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.

 

When Should Mourners Move On?

When should the bereaved stop talking about their deceased loved ones or their grief? I’ll answer by posing more questions.

When your friends got married, did you tell them to stop speaking of their husband or wife a few weeks or months after the wedding? Do you tell coworkers to remove family pictures from their workplaces or stop mentioning their kids once they’ve left babyhood, elementary school, or the nest? When lifelong friends announce their move to another state, do you vow to never communicate with — or about — them again?

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

writing and grief books, a covered family photo, and pens (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Of course not. To do so would be insensitive at best, rude at worst.

Marriage, childbirth, relocation — these are tremendous life changes, life-altering conditions. Once entered into, life for the participants becomes different than it was before, with birthdays, anniversaries, and physical reminders inextricable ongoing reminders. People expect and understand their conversations and preoccupations will center around those changes. After all, once a parent, always a parent …

So why force such expectations on mourners?

The death of a dear one marks another monumental shift in a person’s life and outlook. When a beloved one’s life ends, surviving loved ones’ lives are forever altered, with bereaved birthdays, agonizing anniversaries, and physical reminders both present and absent all around them.

Yet people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or behaviors). Worse, they sometimes tell the grieving to “get over it” or “move on.”

But love and loss are inextricably entwined — so what mourners hear from such comments is “stop loving the one who died … and stop talking about it.”

Before you feel tempted to chime in on another’s grief, ask yourself why you feel compelled to comment:

  • Are you truly worried for your friend, sorry to see them living in a place of such sorrow, and hoping to comfort and lift them from it? If so, that’s admirable, but offering them a nonjudgmental, listening ear will enable them to better process their grieving.
  • Or are you tired of hearing about their sadness because it makes you uncomfortable, opening up fears of what it will be like when you face a similar loss? If so, let yourself dwell a little deeper in those fears. I guarantee you won’t be able to image how hard grieving will be, but if you really, really think about it, you might develop just enough empathy to realize how much understanding your grieving friend needs.

How long will it take to “get over” grief? Well, how long does it take to “get over” love?

It has now been nearly 21 years since my mother died — 21 years, and I still miss her! And yes, I still cry sometimes, wishing I could have her love and advice here with me again — not just the memory of it.

It’s been six years since my husband died. I don’t cry every day anymore — though I did for a long, long time (over a year) — but certain dates (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays), songs, or conversations still trigger tears. Perhaps they always will.

I’d just as soon skip September if I could only figure out how. Green Day sings it best: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (from their album American Idiot).

That doesn’t mean my life hasn’t moved forward in good, positive ways — it has! — but it illustrates that grief is a complicated process, one lasting long after the funeral.

 

When a Friend Is Grieving

What should you say to someone who is grieving the anniversary of a death that happened a year ago? What about two years? There’s never really a “good” time of year for someone to die, but the timing of any death can be hard on those left behind. Not just in the immediate days and months after the loss, but in the years ahead as well. Anniversaries of death (and other occasions) can make “old” grief feel newly raw again. There’s no time limit on how long a friend will grieve.

For the last week I’ve heard lyrics proclaiming “death and darkness gather all around me.(*See below.) I’m not living my life in gloomy obsession, but I can’t help but feel compassionate awareness. Too many friends (and family) have lost loved ones around this pre-Valentine’s Day time of year. These couple of weeks in my calendar mark days of deep significance — and mourning — to friends and family: Death and/or funeral dates of friends’ children, friends’ friends, and friend’s spouses. Wedding anniversaries of now-widowed half-couples. The day a friend’s beloved pet died.

It’s not only my friends whose grief is reinforced during this part of the calendar. These same weeks include the “angelversary” dates for my father-in-law and for one great-aunt.

At nearly 95 last last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

At nearly 95 last year, Aunt Ginny was still eager to try something new.

Now for two.

Last night, when I drafted this post and went to bed to sleep on it, the next line I wrote described that great-aunt’s sister, “another beloved great-aunt whose nearly ten decades appear to be … slowing.” When I woke up I learned my sweet Aunt Ginny passed in the early hours this morning. Part of me rejoices for the reunion she’s having with her parents and siblings and my mom and my husband! For her sake, I’m relieved her fragile, increasingly confused, and recently fractured nearly 96-year-old body isn’t hurting. But for me and for all of our family, and for all who knew her, having her gone — actually gone — leaves a painful, gaping hole of mourning.

The next words I wrote last night (immediately below) seem even more appropriate in the light of today’s sadness.

Three, four years — or however long — after a death, many of the right (and wrong) ways to support a grieving friend are the same things that apply in brand new bereavement:

1. Remember that grief is a by-product of love. Mourners have the right to grieve in their own ways and times. Grief doesn’t just “go away,” nor is it to be “gotten over.” Rather, it must be worked through, often over the course of a lifetime. Be patient and accepting of your friend’s grief.

2. Acknowledge the loss. Speaking the loved one’s name shows they aren’t forgotten. Their survivors need to know they aren’t the only ones who miss the deceased.

3. Listen — without curtailing or dismissing emotional outbursts or nostalgic reflections about dead loved ones. Ask if the bereaved would like to share stories of their loved ones. Ask if they’d like to hear your stories of their loved ones.

