Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 08/25/2009

What to say [or not say] to bereaved parents.

“At least you’ve got other children.” 

When people say this to me, I feel slapped — regardless of their good intentions.

Daniel died when he was 16 years old. Had he lived, he would be 34. My child has been dead longer than he was alive, but I still remember the darling things he said when he was three, and the inappropriate things people said to me at his funeral. When someone today, learning of that loss, says, “Imagine if he’d been an only child,” I am offended and hurt again. His death was no less of a loss or of an all consuming pain to me then (or now) because he had siblings.

In her book, SunRise Tomorrow: Coping with a Child’s Death, Elizabeth Brown wrote (after her daughter’s death  from a sudden-onset, flu-like illness): “Don’t tell anyone whose child is about to die that there are things worse than death, even if it is true. Don’t tell anyone that giving up a child for adoption must be worse than giving up a child to death, even if you think that at least, with death, the pain has ended. Don’t tell a parent that unless after you have gone to the funeral home to choose a casket for your own child, you still feel death is the easier alternative. Still, perhaps you should wait until you see them lower the coffin with your child into the ground.”

She added that it would have been devastating, at the visitation, “to hear comments about how good LeeAnn looked.” Brown noted: “She looked dead.”

Melody Huffman, after the death of her son Matthew, had a strong reaction to the well-intentioned person who said, “God won’t give us more than we can bear.” 

She wrote, in her blog titled When a Child Dies, “Are you saying my son died because I am a strong person and God doesn’t give us more than we can bear? Are you saying because I am strong, my son died? Are you saying you are weak and that is why your child is alive?”

You clicked the link for this article, so I’m going to assume your greatest fear now is saying the wrong thing to someone you care for. You are right to fear doing it. The “wrong thing” now is not easily forgiven or forgotten, no matter how unintentional.

Here are many of the most common mistakes (i.e., long remembered, least forgiven) and unintentionally hurtful statements made to grieving parents (using the gender-neutral term “he” for your child) :

Phrases that minimize the total devastation of the loss in any way:

  • At least you’re young. You can have other children.
  • At least you lost him at an early age. (Or before he was born; before you had time to get attached)
  • At least they you got to see him [insert milestone — crawl, walk, graduate, get married, have a child, whatever].
  • At least you have your faith.
  • At least you got to be with him when he died (Or see him before he died).
  • At least he doesn’t have to live any longer [paralyzed, in pain, on chemo, etc.].
  • At least he died in his sleep. [Died suddenly. Died peacefully.]
  • At least the doctors tried. They did everything they could.
  • At least he died in the service of his country (bravely, fighting a fire, etc., etc.)

Sidestep phrases that attach a heroic quality to surviving, too, as if the parent was chosen for their bravery (trust me, they will resent an inference that you did not intend to give).

  • I don’t know how you can be so brave. I know I couldn’t do it.
  • God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.

This next one is a hard one to include, but necessary. If you have lost a child, too, don’t take this opportunity to tell all of the details of your story to “help them know they will be better later” or to “help them know they aren’t alone” because you will unintentionally be adding or detracting from their moment to express their grief. However, you could be a valuable resource to them later. One way to acknowledge it or inform them of that potential — without using the hated “I know how you feel” line — is this kinder, gentler expression: “I lost a child myself, and my heart really breaks for you on this incredibly sorrowful day. Please let me know if I can ever be of any help to you in any way.”

Thank you, also, for avoiding phrases that imply God made a choice to “take” their child. Unless you have the credentials and experience, and have been asked by them to provide a religious framework, it may be resented if you say: 

  • God took a little angel to heaven today. {God needed a little angel, so he took [child’s name].}

Try not to  “help” the individual cope with a well-intentioned phrase that inadvertently sounds patronizing or sermonizing:

  • I know it’s hard today, but it will get easier to bear over time.
  • No one understands God’s design. We can only accept it.

So what can you offer that is authentic for you, without overlying values or sentiments that may trivialize, minimize or be inconsistent with the way they are feeling at the moment?

That’s the million-dollar question.

 Sometimes it’s most natural, and best, not to say anything. Sometimes a hug means more than 1,000 words. Tears often mean a great deal, if they are authentic and not overwhelming to the parents.

  • Listen. If the parent brings up the child or death or fears, LISTEN. Don’t change the subject or try to reassure them. LISTEN. Hold a hand. Hold a gaze. LISTEN.
  • Don’t judge. A parent may ask you to take them to the death site. Take them. A parent may ask you to visit the cemetery with them. Go. You may be expected to step outside your comfort zone with regard to accompanying them to new or unexpected outlets for their grief.
  • Make allowances for their grief, for their (sometimes inappropriately directed) anger. Please do what you can do (responsibly) to support them as they find their way through their aweful nightmare.

How can you simply (or ever) express your own grief?  Do any of these phrases ring true?

  • I loved him, too. He will always be remembered in my heart.
  • What can I do to best support you right now? (Pray, cook, clean, take you out for a coffee, take your other children to a park for an hour?)
  • I am feeling such a pain for your loss, such a sorrow in my heart for your family.
  • I feel so helpless. All I can say is that I care and my heart breaks for you.
  • I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you.

Thanks for visiting the watering hole. I hope you found something here you needed. Your feedback is appreciated on this site. Maybe you have advice not included here?

 Jody.

Copyright 2009: Glynn Patrick & Associates. All rights reserved. No portion of this may be reproduced without the author’s permission. Contact to link!’


Responses

  1. I’m glad that I stumbled across this article. Thank you for your wisdom.

  2. But how do I respond to those who tell me “It’s been over a year! Snap out of it!” I lost my seventeen year old son Daniel in January of 2013, and went back to work after four weeks because of pressure from my boss. She was very understanding at the time, but now is frequently telling me to snap out of it. I try very hard to put on a happy face at work, and my performance has not suffered, but every now and then the mask slips and I don’t look happy. Please understand that I’m not crying at work, but we are supposed to look happy all the time (I am a teacher). What can I do to either help me look happier, or explain that the grief doesn’t end at the one-year anniversary?

  3. I thought I was the only one who had doorknobs ( someone called them) in my family and people who made crass and insensitive comments.and what makes me mad with myself is that in the terrible aftermath of my sons death I did not respond . I did not howl like a wounded wolf and seize them by the throat .i was weak vulnerable and my heart too full of hurt.
    But I don’t forget those remarks they fester in my very soul although the care less clods who spoke them probably didn’t mean to be hurtful.
    I probably will never forgive them not yet a while anyway.

  4. Kat your boss sounds like she has all the sensitivity of an old boot.why should you have to look happy all the time -my teachers never were! You can’t do anything nor need you its worse the second year I know I am here living through it my son died in April of 2013 .There is a group called compassionate friends its worldwide . It you write to them they will send you their literature perhaps you could pass it on to her. Goodness knows you need compassion not pressure to be grinding away like he Cheshire Cat.
    Be gentle on yourself you have the worst blow anyone can ever have .

    • Kathy, thank you for your kind words. It is, indeed, worse the second year. I am sorry for your loss. I, too, want to howl like a wounded wolf, but of course I don’t, because I still have to be polite and smile and act as if I’m not desperately trying to hold together the remaining pieces of my shattered world. I would pass on literature about the situation, but I truly am afraid of some sort of retaliation. I try to forgive the insensitive things people say, if only for my own peace, and tell myself that they say these things because they truly do not understand. It is a dark and terrible road that we walk, sometimes made harder by others’ ignorance or insensitivity. You are in my prayers, and I hope that those “doorknobs” in your life learn some compassion and sensitivity!


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