What to Say to Grieving Parents after a Child Dies

Parents mourn their lost babes of every age. Whether children died in utero or during infancy, whether they perished as toddlers or tweens or teens,  or whether death took them by surprise accident in young adulthood or inch-at-a-time illness in middle age, they died out of order. As humans, we’re wired to expect that children won’t die before parents, so when it happens, it’s unthinkably cruel, indescribably painful.

If you’ve wondered how to console friends who’ve lost a son or daughter, bless you. Too often, bereaved parents lament over deepened, inflicted pain from ill-thought comments. Or, when grieving parents most need support, they feel the added ache of uncomfortable, abandoned absence from those who avoid them.

I’ve not suffered the death of a child, although I’ve witnessed friends in such agony. I’ve listened to them and sat with them in their losses. But seeing and hearing and sitting isn’t knowing. Empathy extends only so far.*

Here’s what my friends have taught me as they’ve grieved their dear children’s deaths: 

weeping photo, cemetery, Babyland, grief, TealAshes.com

“Weeping Angel in Cemetery’s Babyland” (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

You can’t fix grieving parents’ pain, but you can avoid worsening it.

  • Don’t tell bereaved parents “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand.” You don’t.
    • Losing your loved one may have introduced you to the pain of grief — and it’s good for you to remember that pain to help you attempt to empathize — but your loss didn’t teach you the intimate rending of self that happened to your grieving friends when their child died.
    • Few bereaved parents tell other grieving parents they know how the others feel — even if their losses seem similar. (Some might remember how they felt when they lost their own child while acknowledging the deep, unique, rawness of the newly mourning parents’ pain.)
  • Stop saying “at least” in any context. There’s nothing “least” about the loss of a child.
    • “At least” minimizes the significance of the loss, which grieving friends need validated and acknowledged, not diminished.
    • This includes not saying “at least your child lived x long …” or “at least your child won’t have to …” or “at least you have faith in the hereafter …” or “at least” anything.
  • Allow grieving parents the right to express (or not express) their faith in their own terms. Friends who believe in hereafter reunions with their beloved children nevertheless agonize over their here-and-now separation until then. (Those who preach or sermonize at them often counteract the comfort they intend to convey.)
  • Never suggest how “lucky” the parents are they won’t have to endure the hard parts of parenting their deceased child. They would gladly endure sleepless nights, endless diapering, terrible twos tantrums, teen angst, college costs, and every other parenting so-called hardship with their beloved child.
  • Never speak of replacing the deceased son or daughter. Loved ones aren’t replaceable.
  • Avoid telling mourning parents they “should” anything.
    • Not how they should …
    • Not what they should …
    • Not when they should …
    • Not why they should …
    • Their loss requires their timing and readiness and processing and coping and surviving.
    • Only they will know when they are capable of accomplishing more than breathing — which will be hard enough for months.
  • Avoid asking “How are you?”
    • It’s impossible to answer. Grief hurts too much. It’s in every cell. It overwhelms and overrides.
    • “Hello” works as a greeting. “How’re you doing?” does not.
    • If you catch yourself uttering the habitual “How are — ” turn it into “How glad I am to see you.”

You can offer increased support to your grieving friends by saying:

  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’m here.”
  • “Would you like to tell me about [speak the name of the deceased child]?”
  • “When you feel up to it, I’d love to share some of my favorite memories (or photos) of [name the child who died] with you.”
  • “It’s okay to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong.”
    • Telling bereaved parents they have to be strong (for each other, for other children, etc.) only reinforces how weakened and fractured they feel. Let them know you and others are there to pick up the pieces they can’t lift.
  • Acknowledge that mourning hurts without claiming you know how your friends feel. Acknowledging grief’s powerful, painful paralysis validates your friends’ pain.
  • “I know grieving hurts and saps your strength. Please let me ___ for you.”
    • Instead of saying, “Let me know if I can help with anything,” be precise. Fill in the blank with specific tasks or services you can render for your friend.
    • Say: Please let me …
      • … bring you a drink of water, an aspirin, a soda …
      • … take your other kids to the park, out for ice cream, to buy funeral outfits, to school …
      • … walk your dog, clean cages or litter boxes, gather eggs, groom horses …
      • … breathe alongside you, take a walk with you, drive you to …
      • … call funeral homes, come to the cemetery, house- or pet-sit during the funeral …
      • … make phone calls to friends, family, employers, creditors  …
      • … mow the lawn, weed and water the garden, shovel the sidewalk, sweep the porch …
      • … fill the gas tank, check the tires, drive to the airport to pick up or take back family …
      • … bring a meal or a snack [where culture and tradition permits] …
      • … take you to lunch or bring you to my house for dinner …
      • … cover your mirrors [for those who sit shiva] …
      • … wash dishes, make beds, vacuum floors, wash windows, clean bathrooms, do laundry …
        • However, please DO NOT TOUCH anything belonging to the deceased child without explicit permission to do so. Parents (and siblings) might need to see the bed left a mess or smell their child’s scent on a dirty shirt or keep a tower of blocks in chaotic disarray where they last fell.

