The Three Worst Things You Can Say to a Downsizing Senior’s Sadness
Moving out of a life-long home can be a hugely emotional experience.
Well meaning family members and friends want to offer comfort, but sometimes they say exactly the wrong thing.
Here are the top three worst responses to, “I’m going to miss this home, I feel so sad.”
Suppose your aunt says, “Oh gosh this is sad. I have lived here for 45 years. I’m going to miss it so much.”
You say, “Don’t be sad. You’re going to love the new place.”
You meant to cheer her up and to remind her that there’s still some good things to look forward to. Right? Perhaps you hoped that you could distract her, like you would distract a toddler.
Unfortunately what she heard you say is, “Don’t bother me with your feelings. If you need to be sad, wait until I’m not here.”
That’s probably not what you meant to convey, because now she feels like she has to pretend to be happy, which gives her an additional burden to cope with.
Your aunt trusted you enough to share this deep feeling with you. She isn’t asking you to “fix” anything. She just wants you to be there, to share this moment with her.
A better response would acknowledge how she feels and ask her to share a bit more.
“I can see how you could feel sad. How old were your children when you moved here?”
Then just sit back and listen as she recalls moments that were significant to her. After a time she’ll probably start to remember some funny things that happened in the house.
Another terrible response to “I feel so sad,” is…
“I know just how you feel.”
If your aunt is gentle and polite she might just go silent. But if she is a bit more forthright she might respond with, “The hell you do!” followed by an angry tirade about the ways in which she is not you and how you couldn’t possibly know how she is feeling under the circumstances. And so on. And on and on.
OOPS! Sadness can turn to anger in a flash.
The rule of thumb is: However familiar someone’s feelings might look, every person has their own unique life experiences. Not even identical twins have the same life.
Instead you could say…
“I can’t imagine how that feels.”
That’s a much safer response. It allows your aunt to feel that her experience is respected. And you haven’t offered her yourself as a target for whatever anger she might be feeling.
But the worst response to “I’m so sad” is…
“You think this is sad. Imagine how sad I felt when blah-blah-blah happened.”
Oh Yikes! Double and triple Yikes!
Of course you wouldn’t say that to someone you loved. Right?!! You wouldn’t try to make yourself the center of attention while belittling your aunt’s experience. Unfortunately people do.
That response would draw your aunt into a one-upsmanship contest about who has suffered more in life than who. That kind of contest is going to create two losers, each of whom feels disrespected by the other person.
Now You Know What Not to Say…
Have you ever said one of these things? Well… I understand. We hear these kinds of responses pretty often. They are so much a part of our culture that they’re cliches. You may not even have thought about the effect that they have until you find yourself on the receiving end of one of them. But now you know better.
The bottom line is: Don’t try to FIX someone’s feelings. We humans don’t get to choose how we feel… Feelings just happen. As much as our culture has a tendency to label sadness as a “bad” emotion to be avoided, repressing sadness makes it pop out in other ways. In particular repressed sadness turns to anger.
Sadness is easier to deal with than anger. So you might as well deal with the sadness as is.
Sadness Deserves More Respect
Sadness and grief deserve more respect. Really sadness is a form of respect. At a funeral we take time to think about what that person did and meant to us in this world. After a tragedy we offer a moment of silence as a form of respect.
Leaving a long time home does create a form of grief. For better or worse your life will never be the same. Feeling sad is just taking time to review and respect what that home meant to you. It’s a good thing to do.
You can set yourself apart as a person who is truly comforting by being brave enough to accept tough emotions like sadness. Ask the person to tell you more about how they feel. Listen and acknowledge what you hear them say. Those emotions don’t need to be fixed, they just need to be heard.