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.


People Aren’t Interchangeable (and Neither Are Their Pets)

Loved ones can’t be replaced. So please don’t suggest otherwise.

Loved ones can't be replaced, so don't suggest otherwise.

An empty blanket, an empty collar, and an empty ring: Loved ones can’t be replaced, so don’t suggest otherwise.

When people (or pets) expire, mourners can’t scoop up “bargain-priced offspring” from the children’s department; they won’t rush to the store and click a collar around a “brand new best friend” package in the pet aisle; they shouldn’t be driven to the mall for sniffing and squeezing current models in order to select a “ripe new spouse” from the potential mates display window. (At least, for most people it doesn’t work that way…)

Forgive me, please, if it sounds as if I’m making light of the seriousness of death. My intent is to point out the ridiculous assumptions made by well-meaning people who treat the bereaved in this foolish way.

For example, the first variation I heard on “You’re young. You can marry again” was less than 48 hours after my husband’s death. It was an (arguably misguided) attempt to assure me I need not feel lifelong devastation and solitude. But deep as I was in that personal place of raw, recent loss,  life as I knew it had already immersed me in devastation and loneliness.

I could no more have “replaced” my late husband while thus submerged (nor contemplated the idea of it) than I could have inhaled deeply from the bottom of a full swimming pool.

For those who mourn the death of a child, there’s nothing assuring in the agony-increasing comments of those who try to “comfort” them by promises of possible future children. Doing so ignores the life-altering, soul-searing loss of THAT precious, beloved child.

Pet owners face their own grief at the passing of beloved companions. Well-meaning friends might suggest it’s “only a pet” or “you can always get another one,” but the bonds between pet owners and their furry (or feathered or scaly) friends are as unique — and can run as deep as — friendships (and deeper than some kinships) between members of the same species.

More helpful than such “reassurances” of suggested “replacements” are acknowledgements of the loss. Offer comments like:

  • He was such a ____ [kind, thoughtful, funny, interesting…] soul. I’ll miss him, too.
  • I’m so sorry about the death of your ____ [child, parent, friend, sibling…]. I know you’re hurting.
  • Fluffy was a good ____ [cat, dog, hamster, sugar glider…]. She’ll be missed.

In time, grieving parents might have another child; bereaved animal lovers might adopt other pets; mourning widows (or widowers) might date and perhaps even marry again. But they might not. There may be reasons they cannot, reasons that are no one’s business but their own.

In the distant future, even if the mourning parent welcomes another child, even if the grieving owner takes in another pet, even if the bereaved widow(er) finds a second soul mate, each newly loved one finds his or her OWN place within the healing heart once broken by the death of the deceased.

Remember: Beloved souls aren’t interchangeable — even within species. You can’t remove one from a person’s life and simply plop another into the deceased one’s place.

Mother’s Day Mourning

With Mother’s Day looming, my grief ratchets up several levels. It’s been over 18 years since Mom died, and I’m dreading this year’s annual event as much as I have each year since her death. It’s a selfish misery — I acknowledge that — because my mom deserved the “World’s Best” title that’s printed in flowery fonts on all kinds of merchandise this time of year.  Too many dear friends had opposite relationships with their mothers, so I truly appreciate how lucky I was.

I ought to spend Mother’s Day bathed in a warm glow of gratitude over how incredibly blessed I’ve been that my mom’s heart and hands shaped my life. But I miss her. I miss her.

She was an adoring grandmother, and I wanted my children to grow up with her creative, optimistic, spiritual, fun-loving, nurturing, curious, accepting influence and presence in their day-to-day lives. I feel cheated that they could not. I miss her for their sakes as well as my own.

My Mom (from family photos of Teresa TL Bruce)

My Mom (from the family photos of Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com) 

Mom was my best friend.  (She was everybody’s friend. When I was in high school, one boy I dated sometimes called our house to talk to her.) Typing these words about her reopens the rip that began tearing around my heart the moment I heard the word “cancer” over the phone two short years before it took her. I “still” miss her.

My deep longing for Mom’s voice and warmth, for her wisdom and presence, isn’t the only reason I dread the advent of every Mother’s Day. Years ago I attended a church council planning discussion of upcoming tributes and honors for that year’s commemoration of the day. The suggestions were thoughtful and generous, but as I listened I became more and more uncomfortable until I finally blurted, “Lots of women hate Mother’s Day.

All eyes turned toward me. Other women in the room nodded their heads, but most of the men looked as if they’d been slapped. The first to recover his speech asked what I meant, and as soon as I began explaining, my church sisters’ voices joined mine:

  • “We can’t live up to the glowing superlatives on the cards.”
  • “Do you know how many women want children but can’t have them?”
  • “Some of us had terrible mothers. We don’t get along with them at all.”
  • “Some of us have bad relationships with our kids, and Mother’s Day makes it even worse.”
  • “I’ve hated the day ever since my mom passed on. It hurts too much.”
  • “And it’s agony for the ones who’ve lost a child.”
  • “And women who’ve miscarried …”

A few mouths remained open when we’d finished. One by one, all in the room acknowledged that a special sensitivity was needed in planning that particular Sunday’s services.

Men and children also struggle with missing their deceased mothers, or they may feel conflicted about poor relationships with theirs.

In the years following Mom’s death, I dragged myself into the chapel for every Mother’s Day service (though I’d have preferred staying at home to linger over my annual child-poured breakfast in bed, a bowl of Cheerios or Lucky Charms*) because that’s what I felt I needed to do, what a “good mom” should do. All the children in the congregation — including my own — were singing to all the moms, and I did want to experience seeing and hearing my daughters beam as they sang “Mother, I Love You.” That part I didn’t mind — it was always delightful! (You never know what you’ll see and hear where kids are concerned, no matter how well they’ve practiced ahead …)

But it hurt to be there. I knew the shortfalls of how my mothering compared to my mom’s. (Did I mention how great she was?) And I missed her.

What helped make it easier? While it’s true that time eased the sharpest of my grief’s pain (though it’s not true that it “heals all wounds”), eventually, at least in part, there was one thing that comforted me immediately. Whenever someone acknowledged awareness that I mourned Mom’s absence, the weight of my grief lightened enough to keep me going. It still does.

  • It always helped to hear, “I’m sure you’re missing your Mom. I’m sorry.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Don’t be sad.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Are you still upset about your mother?”
  • It can be helpful to say, “You’re in my thoughts as Mother’s Day approaches.”
  • It’s also appropriate to say, “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day weekend.”

As with other aspects of mourning, the best condolence you can offer is the comfort of your presence, the reassurance of your willingness to listen, and the sensitivity of your acknowledgment of the loss.


(*In case you were wondering, I have no affiliation with General Mills — or any cereal-making company. Cheerios and Lucky Charms just happen to be my favorites.)