You can also offer comfort to grieving families through these actions:

  • Follow through on the activities you offered to do in the list above.
  • Listen to your bereaved friends — parents, grandparents, siblings, and other kin to the child who died. All are hurting. All need the safety of being able to vent without being judged or disciplined for expressing their emotions.
  • Mark the child’s birth and death dates in your calendar, and then …
    • A month before, a week before, and the day of, let your friends know you’re aware of their child’s upcoming birthday.
    • During the first year (and beyond), be aware that most bereaved parents dread the death date’s day of the month every month as it ticks off another milestone of their child’s absence.
    • Let your friends know you are thinking of, praying for, and hurting for them — and remembering their absent child — around these dates, especially near the sixth-month and annual death dates. The death anniversary will be difficult. Reach out.
    • Feelings will also be tender near the start and end of the school year when your friends will continue to be aware of what grade level their child would have entered or graduated from. Reach out in acknowledging support.
    • Repeat every year — unless your friends ask you not to bring it up anymore. Respect their wishes while continuing to reach out in nonspecific, loving support.
  • Listen again.
  • Listen later.
  • Listen longer.
  • Listen in silence.
  • Listen over the phone.
  • Listen in person.

Cut mourning parents some slack if they ignore phone calls, bail on social engagements, or don’t seem like themselves. They aren’t themselves anymore. Part of their self-identity (as Son‘s Mom or Daughter‘s Dad) was shattered.

  • They are still parents to their deceased child — and always will be — but will never again have the opportunity to physically parent that beloved child. That’s not something anyone “gets over.” Ever.
  • In time — much, much time — and with understanding support, your friends will eventually learn how to live onward again despite their grief.**

If you have children the same age as your friends’ deceased child, be aware that bereaved parents might seek more interaction with you and your family — or less. Continue reaching out either way.

And listen.

___

*Please forgive me, my dear friends who’ve mourned children, if I’ve tread on tender feelings or gotten this wrong. You’ve taught me more about endurance and living with loss than I’ve learned on my own, and my intention is to honor the grief you’ve borne for the children you’ve lost and continue to love.

**The title of my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them, came to mind as I wrote of living “onward again.” I’d planned to type “move forward,” but her better word landed at my fingertips instead.

 

Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

___

*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.

 

 

 

 

First Anniversary of Grief after Pulse Shootings

One year ago, June 12, 2016, a man with evil, hateful intent entered Pulse nightclub in my Orlando hometown and shot into the crowd of innocent friends and family members enjoying a night of dancing. Of the many he struck down that night, 49 never rose again.

In the weeks and months following that cowardly assault, local manifestations of support showed humankind at its best: Donations poured into the OneOrlando Fund for the shooting victims and their families. Murals, T-shirts, and business markees displayed messages of encouragement and unity. Scholarships honored the memories of the fallen. Neighbors stood alongside strangers in solidarity while acknowledging differences.

Painting outside Orlando’s Zebra Coalition honors the 49 who died in the Pulse shooting (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Media coverage — initially 24-7 — ebbed over the year but has resurged as we’ve approached the first anniversary.  Much has been tasteful and sensitive, though I observed one broadcaster recently say something that revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about grief: “As the anniversary approaches,” the person said, “it may even be possible some Pulse families and survivors will feel upset again.”  (I’ve written that in quotes, but I paraphrased the actual words to avoid embarrassing the speaker.)

One fallacy of that statement is the implication that mourners might be upset again about their loved ones’ deaths — as if they’d had ample time to no longer be upset about it. But grieving, adjusting, and building new lives takes much, much longer than a mere 12 months. Even when, eventually, surviving loved ones manage to move forward in life without the deceased present in their lives, the absence will remain present and painful in survivors’ hearts.

The other fallacy in that well-meaning newscaster’s statement assumed that some Pulse families (and therefore not all) will find the first anniversary difficult.  From the thousands of mourners I’ve interacted with, all expressed increased anxiety, sorrow, anger, irritability, and longing for their deceased loved ones in the days leading toward the first anniversary after death. All. Even among those whose deaths were peaceful and anticipated, the first anniversary brought with it more pain than resolution. Where death occurred via such senseless, hate-infused violence as was inflicted at Pulse, mourners’ minds and bodies especially rebel at reliving the date when their loved ones died.

With rare exceptions, grieving individuals and families find reaching the first anniversary of a loved one’s death offers an elusive, hoped-for, impossible, unfulfilled promise of relief from the bitter agony of bereavement. The hope is that if one makes it through that horrendous first year, one will be okay from then on. 

