Stop Saying “Don’t Give Up.” Please.

Stop Saying “Don’t Give Up.” Please.

We say a lot of things to grieving people that under normal circumstances would be fine, hopefully even encouraging, but to people facing a life or death situation, a trauma, shock or loss, these can be the most backward and unhelpful things they could possibly hear.

Our discomfort, our desire to bring ease, our inability to fathom what they are going through, and our inherent inability to keep our mouths shut are all common reasons that lead to us saying things we never would have if we’d thought about it. I’ve talked about this before and doubtless, will talk about it again, but there are some very basic and notable things that we should not say to grieving people. I was struck recently by what families on the anticipatory side of death & grief experience both socially and online from people attempting to support them.

I’m talking about families where a loved one may be dying slowly of a terminal illness, a spouse has a brain tumor with 2 months to live, the parents of a child involved in an accident with severe trauma who isn’t expected to live. I’ve read comments on Facebook from well-meaning friends saying things like,

  • “this happened for a reason,” – not helpful. Especially when accidents are the culprits. The snark in me wants to snap back at comments like that and say “Yeah, the reason was the drunk driver, the random cancer cell …” telling people that they should find comfort in this unknown “reason” is confusing and in denial of the terrible randomness that death wields. But more on this next month …
  • anything beginning with “at least …” (see my prior post about these horrible phrases)
  • “they’re going to a better place,” – try saying this to a mom who feels the best place for her sweet baby is with her

These are pretty awful and yet incredibly common things to hear people say or read typed in comments online. I think perhaps one of the most damaging, divisive and cruel things we say is the simple phrase; “Don’t give up.” There are plenty of arenas where this phrase can encourage and lift up, but situations involving sickness, trauma, terminal illness, or death should be spared from the framework of these words.

Put yourself in the shoes of a parent whose child has suffered a traumatic brain injury, there has been hope and talk of recovery, physical therapy, etc … but the tests come back all showing the same thing: there is no brain function, your child is brain dead and scientifically, hope of recovery and life is no longer an option.

“Don’t give up.” To these miserable, dear parents, the concept of “giving up” is a slap in the face. What parent possibly could? What parent would not try for everything, hope for the miracles, wait and see? These are normal and appropriate processes for families to go through when a temporary setback turns into devastating loss. This is part of coming to grips with the new reality, part of exploring all avenues, eliminating all doubt, a way of accepting the forever, life changing death that your family will now go through.

Now, the phrase “Don’t give up” takes on new pain. When the choices are gone and only hospice remains what does saying “Don’t give up” convey? That they are giving up on their child? That more should be done? That they are doing it wrong? That their resignation to death means failure?

Of course, no one is saying that, but the implications are all there. We are terrified of admitting the power of death, that it is something that can happen at any time and will happen to everyone, even young children. When our doctors, modern medicine, and every test possible tells us that there is no more hope of life, to accept that truth is not to fail or give up, it is to be in the truth, to stand in the crashing waves, to live in a brilliant pain that must be faced, sooner or later.

In some ways, the ultimate point I think we all need to take away from this is that HOSPICE AND DEATH ARE NOT RESULTS OF GIVING UP. In fact, the phrase “giving up” should have nothing at all to do with the concept of death, especially since not a one of us can just keep on living if we “don’t give up.”

Consider what you say/write/communicate to friends/family/strangers facing these forms of pain. Your words can leave bruises, open gaping wounds, and inflict pain rather than soothe, console or comfort.

Help others to stand in the waves instead of pretending they’re on solid ground.

What was the most helpful, comforting thing said to you when you were in grief? Please, share with us below:

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.

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