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.

 

Easter Grief: Life and Death and Loss and Hope

At Easter time, what should you say to a grieving friend whose loved one has died? My perspective may surprise you.*

I love Easter, but I don’t like it. I’m grateful for Easter, but it’s painful. I take comfort in Easter, but it’s not comforting.

Confusing enough?

When I was little, reading of Good Friday made me sad. My great-aunt Sarah used to say, “What’s so good about Good Friday? It’s horrible” revisiting the crucifixion story. As I grew older and learned more about the physical afflictions inflicted by that practice when Jesus Christ walked the earth among men, it became harder to sit through sermons about that day.

And yet …

For those of us who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ (and future resurrection of all mankind), the message and reason for Easter celebrations offers hope for eventual reunions with long-gone (or recently departed) loved ones. My earliest memory of that hope centers on my mother’s reverence toward Easter, especially in the years following her mother’s death. Mom knew she would see Grandma again someday, and she acknowledged her gratitude that God, in his mercy, provided for that gift.

But she wouldn’t buy (or make) Easter dresses. She wanted our focus on why we were there rather than on what we wore. For similar reasons, she gently steered my friends and me from including “pretend Sacrament” (our name for Communion) when we “played church.” I was five or six years old, but I still remember Mom bending down to our eye level. She was glad we enjoyed church enough to include it in our playtime, but that part, she said, was “about Jesus dying for us, so it’s too sacred” to play about.

Coloring eggs, hiding and finding them, and nibbling chocolate bunnies figured into my family’s annual Easter traditions, but my parents made it clear those were merely fun, shiny wrappings around the real Gift of the season. My husband and I tried to do the same with our kids.

sun-blooms-in-snow-TLBRUCE-20150415

Sun Blooms in Snow (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My appreciation for the significance of Easter deepened after the deaths of my mother, cousin, remaining grandparents, and my husband.  I knew then, as I know now, that our separation is temporary — at least where eternity is concerned. I took (and still do take) solace in that.

However …

It’s one thing for me to say, “I’m grateful I’ll see Mom again. I’m grateful that, because of Jesus Christ, we’ll be reunited.” It’s uplifting when friends agree with me. It’s even nurturing when friends whose views differ acknowledge they’re glad for my sake that my stated beliefs give me comfort (even though they disagree).

It’s entirely different when others tell me to “take comfort” in similar statements. How dare they tell me what I “should” feel about my losses? How dare they tell me what “should” lessen my bereavement? For those already experiencing anger (with God in particular or the universe in general) over loved ones’ deaths, such assertions increase mourners’ feelings of isolation.

When my losses were new, I did NOT want people reminding me of the hope I “should” feel for the future. I did NOT take comfort in platitudes about eventual reunions. I did NOT feel uplifted by efforts to “make” me feel better by reminding me of “the reason for the season.” Such expressions ignored the sorrow of my grief. 

I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) want to be told “Happy Easter.” I wasn’t happy about my mother’s death, or my husband’s (or my Savior’s either, for that matter). Yes, I rejoice that I will see them again. But looking forward to anticipated reunions makes mourning in the here-and-now all the more painful. Future hope doesn’t erase current absence.

Here are ways to support your grieving friends this Easter, no matter what their faith (or yours) may be:

  • “I’m thinking of you (and your family).” Period. No matter the mourner’s faith (or yours), this will always show that you are aware. You can’t go wrong with this, and you can repeat it often.
  • Drop off a card (or some other tangible sign of your concern) they will see long after your visit.
  • Bring them a treat, a snack, or a bag of groceries. Better yet, invite them over to eat with you.

I also feel comfort when friends acknowledge my faith and my loss together:

  • “I’m thinking of you and your family this Easter.”
  • “You and your family are in my prayers as we celebrate Easter.”
  • “Sending you loving thoughts at Easter time.”
  • “I miss your mother, too, and I look forward to one day seeing her again. Thinking of you and your family at Easter.” (This states the person’s faith and hopes, without imposing them on the mourner.)
  • “I take comfort in the joy of the resurrection to come, but I know you’re missing your husband this Easter season.” (Again, this expression of a friend’s faith acknowledges the current sorrow without imposing that faith on the bereaved.)

If you haven’t yet known what to say to a grieving friend, now’s a great time to reach out.

