter up from soccer practice so you'll have one less thing to worry about."
  • "I've been thinking about you a lot. How are you doing?" Then make sure you really listen. There might not be anything more to say.
  • "I can sit with you, do some online research -- whatever you need, I'll do it." Don't be afraid to throw out ideas. She might be too freaked out to think straight.

If you're going through a crisis, and someone makes a remark you find inappropriate, you have every right to cut the encounter short, says Susan O'Doherty, PhD, a psychologist in Brooklyn. Say something like, "Thanks for your concern," and then change the subject. Or, if you're comfortable being more direct, say, "I'm sorry, I don't really feel like talking about this."

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.