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.

 

Give Grieving Friends Breathing Room, but Stick Around

Be patient (but persistent) when grieving friends don’t answer, and give them room (and reminders) to breathe.

After my husband died, a maelstrom of emotions consumed my energy and focus. What little coherency I had went into consoling and caring for my daughters and poorly completing the most basic household tasks. (I seldom remembered — or bothered — to care for myself.) It probably seemed like I was ignoring friends’ efforts on my behalf, but social niceties were so far off my emotional radar they belonged to another plane of existence, another lifetime.

Many caring people reached out to offer support, to see how I was doing, and to let me know I was loved. I was aware of every phone call, handwritten note, text, and Facebook message, but as if from a great distance. I knew etiquette rules (and common sense) required I acknowledge them, but I lacked the ability, the energy, the will to respond.

When people said, “Call if you need anything,” I knew they meant it — but I also knew that I would not call. I couldn’t. Could not. Even if I’d been able to identify what I needed–and for a long time I had no idea — it was beyond my capability to pick up the phone and ask for help. A couple of times I almost called back, but my cell phone felt like an anvil whenever I tried pressing the call button. It was weighted down by the reality of my husband’s death.

Kindhearted folks offered, “Let’s go to lunch one day.” On a rational level, I knew it would be good — and good for me — to get out of the house with a friend when I was ready. Unfortunately, the rational part of my mind was overloaded by the irrationality of emotion. Picture standing in a shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Hear the roar of voices and competing store soundtracks and crying children? Now imagine a friend waving at you (from the other end of the mall) to listen to the tune of an antique music box she just wound. That music box tune across the mall was the rational part of my mind in the earliest weeks and months. The highest, hardest-to-hear notes were my social skills.

Some offers were too soon for me, but for another bereaved soul they might have been perfectly timed. Most were not repeated. I’d like to think that was out of misguided (though well-intended) respect for the privacy and space I’d needed earlier. A handful of folks asked again — a few days or weeks later — but I still wasn’t ready. I appreciated their invitations even when I didn’t accept them.

The friends whose invitations and contact offered the greatest support and strength were politely persistent:

  • They never asked why I hadn’t returned earlier messages. (The last thing mourners need is the added grief of blame or guilt.)
  • They didn’t give up. They waited a bit, then contacted me again, whether I’d responded or not.
  • If I asked them to call again next week (or whenever), they did. Promptly.
    If they offered to call me two days or three weeks later or a month later, they did. (And no, I didn’t mark their anticipated contacts on my calendar, but yes, I was fully aware when they demonstrated I could count on them. I also recognized when others failed to make their promised callback.)
  • Instead of asking, “How are you?” they asked concrete questions like
    • “What time can I drop off a [plant, dessert, card…]?”
    • “Can we get together __-day for [lunch, a movie, a workshop …]?”
    • “You asked me to wait a while before [calling, coming, inviting …]. Are you ready for that now?”
    • “Are you remembering to  [eat, sleep, drink water, breathe (yes — breathe)* …]?”

As weeks passed into months and I became more willing–and able–to interact, I learned about the importance of patient friendship through grief-clouded days. By the time I was ready to step out, so to speak, many of those who’d invited me to do so no longer reached out. I still wasn’t strong enough to call on them, but one by one I began answering those who still contacted me.

It took a long, long time for me to return phone calls. It took much longer for me be able to make them. (It’s been over three years, and sometimes it’s still hard to do.)

I will always remain grateful for the patient friends who kept reaching out to me when I couldn’t yet reach back.

___

*A note on breathing: A couple of weeks after my husband died, another widow asked, “Are you breathing?” At first I thought the question ridiculous. Of course I was breathing. Then she asked if I was emptying and filling my lungs completely. I took a deep, deliberate breath — and was shocked. After that one lungful, I understood what she’d meant. I’d been barely breathing, existing on shallow breaths ever since the shock of that night. The difference was invigorating, but it took months of conscious effort to learn to breathe normally again out of habit. Since then, I learned that in traditional Chinese medicine, the lungs are recognized as the primary organ of grief.