4. Do something. A kind gesture as simple as a text message or a handwritten note or a dropped off casserole or a quick run to the store…

5. Don’t minimize the loss. Avoid any statements including the words “at least” — they do not offer consolation when uttered to the bereaved. (If they say it themselves, that’s fine. Consoling mourners isn’t about you. It’s about them.)

___

*Because I’ve had this phrase on my mind all week, and because of the beautiful lives I wish to honor by actively remembering them, I’m adding this excerpt from a YouTube video featuring Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell.” (The lyrics at 2:00 and 2:45 have been especially on my mind.) [Added this morning: Aunt Ginny, “you are beautiful, and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell…”]

Never Tell Mourners You Know How They Feel

Yesterday I heard the umpteen-hundredth expression of “I know what you’re going through.” I felt as angry this time as I have every time well-meaning people sympathized with the same sentiment over the last three and a half years. Equally infuriating is hearing “I know exactly how you feel.”

No, you don’t.

I’ve attempted civility by biting my tongue. (Yesterday I bit my lips together, too.) When in person, I’ve tried to neutralize my facial expression and body language, and over the phone I’ve modulated my voice with care. Grief (and repeated experience over and over and over) can inspire Academy Award-worthy performances, I’ve learned.

Inside my head, though, each time someone tells me they “know” how I feel, my honest response is more visceral than a simple “No, you don’t.” Fight-or-flight takes over. My heart hammers as claws and fangs extend, my legs tense as if readying to spring, and my mouth screams, snarls, and spits the red-inked, italicized, underlined, highlighted, bold-faced, all caps reply: NO! YOU. DON’T. KNOW!

Even at my most feral moments, I acknowledge that most of those who say such things are trying to relate their pain to mine. They want to empathize, which is a good thing. Their claims, however, do the opposite. Asserting their acquaintanceship with my deeply personal pain and my struggles through grieving minimizes the unique nature of my loss, and minimizing a mourner’s experience is never a good thing. Never. Not ever.

Every relationship is unique, so no two losses are the same. When a person loses a loved one, that loss colors every aspect of life. It creates irrevocable change. It is devastating and overwhelming and pervasive and personal. When I was newly widowed, very few widowers or widows made such a claim to me. Instead, they acknowledged aspects of my loss that they didn’t share. Rather than minimizing my experience by comparison to their own, they validated the multifaceted components of my overturned, grief-ridden world.

Need an example of what offered helpful acknowledgement rather than hurtful comparison? Here are a few:

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It must be awful that you didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.”
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I know it isn’t the same, but I know how badly I hurt over my husband’s death.”
“I wish I could say something to make it better, but I know my words can’t help. I’m here to listen to you.”
“When my husband died we’d already raised our kids and retired. I can’t imagine what this is like for you.”
“I lost my [loved one of whatever relationship], but I know it isn’t the same. I’m so sorry.”

As I recalled and wrote the examples above, I thought, “How bleak they sound …” The truth is that in the bleakest of life’s circumstances — the loss of a loved one — the most easily absorbed consolation comes in compassionate yet dispassionate commiseration. There will be time for cheering and lightening in the weeks and months and years to come (so stick around to help provide that in its eventual time), but in the meantime, in the immediacy of the misery of the loss, acknowledging the darkness will help your friend adjust better than stories of how you made it through your own dark times — unless your friend asks for them.

You don’t know what a mourner is going through — even if you think you do. In fact, the same should be said of other sources of trial and bereavement in life. Death isn’t the only cause of grief; a true friend will acknowledge the unique, acute, life-altering nature of the bereaved’s pain.

Michelle L. wrote You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know for the Segullah.org blog on April 17, 2014. While her writing addresses other kinds of life trials facing “broken and struggling families,” her admonitions equally apply to comforting and supporting the bereaved. With her permission to share this, I’m quoting Michelle L.’s main points below, but please visit her post (http://segullah.org/daily-special/you-dont-know-what-you-dont-know/) to see the full text.

  1. If you read nothing else, remember this: extend love; refrain from judgment.
  2. Don’t even talk about taking sides. … When a family is destroyed, there isn’t a side to take.
  3. You don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t make assumptions. 
  4. Offer kindness to those who are broken. The very best words to say: “I’m so sorry you are hurting.”
  5. Avoid trite phrases. 
  6. Your experience doesn’t translate into mine. 
  7. Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s spiritual state. 
  8. Statistics don’t matter. 
  9. Don’t offer advice or chastisement. 
  10. Talk about other subjects. Look beyond the wounds to the whole person. 

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.

 

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.

___

*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]

Worldwide Candle Lighting Honors Deceased Children

Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting 2013This Sunday, December 8, join families across the globe in lighting a candle at 7 p.m. to support those creating “a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone, ” honoring the memories of beloved children whose lives ended too soon.”*

This will be the 17th Worldwide Candle Lighting sponsored by The Compassionate Friends, an organization whose purpose is to support families grieving the loss of a child.

I cannot imagine how mourning parents, siblings, and grandparents feel. I cannot fathom the levels of pain they experience year after year as unfulfilled birthdays, holidays, and milestones echo within empty places in their hearts.

But all through the year I can acknowledge their pain. I can listen to their feelings and memories. I can share my love through kindness and concern through my actions. I can offer my tears along with my prayers.

And this Sunday, I can light a candle. To show your support, you can, too.


*quoted from  http://www.compassionatefriends.org/News_Events/Special-Events/Worldwide_Candle_Lighting.aspx