The reality comes as an aftershock when the bereaved realize the beginning of the second year often brings renewed heartache and struggles in coping. Compounding the difficulty is the perception — and assertion — by friends and coworkers that mourners should be better by now or get on with their lives already. (If you hear such thoughts trying to work themselves into your words, erase them!)

For soul mates and partners, parents and siblings, cousins and other kin (by blood or law or choice), when it comes to the first year, grieving will never be one and done. Neither should the support and encouragement we offer, which should remain ongoing for as long as the loved ones are missed.

In other words, it’s never too late to let survivors know you are aware of their loss, and it’s never too late to show you care.

Full width of painting outside Zebra Coalition (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Mother’s Day Grief

 

I’ve put off writing about Mother’s Day this year, even though many folks now face this arguably difficult holiday for the first time while grieving loved ones. Within my own community, too many families carry on the best they can while bereaved over children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends who’ve died in the last year.  

If someone you care about — or even someone you know only as a casual acquaintance — has endured the death of a loved one, please let them know you’re thinking of them. Whether they respond to your outreach or not, they will know they were offered your kindness, which those who mourn sorely need.

Sometimes grieving hearts stand shriveled alongside bright, cheery ones. Please take some time to look around you and see whose sorrowing soul you can help. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I hope these posts I’ve already written about Mother’s Day topics will encourage you with ways you can show tangible support to grieving friends:

While commercials may tout bright, fancy ways to commemorate Mother’s Day, please remember that comfort in grief often comes in the simplest ways. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference, but please do something.

 

Confused by Grief

If your friends grieve lost loved ones, they may show confusion. Some writers have compared the memory loss of bereavement to symptoms of dementia. (In the months after my husband’s death, I got lost within my own neighborhood more times than I counted.) Why does deep sorrow cause such confusion?

Grief tips things sideways and turns them upside down. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

When a loved one dies, survivors’ lives tilt, tumble, spin. Familiar routes bewilder, and expectations swirl away. Long-term plans shift, dreams evaporate, and unforeseen obstacles loom. Is it any wonder mourners might act muddled?

Don’t blame the bereaved for being baffled. Rather, summon your empathy and extend compassion toward their confusion.

Before you berate a disheveled, bereaved widow for getting her children to school late or forgetting to bring cupcakes to the XYZ fundraiser at work, stop. Instead, acknowledge what she has done right: She got herself (and children) out of bed and took the children to school before showing up at work. (That may sound simple, but in the middle of mourning, it’s not.)

Next, consider the upheaval in her life: Suddenly, she’s a single parent, and she’s exhausted not only from caring for her children’s needs but from grieving, which drains a person in every way. Her deceased partner’s income no longer contributes to the family budget (maybe the cost of cupcakes is too much now), and she may be facing massive funeral, medical, and legal expenses you can’t begin to imagine (unless you’ve had to do the same). But her loss is about far more than finances, although that alone is often significant. She’s also lost her surest source of physical and emotional support. Friends and even family may stand near her, but she’s alone while crying through the night’s insomnia. In the morning, she can’t stand the emptiness in her swollen eyes, so she avoids the mirror while running a hand over her head to smack down the worst of her toss-and-turn hair.

If, after walking a metaphorical mile in her mourning slippers, you still feel judgmental toward that widowed mom, you’re the one who’s confused.

Before you condemn a grieving colleague for collapsing in the middle of a conference call or pleading for a personal day, stop. Instead, remember that people matter more than products, and acknowledge that beneath his position, he’s a person. Whether he and his partner have lost a child or whether he’s just learned his parent’s condition is terminal, his grief will continue beyond the funeral or that phone call.

Grief triggers — dates, events, songs, situations — don’t fit into an after-hours locker to release when convenient. They can’t be scheduled for the off season. They seldom give advance notice, and they can take you down — overwhelm you fully — before you can so much as say, “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?” (Note: Never, ever, ever say that — not even to yourself if you’re mourning. It won’t help. Trust me on this.)

The Grief Monster attacks without advance notice, sending its triggers when and where and how it will.

Imagine working with efficiency, expecting the promotion and raise you’ve always dreamed of. And then, a slight twinge in your gut warns that something you ate disagreed with you. The next moment, you’re running for the bathroom. Besides gastrointestinal distress of every kind, you’re sweating from a fever, shaking with chills, and erupting in boils across exposed skin. Several bones and organs must be trading places.

Meanwhile a supervisor followed you into the restroom, not to dial 911 but to demand, “How soon will you return to your desk? What time will you be in tomorrow? And why haven’t you finished today’s work yet? I expected better of you.”

That’s (a little) like working through grief.

Grieving wreaks havoc with concentration. Given time, understanding, and compassion, mourners’ confusion will clear. They will learn to function again, and will learn — eventually — how to move forward with altered lives.

Meanwhile, ask yourself this: Will you support your friends and coworkers through the rough, confusing process of mourning? Or do you remain too confused by grief to show you care?