Mrs. Johnson and several others who heard the call were offended by Trump's saying, "He knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway."
While Trump has denied saying it, I believe he said it but that it likely conveyed something he never intended-- that somehow it's not as bad to lose a loved one if he/she entered the situation willingly, such as through service to our country.
By denying his words, and then trying to cast doubt on the perception of "the wife" and "that congresswoman" he comes off as cruel and self-centered, and he breaks one of the first rules of offering sympathy which is don't make it about yourself.
And trust me, bereaved people remember quite accurately the tone deaf and hurtful words people say, despite how hard we might try to forget.
Often the greatest harm comes from the words "AT LEAST" tacked onto expressions of sympathy.
At least you can have more children.
At least he is no longer on drugs.
At least you were married for 26 years.
At least she's in a better place.
At least he knew what he signed up for.
At leasts do not help the griever one iota, but people use them because they are trying to mitigate the magnitude of the loss, trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense and that cannot be fixed.
Grievers find no solace in at leasts. They are living the waking nightmare of trying to imagine a future without the one they love. They do not want their loss explained away or diminished.
A lot of discussion about what Trump said focuses on the phrase, "He knew what he signed up for" and fails to mention that he followed it with, "but when it happens it hurts anyway." That's not accurate, and that's probably what makes Trump so angry, angry enough to lash out at a grieving family, even as he says he is a champion of our soldiers and veterans. He did, in fact, acknowledge the Johnsons' pain, but we can see here how starting out with his own version of "at least" hurt more than it helped.
You may hear cries, even from the White House, that that Johnson family and their local congresswoman (and friend) are attempting to politicize his death. When your loved one's body is broken into pieces, when your child doesn't come home, you don't give a damn about politics. But you hurt, deeply, and you want to call out what you see as bad behavior or disrespect toward your loved one. At such a raw, tumultuous time it makes a whole lot more sense for a griever to be hurt and angry, than for someone to be angry at a griever.
A good leader or a good friend can look outside of the discomfort he or she feels, can admit to not having the right words, and can show up without defensiveness or self-justification, even if it means taking the brunt of someone's hurt and pain. Caring, heartfelt words and presence are a balm, regardless of who gives them.
Of course it's not easy.
Before my son died in a freak accident, I'm sure I said unhelpful and perhaps even hurtful things to grievers. I likely still do, but I'm getting better. People tell me they are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they don't say anything at all. But because grief is incredibly disorienting and isolating, I encourage people to pick up the phone, make the call, or write the card anyway, even if it feels risky.
The more basic the better:
I am so sorry for your loss.
This really hurts.
(Loved one's name) will never be forgotten.
Words fail me.
I care about you and (loved one's name).
Yes, you might stumble or fumble. We all do. Be GRATEFUL if you are able to find out if your words have caused harm, for then you can address it. President Trump quickly discovered his words did more harm than good. In humility, he could have said, "I am sorry I caused you more pain. My words didn't reflect what I was trying to convey."
Or perhaps: "Words fail me, but that doesn't diminish how sorry I am for your great loss."
Addressing it does NOT mean denying you said what you did, or trying to justify yourself. What is perceived and received by the griever is what is most important here, if your intent is truly to provide sympathy and succor.
A dear friend drifted away after my son died. When I expressed that I felt she wasn't there for me, she pointed out she had sent me texts that I'd left unanswered. I'm sure she could have pulled them up on her phone as proof.
At a time of great loss, is it more important to dig in to try to win an argument, or to come alongside someone who is hurting?
What can we all learn from this?
Making condolence calls from the White House, or from your house, while necessary, is likely not anyone's favorite thing to do. You may feel tongue-tied and vulnerable. Any step feels like a potential mis-step. Do it anyway. You are on holy ground. When you mess up, as we all do, apologize for how it was perceived and felt by the grievers, not by you. Use the deceased person's name, again and again. Our greatest fear is that our loved one will be forgotten. Acknowledge pain with NO qualifications, no excuses, no buts or at leasts.
Yes, words often fail.
No, we can't fix anything.
But we show up anyway, and we try to offer comfort.
And to the President: keep making those calls. It's what you signed up for, even though it hurts.
p.s. Current events led me to write this post about expressing sympathy, and I welcome your thoughts about it here. However, I will delete comments that are hurtful or disrespectful. Thank you!