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.

 

New Year after Death

Illustration of running the gauntlet from "Spiessgasse" (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525. (This image is in the public domain.) Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

Illustration of running the gauntlet from “Spiessgasse” (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525.
(This image is in the public domain.)
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

‘Twas the week after Christmas and ‘fore the New Year,
When partyers gathered to prolong good cheer.
But for mourners it marked yet another milestone
(without absent loved ones) of being alone.
— Teresa  TL Bruce

The holidays are hard for the newly bereaved. (They’re not so easy for the not-so-newly bereaved, either.) Since early fall (in the U.S.), we’ve run the grieving gauntlet of celebrations — Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas — and now we’re facing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. [Please see New Year, New Grief for specifics on grief, the end of one year, and the beginning of the next.]

Sometimes, the cumulative effects of getting through event after event without deceased loved ones can seem like too much to bear. Sometimes mourners become overwhelmed with breathing — with being — in a world whose traditions and commemorations keep going while their lost loves do not.

For weeks now I’ve been reflecting on something I saw on the news the week before Thanksgiving. Former NFL New England Patriot quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents died of natural causes within hours of one another. His father had a fatal heart attack, and then his mother did, too.

It’s been said she died of a broken heart. I believe it.

My sympathies and condolences go to the Fluties’ children, grandchildren, and other extended family this holiday season and as they begin the new year without them. Losing a parent is agonizing. (I know how I felt when my mother died.) Losing a grandparent is painful and life-changing, too. (I miss all of my grandparents.)

I cannot imagine the sorrow and ache of losing both parents (or two grandparents) in a single day.

For their immediate and extended family’s sake, I am sorry. Their pain and mourning will last beyond the initial swells of sympathy and kindness they no doubt received from their friends (and from the public).

But for the sake of the couple themselves, who died within hours of each other …

Losing a spouse is heart-breaking. Literally. It wasn’t until my husband’s death that I understood how physically broken a heart could feel. But it wasn’t just my heart. I had grafted my life to my husband’s — joined in mind, heart, body, and soul. His death ripped, tore at, axed, smashed, and severed our joined mind, heart, body, and soul — my mind, my heart, my body, my soul.

We were one. And when one is halved, the fraction remaining is not whole. The surviving spouse is an off-kilter, walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human.

I remember how awful the first days felt. (First weeks, months, years …) I resented rare couples, like the Fluties, who passed from this life into the next together by peaceful, natural causes.

For the sakes of that late husband and his briefly widowed wife (whose family now doubly grieves their dual absence), I reluctantly admit I held a sliver of envy. (Amid the widowed community, I know I’m not alone in this.)

I’m not the only widowed one who, on hearing of one spouse shortly following the other into death, feels … (I don’t like admitting this) … jealous.

Now, lest any of my friends, family, or readers misunderstand me, let me be very, very clear before we go on from here:  I did not ever, I do not now, and I will not ever contemplate taking any action to hasten “joining” my late husband. No. NOT gonna happen.*

But there were times I would have welcomed a passive exit of my own. There were times when grief was so ever-present, so debilitating, so excruciating, so overwhelming, so lonely … I went to bed hoping not to wake up. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live, because I had three amazing daughters who needed me. I had other family and friends I needed and loved, too. But I didn’t know how to keep going One. More. Hour. — let alone another DAY — in that much pain.

Waking up to a new day was as awful as going to bed alone. (Sometimes.)

Among the newly widowed, dying together can seem preferable to surviving a spouse. (At least for a while.) Over and over I heard others say, “Why did I have to stay behind? Why do I have to keep going? How can I endure hurting this badly?”

There’s nothing you can do to remove their pain, but you can make sure they don’t endure it alone. Include them. Be with them. Validate their loss by acknowledging and accepting their sorrow.

Let them know you’ll be by their side — and not just on New Year’s Eve, but in the unbearably long 365 days that follow.

___

*If you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that “not living” seems like an option, please, please seek professional help. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for the sakes of those around you, get help now.
Visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

 

Speak the Names of the Dead

what to say when someone dies

Speak the Names of the Dead (word cloud created on WordItOut.com)

People often mistakenly worry they’ll “make” grieving survivors feel sad by mentioning or alluding to their friends’ deceased loved ones. They’re afraid speaking up will remind them of the loss. There are two reasons this isn’t so:

  • You can’t “remind” a person of something they cannot (and should not and don’t want to) forget. Grief is rooted in love, and that love doesn’t die with the deceased. For the one grieving, no matter the relationship — bereaved parent, sibling, child, grandparent, best friend, spouse, aunt, uncle, niece, cousin, in-law, or other loving mourner — the loss is never forgotten. With time — more time than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve mourned a similar loss — the sadness will thin from a suffocating deluge to a gentle mist that moistens but no longer threatens drowning. It may at times seem imperceptible, but it never evaporates completely.
  • Most people who mourn loved ones fear that others will forget them. They may feel they have to hold tighter to the memories of their dear dead ones — because if they don’t, who will remember? Hearing others speak their dear ones’ names acknowledges they aren’t — and won’t be — forgotten. It frees them to mourn without fear of losing their memories.

