No Offense: How Meaning Well Sometimes Doesn’t Mean Well At All

May 9, 2014

In the south, we have a version of “No offense” that sounds a little bit softer. You might hear anyone begin a statement with “Bless her heart”. Except we aren’t blessing much of anything. We are attempting to soften the blow of something we are meaning to point out that could be offensive, even if it’s true. “Bless her heart, she’s just so stupid”. You might hear it worded in other parts of the country with “No offense”. Just another way to soften the blow. We think that if we add these buffers, the person receiving the message doesn’t get offended. Or even worse, we expect that they shouldn’t get offended. We said, “No offense!” didn’t we?image

This sentiment sometimes rings true in the land of grief except it can either be a tad more subtle, or frustratingly, as subtle as a sledgehammer. I sometimes share Facebook status updates from groups that discuss grief and how to help the bereaved. Sometimes they offer advice to those around us about how to approach us, or what not to say. More often than not, I’ve also had posters that come in and defend why they say what they say. Many times I hear that they only mean well. “I mean well,”  has become the grieving version of, “No offense.” As if meaning well completely eradicates any offensive move on their part. If you didn’t know better, I can forgive. But if I educate you on how I would like to be treated, and how clearly many other grieving parents would like to be treated, and you respond to that with both a defensive remark and an argument about why you should still be allowed to continue acting the same, it’s a little jarring. You meant well. That didn’t make it less painful. Now it’s become an act of intention, as you state that you’ll continue to tell me that, “God needed another angel” because you personally like that phrase and you always mean well. You’re choosing to go forward, making little change on your part, because that might be too much work, knowing it could cause harm.

Your intentions can’t really well-intended anymore if you know it’s harmful to me. I’ve had a far more harmful transgression recently where someone visited the grave of my daughter, and not only visited without my permission, but posted the pictures of her visit to social media where I am blocked and even unable to see her “remembrance” of her. This person had a falling out with me near the time of the death of my daughter and certainly would not have been welcome either in my home, or near my child. But because she does not live, her “home” is more easily invaded by truly anyone that wishes to do so. I tried to explain that it would be like me standing outside a school and taking pictures of her child and then posting them online without her knowledge. The only response I got was that she was not sorry and that she needed it for her own grief. It was the most harmful version of how she “meant well” and how her intentions completely and actively dismissed any transgression on her part, as well as dismissing our role as her parents. If trespassing on the grave of a child can be written off by meaning well, it seems there are truly very few ways for grieving parents to protect ourselves or our children. Because grief is a shared emotion, people seem to believe that their emotions mean we all share in a right to the deceased.

The hierarchy of grief, where the parents should truly come first no longer exists. In-laws, grandparents, family, friends, bystanders, sometimes feel as if imposing their own needs is acceptable because they “meant well”. I think one piece of grieving as a parent that people tend to forget, is that the subject matter is always about my child. Living or not, he or she IS and always will be OUR child. You can label it as sensitivity, but I would bargain with you that parents of living children typically get some level of consideration when anyone discusses their children. Too often I see others dismiss the feelings of bereaved parents as “too touchy” or “easily offended” as if our feelings aren’t valid when we hear you call our child an angel and this angers us.

Instead, we are simply too touchy and should accept and allow people to just mean well. We should effectively grow thicker skin at a time when our nerves are on the outside of our bodies. It’s frustrating when you attempt to defend your overused platitude with explaining that my feelings are just an overreaction. No offense, but that’s pretty rude on your part, to dismiss the feelings of any grieving parent, no matter how much of an overreaction it seems to be to you. No offense, but once you know better, you should actively try to do better. No offense, but your grief and emotions and intentions and actions should never supercede my needs. No offense, but if your response to my need to point out that your words are harmful is to respond by saying that you’ll just say nothing at all, am I truly the one who is overreacting here? Isn’t that the response of a petulant child who wants to pout? You’ll just shut up instead of saying, “Thank you for letting me know that, what can I say that does help instead”? I also mean well. I mean well when I try to tell the world how to treat me. Don’t we tell our children this all the time? We teach people how we want to be treated? We tell people what our boundaries are by educating them about our boundaries. Why should the response to that be to tell me how you won’t respect those boundaries and you’ll continue to trespass, both on me and my child? No offense, but usually your statements aren’t about me at all. They are usually about your own feelings. This isn’t about my overreaction, but it’s about you. People often say things that are in the range of platitudes and cliches because our experience as a grieving person or parent brings up difficult and uncomfortable emotions.

And in order to manage and diminish those feelings of helplessness and vulnerability (and sometimes social discomfort) the speaker will try to fall back on what are considered culturally appropriate statements that almost always try to reduce or distract from the pain. They either try to explain away the discomfort with the well meaning, “Better place” or “God had a plan” or “God needed an angel” statements, that usually serve to attempt to reduce the pain by invoking meaning into the trauma. Or some attempt to minimize the depth of the trauma with, “You can have another child.” If your sole concern when attempting to empathize with a grieving parent is to help them feel better, then remember what empathy truly means. It is the concept that you can not only feel emotion that relates to me, but you attempt to walk in my shoes. It’s the ability to attempt to experience and share in my feelings. Not to put your feelings on to me. I’m telling you what I feel, how I feel, and how to walk in my shoes. Don’t shove me away because you don’t like my shoes. Otherwise you platitude, your cliches, are honestly all about making you feel better.

And no offense, aren’t about meaning well at all. They are about your comfort and not mine. If I am asked constantly to extend empathy and understanding to you, wit h the concept that you just mean well and you don’t mean harm, then can’t the bereaved parent ask for a little bit of empathy back? It’s an odd road where it is meant to only flow one direction, towards the cliched speaker and not towards the aggrieved. Studies indicate that negative or uncomfortable feelings interfere with our ability to provide effective support to the bereaved. Let that sink in for just a second. Research has shown that the more intensity in emotion that the the bereaved person shows, the more discomfort this will evoke in others, and the more they will avoid, minimize or blame the bereaved. The more I feel my feelings honestly, the harder it is for you. So it looks like in the end, no offense, but maybe it’s you.

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