___

*Please note: My intention isn’t to preach here, but due to the nature of the Easter holiday, I can’t express what I think you should (or shouldn’t) say to mourners at this time of year without referencing elements of my faith. Although faith colors my perspective and shapes my day-to-day life, I respect others’ beliefs. (I’ve never intended to make this a “religious” blog. There are many, many writers who do a beautiful job of that.) My goal has always been to make this a place where people can learn to help grieving friends from any (or no) faith tradition. In most posts, references to my faith and/or my church family do appear, not because I’m trying to proselytize but because they’re as much a part of my life as being a widow with three daughters who has worn bifocals since seventh grade.

Having said that, for those who do share my faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

#BecauseHeLives

Do NOT Say These to a Bereaved Parent–or Any Other Mourner

Grieving the death of a loved one defies description. It hurts, disrupts, distracts, eviscerates, overturns, and shatters. When the Reaper removes a dear one from your friend’s life, that life is forever changed–and so is your friend.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what your bereaved friend now faces. Every relationship between souls is unique, as is each loss.

Some principles, however, apply to comforting the bereaved in almost all situations. The link below is to a post called 6 Things Never to Say to a Bereaved Parent.” The writer, Angela Miller, tells exactly how some of the most commonly used but least helpful platitudes come across to mourning souls. Regardless of the kind of loss your friend has experienced, please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say.

(I’m summarizing her main points below, but please, please see her article in full!)

  1. Do NOT say “Time heals all wounds.”
  2. Do NOT say “Let go … Move on.”
  3. Do NOT say “Have faith.”
  4. Do NOT say “Everything happens for a reason.”
  5. Do NOT say “At least…”
  6. Do NOT say “Be thankful.”

I’ve not experienced the death of a child, so I don’t claim to know that pain. I do know that in each of the losses of my own life, the sentiments Ms. Miller describes are similar to what I felt and to what friends have expressed their feelings to be. (Please, please read her full article.)

Avoid Saying “At Least” When Consoling the Bereaved

If you begin forming the words “at least” — STOP!

Do not, do not, do NOT let that phrase pass your lips (or fingertips)! If you think uttering (or writing) “at least” to console anyone who is grieving, I advise this:

Bite a hole in your tongue (or slam your fingers in a door) to  prevent yourself from saying “at least.”
(Can you tell I feel strongly about this?)

Here’s why:

“At least,” by definition, shrinks and plays down a thing, reducing it to its smallest component. It minimizes. It downplays and lessens importance. It diminishes and disparages, and when applied to grief it belittles the perceived importance of the loss.

Any intended consolation beginning with “At least you …” will not console. Instead, it isolates mourners, proclaiming their devastating loss to be less calamitous to others than if feels to them.

Examples of “at least” statements (and how they come across to the bereaved) and why they’re so hurtful:

  • “At least you didn’t have any children” (so you won’t have to “deal with” them or their grief and you can just pick up and go on).
    What if the couple privately, desperately wanted children? What if they planned to conceive or adopt within the next year or two? What if one was already pregnant at the time of (her own or her partner’s) death?
  • “At least you (can) have more children” (so you shouldn’t be upset over losing this one).
    One child’s presence cannot “replace” another. The loss of a child (at any age) is a grief unlike any other. Never diminish it. Never assume “replacement fertility” is possible, either — because it may not be, and even if it were, “replacing” one who is lost is not possible.
  • “At least the children are young enough they won’t miss their [parent, grandparent, sibling…]” (so it really won’t be that hard on them).
    Grieving families need to know loved ones won’t be forgotten. Children who’ve lost loved ones, even at very young ages, are impacted in ways only families in similar situations can comprehend.
  • “At least your kids are all grown up” (so you won’t have to raise them alone; also implies adult kids will be “okay” with the loss).
    The surviving parent is now left alone to weather the years-long, unrelenting upheavals of grief by him- or herself. The adult children are burdened with their own grief as well as their concerns for their surviving parent.
  • “At least you weren’t married very long” (so you can’t miss your spouse that much).
    The loss of future, anticipated experiences runs as deep as the loss of familiar comfort and companionship. Those widowed after fewer years together often feel deeply “cheated” by the timing.
  • “At least you had [however many] years together” (so you had more than your share and shouldn’t complain it came to an end).
    A lifetime shared is irrevocably altered by the shearing of one’s “better half.” In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis compared the loss of a spouse to the loss of a limb which, even when healed, leaves the amputee forever changed.

If you’re cringing now because you remember saying “at least” in past attempts to console, remember that you meant well — at least you tried. (Now that you know, you’ll do better next time.)