August 8, 2023

Grief’s Secondary Hurts: Why do we Never Learn?

Recently, an old friend (from my days working at the local university) rang me in a somewhat distressed state, asking if we could meet up for lunch.

She’d just had an upsetting experience and wanted help with getting some perspective on it. She’d lost her mother through breast cancer 15 months earlier and was still struggling with her grief—occasionally suffering unexpected tearful bouts while at work. She’d been exceptionally close to her mother, seeing her as her best friend as well as her mother. Right up until a few weeks before the death, they had met up every Saturday for some retail therapy and afternoon tea.

So, what was this upsetting experience? Well, she’d been returning to her office after a lunchtime shopping trip in the city centre when she noticed two colleagues (and “friends,” or so she thought!) walking toward her—not too far in the distance. She’d not only worked with them at conferences and study days but had also socialised with them outside of work. They’d even met her mother on more than one occasion. She’d seen them and knew that they had seen her.

But as they drew close, the two colleagues suddenly crossed the road to the other side. Shocked, she dropped her shopping bags and looked over at them. But they were studiously conversing with each other in order to avoid having to look across. Such an act of perceived rejection brought on another tearful episode at her desk and two days of absence with emotional distress.

“I don’t think that they’ve stopped liking you,” I observed. “It’s more likely that they are fearful of asking how you are and receiving an answer they’re not prepared to hear. More thoughtless and ignorant than intentional and malicious.”

“But it doesn’t prevent it from being so hurtful,” my friend responded.

This lunch exchange triggered off thoughts of a conversation I had with a church minister last year during a Grief Workshop I was running. He had conducted a funeral service for bereaved parents who had just lost one of their three children—knocked over and killed while crossing a road. Following a highly emotional service, the mourners retired to a local hall for the post-funeral tea. The minister stood next to the bereaved couple, offering moral and practical support as mourners paid their respects to them. Two elderly female relatives wandered up to the couple. The first relative’s sole remark was, “Well, at least you’ve got the other two!” while the second relative’s contribution was, “Well, you’re both still young enough. Give it a few weeks and you can start again!”

I asked the minister how the couple reacted. “More tears,” she replied, “but I could have slapped them!”

“That would have looked good in the local paper,” I commented wryly, “‘Church Minister Slaps Mourners At Post-Funeral Tea!’ Mind you, I might have been tempted myself!”

In my professional work as a Specialist Grief Counsellor, I work with those bereaved by miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as families bereaved by suicide. Both these types of loss often produce a host of similar thoughtless comments or acts.

“Well, it wasn’t a real baby anyway.”

“I’m glad you didn’t get to hold it in the end.”

“Not meant to be.”

“There’ll be other chances, I’m sure.”


“He just couldn’t cope.”

“Probably best for everyone.”

“The act of a coward in the end.”

Secondary hurts!

The stupid and thoughtless things that people say or don’t say to the bereaved. The stupid and thoughtless things that people do or don’t do to the bereaved.

For the last 70 years, our society has socially constructed an approach to grief that matches its needs and general characteristics: short-term, agenda-laden, immediate, impatient, selfish, self-centred, materialistic, solution-obsessed.

To support this approach, it has socially constructed a Grief Language that accompanies this approach and assists in meeting those needs with regards to death and grief.

“Time will heal.”

“You will get over it.”

“Time to let go and move on.”

“Surely, you’re over it by now?”

Such comments and those in the paragraphs above are entirely for society’s agenda and nothing to do with the intense grief of the bereaved. Moreover, people continue to walk the other way, cross the road, retrace their steps, say nothing, change the subject, or talk about themselves.

Grief’s secondary hurts—the stupid things that people say or do and don’t say or don’t do.

What our society fails to realise is that these secondary hurts cause as much pain and anguish to the bereaved as the actual bereavements themselves. When will our society ever learn?

For the answer lies simply in patience, compassion, the gift of your presence, and some good listening for a short period, a hug, a phone call. And if you are even worried about what to say or do, be honest, and the bereaved will understand and respect you for it.


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