In this second article in our Digging Deep series on grief and loss, Lisa Buksbaum shares thoughtful advice on saying and doing the “right things” for friends, family and acquaintances who have lost a child. According to Lisa, “…in doing something life-affirming and kind, you will be minimizing their pain and contributing to the blessings surrounding death.” We should all learn how to do these simple things for our loved ones and neighbors.
1. Never tell a parent whose child has died that “I know just how you feel.” A well-intentioned comment like this is actually hurtful because it suggests that the parent’s feelings are somehow generic rather than totally unique based on their life experience, their child’s unique character and circumstances, and the relationship they shared. The old language may not work during a parent’s time of grief, instead of saying, “hi, how are you?” instead say something like, “I am thinking about you today.”
2. Never try to “fix it” or justify it. You cannot change the reality that their child has died. The most common well-meaning phrases – “It’s God’s will” or “She’s with God now” can also be jarring when a parent has to mourn the death of their child. Listen to them. Let them express their feelings. Validate their feelings and grief so that they can experience it, process it, and begin to heal.
3. Never pretend that the child did not exist; not mentioning the child’s name can actually be hurtful for a grieving parent. It can be reassuring for parents to know that other people hold special memories or recollections about a child who has died. It can also be healing for a parent to talk about a child who has died and share something about the child’s essence or an experience from the child’s life, as it validates the child’s existence. You can acknowledge the child by name. Share your impressions when appropriate and positive.
4. Never try to second-guess how the parent will experience holidays or life cycle events and celebrations and the fact that the child is not alive to share these experiences. Take your cues from the parent and let them set the tone. Holidays and special occasions bring up waves of feelings: happier times and perhaps trying times if the child was ill. Encouraging parents to express these feelings well in advance, during, or after the events can actually help them more fully participate, even while they are grieving.
5. Never diminish the joy of a grieving parent. “There’s a time to mourn and a time to laugh…” When parents re-engage in life and pleasurable experiences, let them have these moments of joy. Whether going to a movie, taking an outing with other children or friends, reading a book, or engaging in a project that they really enjoy, try to acknowledge them in the context of their joy, without reminding them of their loss, or making them feel guilty.
6. Never wait for the “perfect time” to express your support. Never wait for the “exact words.”Keep it simple. Speak from your heart. Say something like, “I am so sorry for your loss” or let the person know you are thinking of them.
7. Never try to “deny the death” with excessive talking, activities, and other distractions. Often the most comforting thing you can do is listen non-judgmentally.
8. Never impose your beliefs, values or practices on the parents. The death of a child can provide an opening for simple rituals, prayer and even gratitude. People have to come to these things in their own time, in their own way. You can pray for them in your own way, just don’t add to their pain by suggesting that they are doing something wrong. Death can also turn people away from God and spirituality.
9. Never be afraid to be a compassionate human being. Share a hug, perhaps you can let the parent see you cry at the loss, or share a simple thought or emotion you are having about the loss. These actions let the parent know that they are not alone. However, don’t put your grief on their shoulders, it’s not appropriate for them to carry your grief and theirs at this time.
10. Never try to protect yourself from death. Of course it is easier to ignore the pain of grieving parents by crossing the street, averting your eyes when you see them, or not calling them, or not offering to help out with errands or taking a sibling for a few hours to give them time for themselves. However, you will appreciate all of life’s joys so much more if you open your heart and embrace parents who are mourning the death of a child. And, in doing something life-affirming and kind, you will be minimizing their pain and contributing to the blessings surrounding death.