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.


Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.


*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.





Grieving through the Holidays — A Personal Message to Mourners

Several friends and acquaintances have contacted me in recent weeks because someone they know has lost a loved one. They’re worried about how grieving friends will endure the holiday season. The purpose of my website has always focused on educating people — like my friends — in how to support the newly (and not-so-newly) bereaved.

I’ve spoken indirectly to mourners rather than addressing them here — until now:

Dear Mourning Friend of My Friend,

I’m sorry.

As a widow whose life partner perished — and as a daughter who yet mourns her mother — I share my grief with you. Not in comparison with yours but as an offering to open communication. I do not know the exact pain of your bereavement — I have not experienced it. But from within the pain of my own, I recognize your guttural groans of grief as the same life-altered language of loss I’ve learned.*

I’m so sorry.

My Friend’s Friend, if I could sit down beside you, I’d listen to you cry (and maybe probably drop a tear or two of my own) while handing you one thick, lotion-infused tissue after another. (I’d bring a new box for you each time I arrived.)

I’d nod my head (and bite my tongue) while you ranted and raved about anything and everything remotely responsible for the death of your loved one.

If you said out loud all the things you’re going to miss about your dear one, I’d listen to every one — and I’d write them if you’d like me to. If you chose to tell me funny stories about your deceased darling, I’d laugh along with you (again handing you tissues if when laughter crossed the line back to tears).

I’d hear you out — without judgement or interruption — if you chose to tell me of your faith and how it helps you cope — or how it does not. If you asked me — and only if you asked — I’d relay how my faith sustained me through the earliest days of my own grieving (and — if you asked — how, six years later, it keeps me afloat through the occasional blindsiding waves of renewed grief).

If you wanted someone at your side to attend a worship service, I’d go with you, and you wouldn’t have to explain yourself or feel like hiding your tears when the familiarity of place and ritual clashed against the unfamiliar absence of your dearly departed. I wouldn’t judge you if you needed to flee mid-hymn or mid-prayer.

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Grief dehydrates through tears and stress. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I’m so sorry for the devastating loss of your loved one.

If I could sit down beside you in your grieving, I’d bring you a glass of water, I’d suggest you drink it, and I’d tell you to breathe. Yes, breathe.**

(Really. Before you read further, take a long, deep breath.) 

I would not say, “Call me if you need anything,” because I remember how confused I was while newly grieving. I didn’t know what I needed — but I knew I was as physically as emotionally incapable of picking up the phone to ask anyone for help — no matter how sincere I believed their offer.

Nor would I ask, “How are you?” because I remember how impossible it was to answer that question when half my heart felt ripped away.

But I would reassure you that, no, you’re not crazy, and yes, your grieving body is likely doing all sorts of weird things to your appetite, skin, digestion, sleep cycle, immune system, memory … I’d encourage you that — in time — much of that will resettle, but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt — and might help — to check in with your doctor.

I’d write things down for you, because you’re going to forget. I’d bring you an obnoxious, look-at-me-bright neon notebook for recording and storing all the death-related red tape and paperwork — everything from jotting the names, phone extensions, and times of day you speak with employees over cancelling accounts, to listing the kind ways friends and neighbors reach out, to stockpiling the government forms you have yet to fill out.

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation's annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn't make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Three months after my husband died, I attended our congregation’s annual Christmas pot luck social. I couldn’t make myself go again until this year, the sixth after his death. (Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If I sat with you side by side, and you asked how I made it through the first (and second) holiday season after my mother died, and then after my husband died, I’d lower my eyes, thinking, Not well. Then I’d answer as positively as honesty allows, “I don’t really know. Much is a merciful blur …”

I’d pause before speaking the rest: “… but the parts I remember — hurt.”

I’d add assurances that it’s okay — even necessary — to be flexible about Christmas parties and Hanukkah traditions and holiday gatherings. I’d acknowledge they will never be the same. Only you will know which customary activities might bring you peace through their connection to your deceased loved one; only you will know which might grind salted vinegar into the raw recesses of your grieving heart. I’d give you my permission — which you don’t need — to change your mind at any time about any and all of whatever celebrations you desire to join in on. And I’d remind you that when traditions no longer bring joy, it’s okay to exchange them.

