Saturday, December 1, 2012

Things to NEVER, EVER Say to a Parent Who Has Lost a Child

With the loss of sweet little Jayden Lamb in our community lately, this subject has been on my mind a lot more than usual. I feel awful for this family in their time of loss, especially being so close to the beginning of the journey toward living again. I thought if I could at least eliminate SOME of the pain they may be experiencing, I would like to try.

Because you see...there's something about standing in the face of another's agony and grief that makes people...stupid. They feel the need to say something, anything, that will help and often end up doing some damage to the very person that they're trying to comfort. It's almost never intentional and people so often mean well but sometimes it's all the person on the receiving end of such comments can do to keep from screaming and platitudes just don't help.

Remember this scene from "Steel Magnolias"? After our daughter passed away, I realized just exactly how honest it really is:

There's a saying that says, "The least said is easiest mended."

I cannot emphasize this ENOUGH. I will say again, this time with emphasis added, 


I thought that I would put together a list of some of the things that I've heard most often in the days and months following our daughter's death as a way to help you know at least what NOT to say. I don't mean to offend and please know that I loved most of the people who said this stuff to us. I know how hard it is to know what to say and that it's a very human impulse to want to say something to fill the silence between the hug and the time you walk away. But...don't. Really. Some of these may be personal or specific to me, but this is just a guide. I'll cover a few of things that I or the Hubs heard that did help or that were general enough not to hurt at the end of the post. But when in doubt, channel Thumper's mother and don't say anything at all.

1) "I had a miscarriage, so I know just how you feel!"
No, you don't. Yes, a miscarriage is a devastating loss and can be excruciating to live through, especially the farther along that it happens. I actually had three of them in the 10 months between Violet's passing and conceiving Wesley. Having lost a child who was actually born, breathed, cried, nursed, wore some of the little outfits we'd bought for her, and then died and losing a child that I'd never physically met I can tell you that the losses are nowhere even close to being the same. They're just not. I'm not saying that a miscarriage is LESS of a loss (it's not a competition of who hurts more, after all), it's just DIFFERENT. The parents of the living child that has died know that and will not thank you for drawing the comparison. There is a time and a place to share your grief together, especially if you've already made or have a connection with the person, and an appropriate way to do it. The days immediately following the loss and/or as a way of comparison is not it. 

2) "I know exactly how you feel."
This is a variation on #1 but still inappropriate. It's not necessarily hurtful, but no one would blame the person for snapping back at you that no, actually, you don't know just how they feel. This is something you should never say in the face of any loss, really. You don't know the circumstances surrounding the loss, you don't know the feelings of the family, you don't know what they face when they're home alone after everyone else has gone home- you don't know. So don't say it. Everyone grieves differently and it's arrogant to assume that because you've experienced loss in your life that you know exactly how everyone else will feel in the face of their own losses.

3) "Well...she's better off being in Heaven now."
Yes, someone actually said this or some variation of this. Several people, actually. Never, ever say anything like this, even if you know that the person you're trying to comfort is a believer. You may believe it's true and yes, it's one of the basic tenets of Christianity (that we all want to make it back to live with our Heavenly Father in Heaven), NO PARENT wants to think that their child is "better off" without them. NO PARENT is "relieved" that their child died rather than having to live a full life, growing up, getting married, having children, etc. NO PARENT DOES. If you don't believe me, have someone offer to come to your house and "send one of your children to Heaven" because "they'd be better off" and then see how you react. Yeah. Don't say it.

4) "You can always have another one!" or "If it's a genetic problem, then you can always just adopt!"
Okay. *deep breath* This one is especially tough for me because it makes me SO ANGRY and I want to stay calm and objective during this post. There is a two-part response to why these are TERRIBLE things to say:

First of all, children are not replaceable. When you lose a child, that child is GONE. Its place cannot be taken by fifty other children. To imply that the parents are callous enough to believe that "just having another one" is even an option is insulting in the extreme. You also don't know how they're coping. In the aftermath of Violet's passing I knew that we would try to have more children, but Hubs and I definitely had some PTSD (that's not hyperbole) from having to go through the events of the day she died. Every thought of having another child was tinged by panic, anxiety, nausea, etc. We both had nightmares which meant that we were both on medication to make us sleep. We were both on anti-depressants. We were both just barely hanging on. Being told that, we could "just having another one" not only negated our pain and made it seem like we could just slap a bandaid over a gaping chest wound, but it also negated the special spirit of our daughter. As if she was something that could just be recreated. DO NOT SAY THIS. 

