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.

 

Mother’s Day Grief

 

I’ve put off writing about Mother’s Day this year, even though many folks now face this arguably difficult holiday for the first time while grieving loved ones. Within my own community, too many families carry on the best they can while bereaved over children, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends who’ve died in the last year.  

If someone you care about — or even someone you know only as a casual acquaintance — has endured the death of a loved one, please let them know you’re thinking of them. Whether they respond to your outreach or not, they will know they were offered your kindness, which those who mourn sorely need.

Sometimes grieving hearts stand shriveled alongside bright, cheery ones. Please take some time to look around you and see whose sorrowing soul you can help. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

I hope these posts I’ve already written about Mother’s Day topics will encourage you with ways you can show tangible support to grieving friends:

While commercials may tout bright, fancy ways to commemorate Mother’s Day, please remember that comfort in grief often comes in the simplest ways. You don’t have to do something big to make a difference, but please do something.

 

St. Patrick and the Green Grief Monster

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (or not) isn’t the same when you’re grieving. Nothing is. The day itself commemorates the death of Ireland’s patron saint — originally it was a religious observation. But in recent years its solemnity appears all but forgotten as popular culture makes it into a day for people to celebrate their Irish heritage (whether real or adapted for the day).

In my family, with Irish ancestors on both my side and my late husband’s side, our St. Patrick’s Days were all about the green. When our kids were little, I’d add green food coloring into milk, pancakes, cookie dough — whatever I could think of — just to infuse the day with a bit more color.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick's Days.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick’s Days. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

We wore green, of course, because nobody wanted to get pinched.

I made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for dinner. A few times I made Irish brown bread from a magazine or cookbook recipe.

And that was it — St. Patrick’s Day at our house.

After my husband died, memory and timekeeping did an agonizing push-pull dance.  For more than a year, I knew exactly how many days, weeks, and months had passed since his death. The awareness wasn’t something I tried to keep track of — it just was.

I also knew when holidays loomed ahead of me, but I backpedaled from them, dragging my feet as the calendar funneled me toward them. Maybe I thought if I didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t prepare for them, didn’t commemorate them … Maybe by ignoring those yearly occasions, I could avoid the pain of experiencing them without my husband.

I also felt guilty for the unwilling resentment I felt toward couples I saw enjoying such days together. I wanted to walk up to them and say, “Whatever you do, don’t take each other for granted. You’re together. Not everyone has that.”

I’d felt similar pangs of green-eyed jealousy after my mom died when I’d see grown daughters with their mothers. It was especially difficult at church, watching women I grew up with visiting home and spending that time with their moms. Of course I was happy for them, but it hurt that they had what I no longer did.

More than a few times, when I overheard women (of various ages) griping about their moms or snapping at them with harsh words at the store or a restaurant, I butted in — completely unbidden. “Excuse me,” I’d say. “You don’t know how long you get to have her in your life. When she’s gone you are going to regret acting like this.” Then I’d walk away. (I’ve tried to keep my own words in mind when interacting with my grown daughters. Every day together is precious.)

It hurt to remember my husband and my mother during holidays. It hurt worse when others didn’t acknowledge their absence during those same days.

Although it wasn’t my intention to walk around under a cloud of doom, I couldn’t help resenting well-intended “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” greetings, along with every other “happy this” or “happy that” greeting in the first couple of years after each new loss. Sure, I wanted to be happy, but I was mourning. And grief is not a  happy process.

The best support friends gave me during holidays, on anniversaries, and on other tender dates was to acknowledge my loss.

It may seem contradictory, but speaking of the deceased loved one can offer better cheer than saying “Have a happy [whatever] day.” Instead, tell your grieving friend something like, “I’m sure you’re missing [SAY the name!] today. I’m thinking of you.”

This is my sixth widowed St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no corned beef and cabbage on the menu, but I’ve made green milk and cookies again, and I no longer scowl when wished a “happy St. Patrick’s Day.” For now, that’s enough.

 

 

Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting
http://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/.

Mourning on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day hurts. I don’t like dwelling on the downside of death (although that may seem like a strange thing from someone who writes about grief), but the best way for me to get through every second Sunday in May is to close the blinds and hunker down in solitude.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

Sometimes the light of love (and its loss) shines brighter against the darkness of grief.

It wasn’t always like that. As a kid I picked flowers, drew cards, and poured adulation on Mom. As a young adult, then a new bride, and eventually a mother myself I appreciated her (and my grandmas and aunts) more deeply than before. My cards and gestures of appreciation (which once seemed so grand) paled next to Mom’s lifetime of service — though my daughters’ creative endeavors for me melted my heart.

After Mom died, Mother’s Day went dark. I still went to church that day, but mostly for my children’s sakes. (I wanted them to see me attending weekly even if I didn’t feel like it, and I knew they and their peers had practiced a song for all the moms.) I enjoyed their lovely hugs (and songs) and cards and “interesting” breakfasts in bed that one day of the year.

But the moment memories of Mom meandered into the day, renewed mourning overtook me.

Over the years I’ve learned to live with my mother’s loss, but there were always certain days per year — like Mother’s Day — wherein the pain of being a daughter without a mother hit me again. Hard.

Those hits became all-out assaults after my husband died. The pain of being a wife without a husband knocked the breath out of me.

This is my fifth widowed Mother’s Day. It’s easier … and yet it’s not. (My plastic smile will be a little more convincing as I smile at the children singing at church this year, but I know better than to bother wearing eye makeup.)

If you know someone grieving this Mother’s Day, let them know you’re mindful of their loss. Let them know you’re thinking about them. Let them know you know this year is different than it was.

Don’t say you know how they feel, because you don’t — especially if you’ve never suffered a similar loss. Only bereaved mothers, for instance, can nearly understand the raw feelings of other mothers who have buried a child. Acknowledge the unique, personal, presence of their grief.

Some people need interaction with others to distract them from tender days like this. Reach out and invite them!

But if they ignore or decline your invitation or phone calls, don’t take it personally. They might be like I am, needing to hunker down this year, but also appreciating messages of support. (I’m keeping the “Please do NOT disturb” sign on my door all day.)

Whether they take you up on your offers or don’t bother responding, let them know you’re aware and you care.