posted in Parenting
In times of enormous grief, words can feel insufficient. In the decade since my son was stillborn, I have had some time to reflect on the things people said to me in an effort to offer comfort. With the benefit of hindsight, I now fully understand the spirit of love with which all these expressions were made.
First things first, saying the wrong thing is actually better than saying nothing at all. So there is that.
But, for those who are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a bereaved friend or loved one, here is a little guidance about what not to say. (And a couple of tips about what to say instead).
Don’t say that things happen for a reason or imply that losing a child will make you strong.
This might actually be the worst thing one can say to a bereaved parent. Sentiments like this are well-intended, but they translate badly. They are an effort to remind the bereaved that the search for meaning in unfathomable agony may someday underpin the life’s work of continuing to live and to love.
INSTEAD SAY: I don’t understand why this happens. I am bereft for you. If I can help to remember or memorialize your baby/child, I would really like to. Is there a charity to which I might make a memorial donation?
Never remind them that their living children need them.
Bereaved parents blessed with living children are acutely aware of this. Reminders are both unnecessary and inadvertently invalidating. I can assure you that the fact of my healthy toddler was the sole thing that got me up in the morning, made me zip up my jacket, and leave the house. It is hard to feel worthy of one’s children when you have lost one. This is not a rational response, but it is very real for many parents.
INSTEAD SAY: I would love to come and play with your child(ren) so that you can take some time to be alone. If you want, I can just come out and do a project if you want to be there too – but you can come and go as you feel comfortable.
Don’t imply that having another child could help them heal.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the loss, this is unhelpful to varying degrees. If the loss occurred in gestation, the loss is particular to the hopes of those parents for that pregnancy. The backstories to pregnancies are not always known. Similarly, if a loss is that of infant or child, there is singular devastation. You would never go to a funeral and tell a newly bereaved widow(er) to consider marrying again. Same applies here. They will get there if/when they are able.
INSTEAD SAY: I would do anything to ease your pain. I feel powerless that I cannot. I ache for you.
Don’t try to relate with stories of your own.
Each loss is singular. Everyone makes sense of their own grief in their own way. There is really very little overlap. All loss is informed by the complex road that led one to a particular point. Therefore, even if you have had a miscarriage, or lost a baby or a child, it is not correct to assume that sharing it is appropriate. Just listen. The bereaved parent may be talking to you because they know you understand better than others. That may be enough.
INSTEAD SAY: I am not sure if you are aware that I experienced a loss as well. I’d be happy to share aspects of my loss with you, but I am more interested in hearing about how you are than I am about sharing how I coped.
Don’t expect the bereaved to talk much at all.
One of the great heartbreaks of my life is the friend shedding I did after my loss. It was entirely accidental and the fault is mine as much as it was theirs. I hesitate even to use the word fault because we were all broken up and confused. I could not speak. The grief of the bereaved can turn inward into a self-inflicted wound of self-blame. When one emerges — somewhat — from that tunnel, the friend landscape is totally different. I still miss terribly those whom I lost.
INSTEAD SAY: I’m coming to fold your laundry and start some marinara sauce. If you feel like talking, I’m here. If you don’t, the laundry will be in the basket, and the marinara will be ready when you need it. I’m not leaving.
What would you add to this list?
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