Second, suggesting that someone can "just adopt" is insulting to adoptive parents and adopted children everywhere. It's like implying that they're the consolation prize that their parents accepted because they couldn't have "kids of their own." I have several friends who have adopted and you should know that adoption is something you go into with a LOT of prayer, soul-searching, love, and preparation. It's not something that you "just" do for any reason. This is also a bad thing to say for the reasons listed above- children are not just replaceable. 

5) "Would you like to hold my baby?"
Someone actually came to Violet's funeral with their young infant, held him out to me, and said this. I just can' No, I did not want to hold their baby. I had no problem with her bringing him; in fact, seeing healthy young children and babies served as a kind of affirmation for Hubs and I in the days following Violet's death that life does go on, that healthy children do exist, and that there was hope for us. But I didn't want someone else's baby thrust on me at my daughter's funeral. Unless they ASK to hold your baby or show INTEREST in holding your baby, DO NOT ASK THIS.

6) "So...what happened?"
Oh my word. If I had a dollar for every time I got asked this...look. Obviously if you're asking this then you're not close enough to the person to really know what's going on- if you were they would have told you or you would have heard from people surrounding them. Just don't ask. Whether it's intended that way or not, it will just sound like morbid curiosity and frankly, if you're not close enough to know what happened first or at least second hand, then it's none of your business. That might sound harsh, but the last thing the people in this situation need is for a lot of people to ask them to relive the situation over and over and over and OVER again. In public. For an audience. I was lucky (AM lucky) enough to have a best friend who would tell people who didn't know us well who asked her this question that if we wanted to talk about it we would and that it wasn't her business to share it. You probably DO want to know. You probably want to make sure that nothing like this could EVER happen to you. You probably want to know what to watch for in your own children. I get that. I really, really do. It's very natural.'s rude. So don't ask.

7) "Is there anything I can do for you?"
This one is the sweetest of the items on this list and is genuinely a nice thing to ask. The reason it's on here, though, is because it's just too vague. For comparison, imagine walking up the victims of a terrible car accident, leaning into the shattered window and asking, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Yeah. The problem is, in the time after losing a loved one of any kind, you just can't think of anything right then. Or if you can, you feel guilty asking. So you don't. And then you're alone, in the dark, at night, and the world feels SO big and uncertain and scary...Look, it's just better if you spring into action. Bring meals, come over and start cleaning toilets (yes, over protests), come over just talk and do something mindless- one of the best things was my bestie coming over and just talking to me. About ANYTHING. Sometimes it was about Violet but most of the time it was about goofy things, nothing, crafting, a movie I'd watched to pass the time, WHATEVER. Invite the person out to lunch or a coffee shop date- set a specific time, offer to pick them up (driving can seem like an enormous task in the face of depression), and do it. Just be there. See what needs doing and do it. Think about what you would want done for you, and do it. Don't leave the ball in their court and expect them to make the move to you because in this kind of situation sometimes all they can handle is getting dressed in the morning.


That was a short list of the stuff we've heard, but those are the comments that were most common. It's NEVER wrong to just say, "I'm so sorry for your loss," hug them if you're comfortable with that, and move on. It's not up to you to fix the situation. It's not your job to make them feel better because frankly, no matter what anyone says, they're not going to feel better for awhile. This might sound terrible, but it usually felt like the person who was offering the platitudes was really trying to make themselves feel better. No, stay with me. In the face of the loss of an innocent like a young child or a baby, everyone feels the senselessness of it. Everyone feels the fear when they look at their own children and realize just how fleeting this existence is and that death can visit anyone, not just the elderly. So they start saying things like, "It is what it is," "Everything happens for a reason," "S/he's with God now," "You'll never have to see him/her in pain," etc. It might help YOU on the ride home to chant those things in your head and that's fine. Whatever you need to do. But it DOESN'T help THEM, so don't say them because they are going home to a house with a giant hole in it with hearts that are weighed down with tragedy and sorrow that most people in our day and age will never experience.

Things TO say to grieving parents:

*I'm sorry for your loss
*We love you
*I'm praying for you
*I'm here for you (but only say this if you actually have a plan to be there for them. Don't lie.)
*S/he was beautiful/smart/funny/etc
*"I remember..." and then tell a good memory you have of their child. Did you catch that? A GOOD memory. It may help the parents to know that their child hasn't been forgotten by everyone but them and that other people knew how special their child was.
*I will call you on ______ (and then ACTUALLY CALL) and we'll set up a time to go to lunch (AND THEN ACTUALLY GO)
*the service was beautiful
*let the person share their stories! Letting the other person guide the conversation is usually the best thing you can do. I remember in the months following Violet's death, the subject of pregnancy would come up and people would get very uncomfortable if I shared a story or an experience, as if losing my child also meant losing my right to share in that female experience. Losing a child doesn't negate their entire existence and if the parent is talking about it, that means that they're getting to a place where they feel comfortable sharing. Let them.

