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Carolyn Hax: The right words for those in mourning


While I’m away, readers give the advice.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

On things people say when you’re grieving:

When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I held off telling people until fairly late in the pregnancy because my second baby had died in utero when he was 20 weeks. When I explained that to a newish friend who is also a mom, she was really sympathetic, which was great, but then she said, “I could not have survived that.”

I know she meant no harm, but it sounded as though she felt that the intensity of her feelings for her children was deeper than mine, since I had clearly “survived” and chose to stay on this Earth with my first baby and husband.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Sadly, that fourth baby also died at about 20 weeks, which was horrible enough, but it made me wonder what my friend thought of my ability to put one foot in front of the other after that.

Yes, I know people usually have good intentions when they say dumb things to grief-stricken people (other unhelpful remarks included: “It was nature’s way” and “At least you didn’t have to get to know and bond with the baby”), but I just wanted to remind people to keep it kind and simple. People suffer in all kinds of terrible ways, and sometimes we can’t imagine how they manage. The best thing anyone ever said to me in response to hearing about my situation was “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.” Perfect.

A mom who survived

My husband died in December. Many well-meaning and loving people say, “If there is anything I can do . . .

No one who is grieving will ever call someone, and what would he say? Would you clean my bathroom? Shovel my walk? How about clean the garage? It is almost annoying, except that I KNOW everyone means well and wishes she could do something. So do I. But there is nothing anyone can do.

No — let me amend that. I think it would be more helpful to say, “I am coming to get you on Saturday at 10; if you don’t want to, you can cancel an hour before.” Or, “I am coming to wash your living-room window; I won’t stay unless you want me to.” I always say no, until someone comes, and then it is a comfort — especially if I don’t have to talk. Pass this on.


I still remember being amazed at the crowd that showed up at the graveyard service to stand with us in our grief. I remember some of the individuals who came, but nothing of what any of them said. What sticks with me is how many, many people cared enough to be there.

Just go. Don’t worry about what you might say, don’t think you have to even say anything; just be there because you care — it will show on your face, and your friends will remember forever.

Been There

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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