Yes, your friends’ eyes may glisten (or pour) when you speak their loved ones’ names, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes grief fills a mourner full to bursting — and tears act as a pressure release valve.

It’s been nearly five years since my husband’s death and nearly twenty years since my mom’s. My life is rich and full (sometimes too full) and I’ve learned to live with the grief I still — yes, still — feel for them. (Thank heaven I’m way past the awful days, er, months when I blurted out variations of “My husband died” to everyone I encountered.)

But there are days when grief gets ugly again, not just for me, but for everyone who has lost someone dear. It sneaks up behind us and whispers cruel doubts about whether anyone else still cares they’re gone, about our ability to keep on keeping on, about the disloyalty of moving forward in our lives without them.

Those are some of the days when we most need to hear others speak their names. Tell us stories of what they did — good or bad.* If you knew them, tell us you miss them, too (no matter how long it’s been). If you didn’t know them, tell us you remember (and understand) that missing them goes on . . . long after they have.

___

*I realized after writing this that part of my thinking (and post title) draws on echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Its title character cautions survivors that he will speak the truth — the full truth — about the dead they wish memorialized.

In Support of a Grieving Family

My friend’s son died yesterday morning.

In the final days of his life, his name became well-known beyond the circle of his immediate family and their friends. I hope there will be an equally widespread outpouring of support for his family. Please forgive me if this sounds presumptuous, but I’d like to reiterate principles to remember for anyone who may be reaching out to his grieving family.

[Note: Right now I’m too close to the emotions of the topic, so I’m modifying excerpts from two previous posts. (*For links to the original blog entries, see the end of this one.)]

Grieving the death of a loved one — especially a child — defies description.

Even others who’ve experienced a loss of similar devastation can imagine only a fraction of what grieving parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins face. 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. Please read her article for helpful insights into what NOT to say (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/).

I’ve summarized her main points below, but please, please see her full article!

  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 or sibling, 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.

___

Children grieve as deeply as adults, but they lack the maturity and experience to identify and put words to their feelings.

Here are some things NOT to say to a grieving child–of any age:

  • “You need to take care of your [surviving family members] now.” While compassion for one’s family is worthwhile, the job of a child is to be a child, not a head of household. Children (especially older ones) will resent being told what they should do, especially if it is an area they are already considering on their own.
  • “God needed him/her more than you did.” Really?! To grieving children (and to many adults), no one (especially not an all-powerful God) could “need” their loved ones more than they do.
  • “God took him/her to heaven.” To very young children already facing traumatic upheaval, the notion of God (whom they cannot see) randomly “taking” people can be frightening rather than comforting. To older children, whose fledgling faith may be quavering in their bereavement, such statements can prick rebellion rather than consolation. Allow children’s immediate caretakers to address all faith-related aspects of grieving unless they specifically ask for your input.
  • “You’re the man [or lady] of the house now.” This is a cruel burden to place on a child, especially one who is grieving.
  • “At least you had your [parent, sibling, relative, friend] for X [years, months, days]. That’s longer than some …” Instead of acknowledging the significance of the loss, this and every other “at least” statement demeans the reason the child is mourning.
  • “Don’t cry” or “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Crying is an essential part of grieving, and sadness is a natural response to separation from loved ones. Suppressing such emotional expression can be harmful.

Here are  HELPFUL things to say to a bereaved child–of any age:

  • “It’s okay to feel ____.” Fill in the blank with whatever emotions you see the child displaying. Naming the emotions will help the child identify and label otherwise overwhelming feelings. Being angry, sad, confused, frustrated, afraid, and resentful are all normal responses to grief.
  • Children need “permission” to feel happy and optimistic about things, even while grieving. Experiencing and enjoying moments of play are an important part of how kids process difficult feelings.
  • “Would you like to talk about your [sibling, cousin, friend, etc.]?” Children take their behavioral cues from the adults around them. However, family members are likely to handle their collective grief in individual ways.
  • The bereaved — including children — should never be forced to discuss their absent loved ones, but they should be offered opportunities to do so.

Thank you for taking the time to read what is and isn’t helpful to mourning families. While nothing you can do or say will make things “better,” you can make an uplifting difference by showing that you care.

__

*See the full original post texts here: https://tealashes.com/2014/01/28/do-not-say-these-to-a-bereaved-parent-or-any-other-mourner/

and here: https://tealashes.com/2013/11/20/for-grieving-children-wear-blue-on-childrens-grief-awareness-day/