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.

 

Why Memorial Day Isn’t For You | SpouseBUZZ.com

I seldom repost other blog articles, but this one by Traci Moran has stayed with me since I read it a few days ago. My friend, Lynette Wilson, brought it to my attention on Facebook. This is what she said:

Please, for so many of us, Memorial Day is a solemn occasion, one meant to honor those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country. Please don’t trivialize the emotions by including “Happy” before it. Please know this weekend shouldn’t be about the big sales, the big barbecues, the big parties.

Take a moment and think of the fatherless and motherless children, the parents who outlived their sons and daughters, the wives and girlfriends, the husbands and boyfriends who miss their sweethearts every day. Remember those lives lost in defense of your freedoms. Freedom is never free. ——Lynette Wilson

Generations of my family have commemorated Memorial Day with graveside readings and remembrance gatherings for departed ancestors, including emphasis on those who gave their lives in service. On Memorial Day I cannot help but be mindful of my recently deceased great-aunt who belonged to the DAR and who every year made sure fresh flowers covered ancestors’ otherwise obscure graves. I’m achingly aware of my husband, mother, nephew, cousin, brother-in-law, father-in-law, grandparents, and all other loved ones who’ve crossed behind the veil where I can no longer see, hear, or touch them.

However, I also know Memorial Day isn’t about me or my losses. It’s about those who have served and died. It’s about remembering them, honoring them, mourning them, and living in gratitude to the debt we owe them — and their families. It’s about recognizing the prices they paid.

Please read Ms. Moran’s article:

Why Memorial Day Isn’t For You | SpouseBUZZ.com.

And please remember.

Pets, People, Death, and Grief

(I’ve composed this post — in my mind — dozens of times since February, but couldn’t bring myself to word it while my 13-year-old dog’s kidneys were failing. She rallied for a miraculous while, but this week her energy and appetite declined. For her sake, I had to let her go. Now that she’s gone, I can’t not put it into words.)  

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

Two weeks after her diagnosis, my dog rallied for several weeks. Each extra day was a gift!

If your friend lost a beloved pet (or person), remember that grief is the body’s natural (though awful!) response to losing someone with an emotional connection.

  1. Pets are not people,
    but
  2. Pets are people, too.

Huh? Didn’t I just contradict myself? Yes.

And no.

Pets are not people. Their bodies have different biological rhythms, their life spans (for most species) will run out long before their humans’ lives do, and they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

Kind of like children. Their bodies have developing biological rhythms that differ from those of their parents (think of newborn sleeping, eating, and um, diapering needs), their life spans (with tragic exceptions) will outlast their parents’ lives,  and for years they are 100 percent physically dependent upon the people who care for them.

As we care for our pets, our children, our elderly relatives, our spouses, and our family-by-choice friends (whose bonds of kinship in some cases exceed those crafted in blood or in law), we join our hearts, minds, and extremities (hands, paws, wingtips, scales, fins …) with theirs.

We and they become family. We serve them, they serve us. We love them.

And when they leave us, they take that joined part of our hearts, our minds, and even the feelings of our extremities with them.

We mourn them.

As with other losses we’ve experienced, we can draw upon our own pain to help us better understand those who are mourning. But we must never, ever compare our losses or one-up “my grief is harder than your grief.” Ever.

I’m mourning my dog. Every part of my house and every part of my day reminds me of her absence. It HURTS. But as much as I love and miss her, this grief is not the same grief I felt after my husband’s death or my mother’s. It’s a different, less intense grief.

And yes, each “new” grief brings back a degree of the shock and the pain of each “old” source of bereavement.

Several people who dearly, deeply love their pets made comments they intended to help (but that did the opposite). When I needed to express my grief over the man who fathered my children, I didn’t appreciate hearing anyone say they “knew” how I felt because they’d had to put down a sick dog once several years earlier or they were dreading “going through” what I was experiencing when the inevitable happened to their pets.

My daughters didn’t appreciate similar comments comparing their dad’s death to the passing of friends’ cats, either. I don’t mean to imply that the loss of a pet is insignificant, because it does matter. When you learn a friend’s beloved fur baby has passed, by all means, speak up and share your condolences! (“I’m sorry about Flipper. She was a good goldfish.”)

But don’t rush in to judge or suggest courses of “replacement” — and this applies to the loss of  a person as well. (Do NOT ask whether — or when — they’re going to get another dog, cat, spouse, or child. Do NOT ask how soon they will start visiting animal shelters, dating, or “trying again” for another baby!)

Comparing losses or rushing to “replace” those we’ve loved doesn’t work. Think of it like this: Would it be better to lose your dominant hand or one of your legs? Which of your senses would you choose to lose? Who would you prefer to mourn when death steps into your circle of loved ones?

All loss hurts. All grief has to be worked through.

Let your friends know that you know they are hurting. (“I’m sorry about Donatello. I know you’re going to miss that sweet, stubborn donkey.”)

Be there with them. Bring tissues or chocolate or music or whatever your friends will find soothing.

Share your memories of their beloved. (“Remember the time Bunny chased that obnoxious salesman away? Good ole rabbit…”

Send word. Drop a line of text, a Facebook comment, an email, or (gasp!) an actual note or letter. They’ll be appreciated.

Many of my kind human friends have already done that for me. I thank you. You are amazing, and your compassion has brought sweetness into my saddened heart as I mourn my beloved, ever-faithful fur friend.

___
Helping Your Child When the Family Pet Dies” by the ASPCA includes some validating suggestions and further links at the bottom of its page.

 

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

LISTEN without Judgment

To “listen without judgment” requires two actions on behalf of grieving friends, coworkers, relatives, or even strangers.

  1. L-I-S-T-E-N.
  2. Be quiet. (I would have said, “Shut up!” but thought that seemed too impolite.)

When you learn that someone you know has lost a loved one, among the most helpful things you can do is to “be there” for them. In many social settings silence is an awkward intruder, but when comforting the bereaved it can be a welcome participant.

In my post about grieving children, I mentioned the importance of asking kids if they’d like to talk about their deceased loved ones or about their feelings.  The same principle applies to adults mourning significant losses as well.

I was blessed with some friends who did this beautifully.

One day a few months after my husband died, a friend invited me to lunch. I remember sitting at the table with tears streaming down my face as I vented about my pain and loneliness, expressed my anxiety over my daughters’ grief, and confided regarding the physical toll mourning had taken on my body. Our poor waitress (and a few fellow diners) appeared alarmed by my waterworks, but when I apologized my friend shook her head and assured me she didn’t care what they thought.

The few words she spoke during that meal were supportive, encouraging phrases that allowed me to share my honest feelings. She validated my experience by reminding me that my grief was all about me. She said things like:

  • “That sounds really hard.”
  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I appreciate you sharing this with me.”
  • “What are your feelings about that?”

Because she encouraged me to share my true feelings and never expressed how she thought I “should” feel, I was able to relay and process sometimes conflicting thoughts and emotions that would have festered inside me otherwise. Her willingness to listen nurtured my healing.