“It’s great that you only have boys; girls are so hard to deal with.”
I was 19 years old when I said that to a missionary couple, and almost 40 years later, I still cringe at my stupid self. Because right after my jaunty declaration, the couple told me they had actually had a daughter, but she died at the age of 5 after ingesting some of her grandparent’s prescription drugs.
I felt like a jerk. I knew my throwaway words had hurt them, reminding them again of their loss. I apologized but that doesn’t help. It can’t undo it.
In other incidents over the years, I’ve said things unthinkingly or in jest that pierced deeply into another’s tender spot. I’ve given critical opinions on issues and sin and lifestyle choices without realizing that the person in front of me struggled with exactly that and now felt bludgeoned.
Worse yet are the things said on purpose, knowing what we know about people. I’ve told people (yes, sadly, I’ve done this more than once) with a passel of born-to-them kids why I think people should consider adoption instead of having so many babies—What was I thinking?! Yes, I’m passionate about adoption and foster care, but, really, what kind of response was I looking for? Did I think this person would tell me they wished they had adopted instead of having their three younger children? Did she ask me for my opinion on her choice of family size or make-up? Uh, no.
If I can only remember Proverbs 11:12 (NLT) the next time I’m in that situation:
It is foolish to belittle one’s neighbor;
a sensible person keeps quiet.
Especially hurtful can be those words meant to comfort someone when they are grieving.
I’ve heard from multiple women who have miscarried or lost a child and had a clueless person pat them on the shoulder and say, “You’re young; you can always have another baby.” Huh? As though babies are interchangeable, like a blouse or a blender, and if this one wore out, you just get a new one.
Not long ago I heard the worst to ever top my list. A woman who already had children miscarried and a “kind” soul said this to her:
It’s probably just as well. You can’t handle the children you already have.
HELLO?!? What would make anyone think that was appropriate?! Or comforting?
We hopefully wouldn’t go there, but we still need to think of how are words are received. I minimize someone else’s pain and invalidate their experience when I say, “I know exactly how you feel.” No, I don’t. I’m not living inside their heart or head. Better to say, “I lost my mom last year. I found it ______ (painful, confusing, overwhelming, whatever). How are you feeling right now?”
That response fits much better with the advice of Proverbs 15:4 (NIV):
The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.
God’s still at work on my mouth. I need him to help me evaluate the impact of what I plan to say before I say it and to know when not to speak at all. As Proverbs 21:23 (NLT) says:
Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut,
and you will stay out of trouble.
Does your tongue ever get you in trouble?