How to Talk to a Parent Who Has Lost a Child
Today (October 15th) is pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day. Yes, I know it’s a long and kind of dumb sounding name, but I believe it’s an important concept.
Keeping that in mind, I thought today would be a good day to share same ideas that everyone should know about talking to folks that are grieving.
WHAT QUALIFIES ME?
Professionally, absolutely nothing. I’m not a councilor. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m a programmer.
What I also am is a father who has lost a child. Eleven months ago, my wife and I had a stillborn son at 8 & 1/2 months. He was 8 lbs 3 ounces.Â I know what I have felt, what my wife has felt, and since our loss, we’ve had an awful lot of contact with other bereaved parents. So that is where I draw my ideas.
WHAT TO SAY
There are two things that need to be said. If you know someone that loses their baby and you can’t say anything else, at least say these:
“I am so sorry for your loss.”
Just let the parents know you are aware of their pain.
“I love you.”
Everybody needs to hear it anyway, but especially when they’re going through pain. If you aren’t comfortable telling someone “I love you,” feel free to soften it a little and and say something like “We love you” if you’re in a relationship or “I love you guys” if you are talking to both parents. If you’re not with your significant other just make it, “My wife and I just wanted you to know we love you.”If you can’t say any of that, then you need to grow up.
That’s it. Those are the two most important things to say.
HOW TO SAY IT
In person is best. Over the phone is horrible, unless you really can’t be there. And then, the next time you see the parent, you better say it again.
If you are comfortable doing so, say it with a hug, too. It seems like our society is too cool for physical displays of friendship and support these days (although oddly enough, public lewd acts of ‘love’ seem to be accepted and even applauded. Go figure.) But trust me, a hug can help.
Another way to say it is in a letter. One of the most touching things anybody did for me was a letter.
I have a neighbor up and around the block. He’s an older gentleman and I have never known him well. A few days or a week after we lost Spencer he came by our place. Now, he’s old, so even though it’s only a block and a half away, he drove his giant old-guy sedan over and handed me a letter. In his letter, he expressed his love and sorrow for us, and he told the story of how he had lost his first son, too. There were many similarities between his story and my life. I cannot begin to express how grateful I was and am that he took the time to reach out.
You can also say it with service (along with the actual verbal saying it.) When we lost Spencer, people kept bringing dinners by, and I didn’t cook for a month, which was beyond helpful. We had neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers clean our house, rake the leaves from our yard, babysit our daughter for an hour or two, and do a bunch of other little stuff that really added up.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
If you have not also lost a child, your advice will be deemed as worthless. It doesn’t matter if it’s fantastic advice. Unless a parent actually asks you for it, don’t do it. Even then, it’s better to start it out with “I don’t know, but I’ve heard that _ helps.” or “I wonder if it wouldn’t help to…” In general, its better to just avoid giving advice altogether.
Anything that starts with “At least you still have…” or “At least you didn’t…”
Anything you say to try to help the bereaved parents “put things in perspective” will only piss them off. Trust me on this one. They will probably hate you forever if that’s the kind of stuff you tell them. I know you think you’ve got a good point. Maybe you do. Maybe it’s even an excellent point. It doesn’t matter. It will not help the parents at all, ever.
The bereaved parent may want to talk about her(or his) loss, and she may not. Respect her wishes. Don’t pry and prod if she seems hesitant. If she does want to talk about it, just shut up and listen. Even if she says stuff that’s illogical (which they probably will.) You don’t need to correct her about any details (unless they ask) or criticize her actions in any way. Just bite your tongue and pay attention.
It’s been shocking to me how many people are incapable of just listening. My wife’s been interrupted dozens of times with advice, old wives tales, and other useless stuff. I don’t get interrupted, as I just talk over other people anyway (bad habit.)
I’ve heard this complaint over and over again from bereaved parents. Don’t be an angry story at the next group support meeting. Just listen.
It will be a long time before the parent(s) will heal, and they may never heal completely. If at all possible, be sure to check up with the parents from time to time.
The loss of a child damages and destroys a lot of friendships. That’s just the way it is. The bereaved parents quite often have difficulty making new friends. It is really hard to reach out when you’re suffering. The end result is that six months later, one or both parents feel utterly forgotten by the world. People were nice, really nice that first month. After that, nothing. The occasional hello in the store, phone call, or visit “just to say hi” can make a world of difference.
Don’t worry. Parents who have lost a child will not always need to talk about it. But they do need social interaction, no matter what. So even if the first couple of visits are uncomfortable and there is lots of crying, don’t give up.
Just a note: unless the parent you’re visiting is clearly having a terrible day, just talk to them like you would talk to anybody. You don’t need to bring up the loss every time you see them. You don’t need to cock your head to the side and say in that whispery concerned voice (and with that uber-concerned look on your face,) “How are you?” You just need to make contact.
Now, that’s a lot to think about, and you may feel like there’s nothing you can say without getting in trouble. The important thing is that you try. The more people that reach out to a grieving parent, the more likely it is that someone is going to say the perfect thing that they need to hear. You may end up offending them. That’s OK. You have to try.
The world has too much suffering. Let’s do what we can to help each other.
Plus, now you’ve read the article, and you know what to say, anyway. No excuses.
To all those who have experienced the loss of a child:
I am so sorry for your loss. I love you, and I share in your pain. If you ever want someone to talk to, just reach out.
Originally published October 15, 2008