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.

 

Lost, Found, and Lost Again–Goodbye, YWBB

Several weeks after my husband died, a friend of a friend suggested I visit a website for young widows. Like me, she’d been widowed not long before, and she’d found it a balm for her wounded, bereaved soul. When our mutual friend mentioned it to me, I balked. How could I — why would I — ever consider putting my most raw, vulnerable feelings “out there” under a made-up user name to converse with strangers in a forum that anyone in the world could read?

(Says the woman whose blog now does just that, but in her own name …)

I resisted the invitation to check out the website, but my friend persisted, insisting it had helped her friend and that it could help me, too. After fending off several promptings from her, I finally typed in the site address. (I figured I’d give it a quick glance so I could tell her I’d done it — so she’d stop asking.)

What I didn’t know then, but quickly learned upon my first look at the site, was that it was FILLED with others who’d suffered their own similar, devastating losses. I believe there were about 17,000 registered users at the time — a staggering number considering I was the only young widow I knew then.  It was one thing for friends and family to reassure me, “You’ll be okay, Teresa. You’ll get through this.” Their words were positive and encouraging and appreciated and … emotionally unbelievable.

How could any of the people in my “real life” know what it meant to suddenly, unexpectedly be “relieved” of 24/7 soul mate caretaking? How could they relate to the weight of being the sole, surviving parent of college and high school students? How could they assure me that things would “be okay” for my kids (and me) while life as we knew it tumbled apart and away in grief and loneliness and shock and a thousand other irrevocable daily changes…

Within seconds — yes, seconds — of my first glance at the Young Widows Bulletin Board (YWBB), I felt the weight of “aloneness” slip from my shoulders. These people were my people, from all walks of life, from just about every corner of the globe. All knew the self-severing pain of losing their other halves. All wore the wounds of widowhood.

They assured me it was okay to cry whenever (and wherever) I needed to. They reminded me I needed to breathe deeply and drink more water to cope with the physical stresses of bereavement. They understood why I couldn’t remember to prepare meals (or eat them), why I got lost driving within my neighborhood, and why simple errands left me sobbing. They shared the same physical cravings for their companions.

With these, my new peers, I was home.

They didn’t tell me to “be happy” for his lack of ongoing suffering or to “be glad” it was quick. They didn’t tell me when I “should” feel this way or that. They didn’t reassure me he was “in a better place,” even when they believed it as firmly as I did. They didn’t minimize his absence by “consolation” that I was “young enough” to marry again.

They acknowledged, and therefore validated, my pain.

In the years since I took that first glance, I grew to know and care about many of “the regulars” and before long I found myself in the role of nurturer for the newly widowed. I’ve met with many of my friends from the site and formed lifelong bonds. In time, I leaned on the YWBB less frequently as I grew and healed and found other sources of solace and support.

But it was always there as an emotional backup.

Until today.

The site recently announced it would forever close as of March 20, 2015. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve frantically poured spare minutes into the painstaking, time consuming process of copying and pasting my archived posts into my personal journal. I’d made a lot of comments over the years, so the process took HOURS. I had about 60 comments to go (out of more than 1300) when at midnight this message appeared:

Young Widows Bulletin Board signs off

It is gone. I knew it was coming, and yet … I mourn anew at its passing.

Worse, far worse, early this morning — between the time I began drafting this post and the time I finished it — a friend joined the ranks of the young widowed. She’s a woman of great faith; please offer a prayer (or two or more) in behalf of my friend and her family. My heart hurts for her (and for her children) and I want to — I wish I could — walk her gently to the place of my now-missing lifeline. 

There are other sites available now, and I’m sure they will offer complete camaraderie and sustaining support, too. But they won’t be the same.

___
(By the way, Cynthia and Eileen, thanks again for your kind, well-aimed nudges toward what became a source of strength and encouragement when I so badly needed it.)