Why Grieving Parents Detest Platitudes, Euphemisms, & Jargon

Why do these sayings, words, and terms upset parents whose baby has died?

Posted Sep 30, 2019

Previous posts explored the role of compassion in perinatal bereavement care and why it's better than empathy. This post looks at how to think compassionately about the words we use when talking to those who are mourning the death of a baby.

After a baby dies, parents are in an emotionally vulnerable state. They are sensitive to the words we use, and they benefit when we compassionately affirm their baby’s importance, validate their grief, and recognize their roles as devoted parents.

Unfortunately, we may not really know which words bereaved parents long to hear. If your culture shies away from talking about death, acknowledging bereavement, sharing mourning rituals, or accommodating lengthy, complex grieving, you may be unaccustomed to what the bereaved find comforting. If you aren’t sufficiently trained or repeatedly exposed to appropriate, skilled conversations or supportive behaviors, you are likely uninformed and unable to deftly manage these interactions.

Instead, if you’re only exposed to platitudes and euphemisms, naturally, you’ll turn to those. In addition, medical training focuses on the physiology of death and uses scientific terms. Many caregivers therefore also rely on clinical vocabulary when talking with parents.

Of course, our intention is to be kind and caring. But even though the intention of platitudes is to offer soothing comfort, the intention of euphemisms is to be sensitive and gentle, and the intention of medical terms is to offer accurate information, all of these words fail to offer the soothing comfort, sensitivity, or accuracy that parents seek.

Let’s examine why.

Platitudes

Platitudes are sayings or ideas that are intended to encourage people to feel better. Some platitudes attempt to soothe or protect parents from painful thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, these statements actually dismiss or belittle parents’ thoughts and feelings. Saying something like, “at least your baby never suffered” or “it’s a blessing” or “it’s God’s will" basically tells parents, “You shouldn’t feel so bad, because what happened can be seen as good.” Ouch!

Platitudes can also be directive prescriptions like, “You’re young—you can have another.” Or “Have hope!” Or “Keep the faith!” Or, “It’s time to move on.” While platitudes are intended to be encouraging, they have more to do with us looking at the bright side and seeking simplistic solutions, which, considering it wasn’t our baby, is relatively easy for us to do. But prescriptions just leave parents feeling abandoned and misunderstood, painfully aware that we’ve moved on, whereas they cannot.

Medical Terms

Medical terms are the words used by medical professionals to describe medical conditions or medical events. So naturally, when a baby dies, doctors, nurses, and allied professionals have learned to use medical terms, such as products of conception; blighted ovum; missed abortion; fetal demise. To parents, these often unfamiliar clinical terms sound like cold, cruel descriptions or confusing jargon. While these terms are scientifically accurate, they essentially convey the message, This is a medical event. We don’t really consider this to be “your baby” nor do we consider it “a death.”  For parents who are devastated because their baby died, these medical terms may be received as insulting and dismissive.

Euphemisms

Euphemisms are gentle or vague words used to describe something considered unpleasant or shameful so that we can avoid using the actual word, which is considered too harsh or rude.

Death is a word that many people consider too harsh. So there are many euphemisms for death, such as “passed away” or “gone to a better place.” One of the most popular euphemisms is “loss,” as in, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Unfortunately, instead of feeling kinder and gentle to the bereaved, euphemisms can feel dismissive, avoidant, and vastly understating their heartache. A bereaved parent, whose heart has just been broken by the death of a baby, may find the term “loss” especially irritating, if not infuriating.

Here’s why. Loss is when something has gone missing. We lose a sock in the wash. We lose our keys. We lose track of a library book. We have two options: find them or replace them. It’s a pain, to be sure, but it’s the pain of frustration. But when our babies die, there is no “gone missing.” There are no options. This baby cannot be found, nor replaced by another. This is not a temporary, frustrating annoyance. A baby’s death is a permanent state, and for parents, a shocking shattering, sorrowful, life-altering event. Parents report feeling devastated and completely undone. It may be the most painful experience they’ll ever endure. Hence, the term “loss” does not hold a candle to what they’re going through. “I did not lose my baby. My baby died!”

The word “loss” fails to convey the tragedy of death and discounts the parents’ profound grief. Only the actual words death, dying, and died will suffice. To the bereaved, the euphemisms are rude!

In summary, platitudes, medical terms, and euphemisms are problematic to use in conversations with bereaved parents. These words

  • belittle the tragedy of death,
  • deny the importance and impact of this baby’s life,
  • invalidate the parent’s profound grief,
  • marginalize parents and their experiences around their baby’s death and their mourning.

The next post looks more specifically at how euphemisms, platitudes, and medical terms also create distance between bereaved parents and the people who offer these words.