What To Say And What Not To Say To The Grieving Parent

We strive to be compassionate and have the urge to help the broken hearted. Why is it then, that so many comments feel more like a punch in the stomach rather than their intended source of comfort?

I used to be every bit the person I now try to avoid, desperately trying to find a ‘positive’ in any given situation. Society is not equipped to know what to do and say in times of utter despair and grief. For the most part we hide it and take the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach. Why?

Grief can flummox the most eloquent – even having lost a child myself, I still sometimes struggle to know what to say to other parents who are facing life without their child. Don’t let your own personal discomfort keep you at arms length. It is so incredibly isolating and while we may need to be withdrawn and physically alone, the only thing worse than suffering, is suffering without understanding or acknowledgement.  Don’t give up on us however hard we make it. We do need your love and support.

A beautiful boy we had the pleasure of getting to know while we were on the ward with Skye, died last week. Even now, I realise that there are simply so few words or actions that can offer comfort. My gift to his family is sharing the following advice for others who they may know, so that they may feel surrounded by love and not to feel even more pain by unintended but hurtful comments.

1.   Don’t’ say I CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT YOU ARE GOING THOUGH – Try!!!! Real empathy is the best thing you can offer someone who is hurting because when you really empathise, you are much more likely to say the right thing!

TRY: Keeping empathy in your heart and mind at all times. It is the key to everything that might come out of your mouth!

2.   Don’t ever say AT LEAST or BE THANKFUL. "At least he is not suffering any more... at least you have another child." Before you tell a grieving parent to be grateful, ask yourself which of your children you could live without?

TRY INSTEAD: "I miss him too, I remember when…."

3.   Don’t say IT WILL GET BETTER IN TIME. Don’t assume we are grieving for our own loss. The child's loss is the greatest and no amount of time will give them the life they should have had back.

TRY: "What do you need most TODAY?" "How are you doing TODAY?"

4.   Don’t be SCARED OF SEEING US UPSET. By mentioning their name, you are not reminding us they died, we did not forget! We desperately and fiercely want them to continue to have an effect on those who knew them, and that they always have a place in everyone’s heart and mind just as the living do – is that too much to ask?!

TRY: Sharing a memory you hold dear. Not just once but for years to come. We can’t make new ones like you can, but you can bet when you share one of your child, it will trigger a memory of our own. Be one step ahead of us and be the first to share your own memory of our child.

5.   Don’t force us to MOVE ON. You may think willing us or telling us it is time to do this will somehow make that happen. Although this may make you feel better to see us moving on, just as a mother of a 2-3month old child, after all the attention and support has subsided and they are left with the reality of daily life, we are acutely aware that life for others around us has of course moved on, but comments like that help no one other than the person saying them. If you think no one says this, I can’t tell you the number of parents I know, that have heard those very words. This is the surest way of making the person you are wanting to help, feel like you have twisted a knife in their already broken heart and you are likely to lose all faith they had in you forever. Never, never say it! Ever!  We have lost the most precious person in our entire lives. We have already had to ‘let go’ of someone we would have given our own lives to keep, so the only thing we have left are their memories and our endless love for them. Please don’t ask us to move on and let that go too.

TRY: "The love you have for your child now, will be as strong forever. I would like to be here for you every breath you have to take separated from your child, if you will let me?"

6.   Don’t turn New Year wishes into POSITIVE NEW BEGINNINGS. This time of year is already super tough but to receive positive sentiments for the new year such as “We hope 2017 will be a much happier one”. It is just cruel.

TRY: "I am thankful for you and your beautiful child who will stay in my heart throughout 2017 and the years after. Wishing you much strength for the year ahead. You are loved.”

7.   Don’t ASSUME PEOPLE SHARE YOUR BELIEFS. By all means share your thoughts on faith if asked, or at the very least, acknowledge that what you are about to say is your own personal belief. The blanket “HE/SHE is in a better place" is only a comfort if you share those beliefs, otherwise it can be interpreted as ‘their child was not best off with them'.

8.   YOU NEED TO PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER AND BE THERE FOR YOUR OTHER CHILDREN. If someone you knew had just had major heart surgery, you would be telling that person to take it easy and focus on themselves first. Grief is like having major heart surgery. Don’t make a grieving person feel any worse by suggesting they are neglecting their children because they are grief stricken. They probably feel guilty enough.  Encourage us to help ourselves first, so we can then be in a better position to help others we care about.

9.  Don’t keep things SUPERFICIAL. It may seem like you are doing us a favour, what we really need is someone who is willing to let us be real and to have someone who isn’t afraid of talking about the tough stuff. Take your lead from them. By all means offer a ‘lighter’ evening if that is what is required but don’t push for that too hard. Real healing comes from some of the heavier conversations.

10. IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO? Grief consumes the immediate and controls the mind for future planning. Better to offer specific help.

TRY: “I am going to the supermarket, can I pick up milk, bread?" "Can X come and play this Tuesday morning?" "Do you need help with that project?" "I could do… It would be no bother."

11. THEY WOULDN'T WANT YOU TO BE SAD. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply. We need to be sad; we can’t not be for someone else’s sake. Using our dead children to put even more pressure on us, is a platitude which doesn’t work.

12.  EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. I can’t believe I am even having to add this onto the list! No it doesn’t! Not everything in life is logical. Children should NEVER die before their parents.

TRY "Your child’s death is a tragic, terrible loss to the world, it breaks my heart, I am sorry, there are no words!"

Next time you speak to someone who is going through utter hell, instead of trying to make yourself feel better by showering them with positivity, stop, put yourself in their shoes, acknowledge how hard things are and NEVER forget their beautiful child. You are much more likely to provide that tiny fraction of comfort you were hoping for.



Thank you to Jeannie Page (photo), Christy Heitger-Ewing and mums from Kamran's ward who have travelled the same road and been subject to similar comments. Your help with this has been invaluable.