I’d ask if you’d welcome a hug, and if not, I’d graciously accept your refusal. When you’re the one grieving, you’re allowed to say what you need and want.


*My friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford‘s On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them beautifully speaks that language. Reading her poignant portrayal of working through her son’s death and studying the passages she shared from other voices helped me when I needed it.

**For specifics on why I urge you to breathe, see this post on the taboo topic of appearance.

When Grieving Friends Go Quiet

“I haven’t heard from my friends since the funeral. Why don’t they return calls?” I’ve heard mourners ask this question — but others have asked the same question about those who are bereaved.

Yesterday one of my friends expressed concern over not hearing much from me lately. Also a widowed writer, she’d noticed my diminished postings here and on my Facebook page. *

Silence isn’t my norm, but this summer became a season of quiet.

Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

107 Degrees in the Car. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I don’t mean quiet in the sense of vacationing away from home or hiding out from Florida’s relentless heat.

I mean quiet as in stilled by Mom’s adage — If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all — mixed with an adulterated metaphor — grief’s got your tongue. (Sorry, cat. You’re out of this one.)

So now, nearly six years into widowhood, when grief’s got my tongue, near-silence results. (More on this later.)

I wasn’t always this way.

In the early months after my husband’s death, I radiated raw emotion. I sobbed in public and blurted nonstop without thinking. Grief shredded whatever filters I’d once had.

As shock faded, I began — gradually — to recognize strangers’ uncomfortable body language whenever I shoved the intimacy of my loss into their awareness. (It took nearly a year to rein my words in, longer to channel the emotion behind them.)

Worse were the moments acquaintances’ and friends’ expressions shouted wordless discomfort … then beat hasty retreats.

But I still needed to talk about my loss.  One of the greatest gifts you can give grieving friends is the assurance and presence of being there to listen — without judgement — over and over again.

Suppressed grief doesn’t disappear or go away — it drills deeper, cutting below the surface of already inflamed wounds, even damaging what may appear (from outside) to be healing.

Mourning is personal, even when the loss is publicly known and acknowledged past the deceased’s core family and friends.

Britain’s Prince Harry recently said, “I really regret not ever talking about” Princess Diana’s death.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for Harry and William to mourn their mother while the world watched and weighed in.

As much as I needed to talk through the traumas of my mother’s and husband’s deaths, I also needed to insulate myself. Wounded, I cocooned myself (and my kids, as much as possible) toward healing. Answering the phone took monumental effort; returning calls exceeded my capability. Opening emails overwhelmed me; replying no longer seemed possible, let alone expected.

Sometimes, like this summer, I return to similar silence.

I’ve written elsewhere of why July 4th renews missing my mother and about my first wedding anniversary after my spouse died — our 25th. Tiptoeing toward and through those dates (and a birthday) this month had me on shaky footing as my 30th anniversary approached.

Meanwhile, a couple of personal, below the belt blows left me reeling.

And horrific, ongoing public scenarios fill this summer’s news: The Christina Grimmie and Pulse shootings in my hometown. Violent murders and beatings by errant police officers, which prompted demonstrations of much needed awareness that #BlackLivesMatter. Attacks by rogue protesters against dutiful officers in Dallas and other cities. Political vitriol spewed between people (of otherwise seemingly good conscience and good sense). The plight of refugees around the world (including those my friend Melissa Dalton-Bradford volunteers with and writes about — see, for example, “Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story“) …

Maybe it's grief, not the cat, that's got your mourning friend's tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Maybe it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got your mourning friend’s tongue. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Sometimes it’s grief, not the cat, that’s got one’s tongue.

Even if your silent (or blurting) grieving friends don’t call you back or reply to your texts or emails, keep reaching out. One day, they may have the strength to respond again, and knowing you’ve cared all along will make that possible.


*Thanks again for reaching out, Shelby Ketchen! Your friendship is as full of honest encouragement as your writing. (Check out Shelby’s latest at www.BrokentoBlessed.com.)