Which leads me to my final bit of advice, and this might be personal specifically to me, but I don't think so. I have had to sever ties with a few people because all they wanted to talk to me about suddenly was my daughter's death and it made me so uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's excruciatingly painful to be going along and having a totally normal day and then WHAM! Someone blindsides you by suddenly talking about your loss like it's no big deal and "Oh, didn't you WANT to talk about your baby's death in the produce aisle at Meijer?" Seriously. That happened., I said before, let THEM guide the conversation. It's okay to ask, "Are you doing okay?" or "How are you doing?" or "How are things going?" It's NOT okay, in the middle of a public place and with no provocation, to ask something like, "So did the autopsy report reveal anything about what happened to your baby?" (Again, ACTUALLY HAPPENED.) If they want to share, they will. If not, you've managed to ask a caring question that shows that you're there to listen if they need someone and that won't make them burst into tears in front of a group of strangers. Secondly, there was more to me than my pregnancy when I was pregnant. There was more to me than my baby when she was living. And there is STILL more to me now that she's gone. Please, PLEASE don't act like the only thing that's interesting about me now is that and that that's all there is for me to talk about. If the person you know who's grieving likes to craft, ask if they're working on anything or if they want to go to JoAnn's with you sometime. Remember what it was that interested you about them before and remember that those things are still there in them. There is NO REASON why the ONLY thing you should have to talk to them about is this tragedy in their lives unless you didn't know them that well in the first place in which case either figure out something else to talk to them about or keep the conversation light and small-talky and move on.

Stay positive, but not "let's all look on the BRIGHT SIDE of this tragedy!" positive!!!!!- meaning using action words, establishing a timeline in the future for things for the parents to look forward to (like a lunch date), and reaffirming relationship. 

In our loss, I learned a lot about who was actually there for us through thick and thin and who was there for the beginning and then disappeared again. Sadly, a lot of the people who pulled the vanishing act were those I thought were close to us and that was a hard lesson to learn. So if you're going to be there, then be there. It means the most to grieving people in moments like this. They don't want to feel like social pariahs. If not, then be honest with them. Give them a card, give them a hug, and then move on. Don't make a lot of false promises or fake plans that you fully intend to break later. It hurts and it sucks. Don't be that guy.

And one last appeal- BE THERE FOR THE DAD. If you can't find someone who can. From what I've seen and read, it's VERY common for the dads to get ignored during this time, probably because it's just easier for women to reach out to each other on an emotional level. The Hubs was pretty badly neglected in the months following Violet's death, and that's not a way to guilt people in my life who read this. It's a fact and it's very, very common with men in tragedy. If you're a man reading this and you know a man who is grieving, YOU ARE NOT TOO BUSY. IT IS NOT TOO AWKWARD. IT IS NOT TOO HARD. Men grieve their babies and children JUST as hard as women do, but they don't seem to get the recognition that their wives do. No one was taking the Hubs out to lunch or helping to distract him by tossing a football around with him. No one invited him to watch the game or just to talk if he needed to. And he needed to. Again- YOU ARE NOT TOO BUSY FOR THIS. Let me be clear- If you truly are "too busy" to help a friend, brother, coworker, or family member deal with what is probably the MOST debilitating loss a human being could suffer, THEN YOU NEED TO REEVALUATE YOUR PRIORITIES. We are not put on this earth to be good workers or good peewee soccer coaches or whatever thing you think is standing in the way of you being able to help- we are here to be GOOD HUMAN BEINGS. So be one and be THERE.

Hopefully this has helped...if not, don't hate me. Remember, my intention was to help create a guide for people to help those who are grieving. I was so blessed to have a lot of people who stepped up and were truly there for me when it felt like the sky was falling. I cannot thank God enough for the people who stepped up and helped to shoulder the burden. You can be that person for someone else, you might just need some assistance. If you have questions, you can absolutely ask them in the comments section.


  1. Thank you for posting this. Because you are right, no one knows what to say. But people want to say something, if for no other reason than to acknowledge the grief.

  2. I, too, appreciate this. It is ask hard to know how to properly be there for someone. One of my biggest fears is making someone's pain worse.

  3. Thank you so much for posting it. It is so clear and helpful. Praying, praying for you still.