I have learned many things after the death of our son, Turner. One of the many things I have learned is that our society in general has a “fix it” mentality. We want to fix things when they don’t seem right. We lack the patience to figure out what is really going on and understand that sometimes there isn’t a fix for everything. Sometimes life just deals you a crappy hand and you’re left to figure out how to play the hand you’ve been dealt.
This fix it approach has bombarded us from all sides. We don’t want to see others struggle, hurt or sad. We want to very quickly slap a band aid on the injury and move on. Hoping to forget the pain or event that caused the sadness. When it is someone else’s tradegy or life circumstance, we secretly hope or pray we won’t ever know what that type of pain or sorrow feels like. We often try to get those struggling to quickly move on as to not feel the pain any longer.
We honestly can’t help to feel this way. We have it engrained in us to fix things. It’s hard seeing other people’s pain, suffering, or hardships and its wear on us emotional, menatally and sometimes even spiritually. When we see we are faced with a situation that can’t be fixed we still try our best to at least lessen the pain and sorrow felt. When it comes to death we often don’t know what to say or do. However, the fact remains each one of us will have to deal with death in some sort of fashion during our lifetime. It’s inevitable. We will all eventually see our own moratility or the mortality of those we love.
The death of a child isn’t suppose to happen to a parent. It isn’t the natural order of things. Parents aren’t suppose to bury a child. It is a kind of loss and grief you won’t ever know the pain of unless you have experienced the death of one of your children yourself.
After losing Turner, one of the first things my husband said to me, while in the hospital holding our deceased infant son, was that I needed to grow and have some very thick skin. That we were inevitably going to hear people sometimes say or do things that weren’t helpful and downright hurtful, knowing full well that they had good intentions behind them. That people were going to try and fix us and the death of our child through words. With the shoe now being on the other foot I now understand why some things that are said sting so bad even though they weren’t meant to do so.
I hope this post will help you better understand how to help a grieving parent and know that their grief is never ending. It’s a loss you don’t ever “get over”, but rather you learn how to live with the grief and manage the pain and sorrow you feel each day. I hope that this post is as close as you’ll ever get to knowing the pain and sorrow that is felt with the death of a child
Please know, I have experienced many more helpful comments/things than the opposite. My support system, friends and family have truly been the best and most helpful I could have ever asked for. I have been blessed beyond measure to have caring and compassionate people surround me each day. However, some grieving parents haven’t been so blessed.
The comments I have received that haven’t been helpful are few and far between. I also don’t fault or take offense to anyone for not knowing what to say or saying something that isn’t helpful. Trust me, I really don’t. I wouldn’t have known what to say or do if my Turner were here and not having experienced everything I have these last 15 weeks.
I know everyone has the very best intentions at heart. So if you happened to have said one of these comments to me, please don’t apologize or feel bad. That’s not why I am writing this. Rather, use this as a learning experience. If Turners life helps you now know and understand how to really help and support a grieving parent, than I couldn’t be more happier. My little precious boy has then taught you something, given you a gift…just like he has and continues to do for me each day.
Also, this is based off my own personal experience and from hearing stories shared by other bereaved parents and comments made to them. This is not meant to be a “this is exactly what everyone feels and experinces” list. This is what has helped and not helped me and other bereaved parents I have talked to. Each loss is different and each person will deal with their grief differently. What may be helpful for some may be hurtful to others and vise versa.
With that said, here is my “Do’s and Don’ts” for helping parents or family members who’ve lost a child. This list is long, because I try to give an explaintion so you can understand why something’s aren’t helpful and why others are. I hope you read it all.
–Tell a grieving parent anything that starts with “At least…”.
This statement could be followed by “it happened early”, “you know you can get pregnant”, “you have other children”, “they didn’t have to suffer through life here on this earth”, “you didn’t get a chance to know them”, “you know where they are now”, “you know families are forever”. None of these statements help. At all. Ever. Starting a statement with “at least” is trying to put a silver lining on something that isn’t fixable. There is no silver lining with a death of your child. Just try to imagine losing one of your precious children. Multiply what you think that pain might feel like by a million. Then know that what you think it might feel like is nothing compared to what it actually feels like. Then have someone say one of the above comments. It doesn’t help at all.
-“Everything happens for a reason.”
Just don’t say this. EVER. There will never be a good reason for the death of your child. Almost every single bereaved parent I have met or talked to (there are lots) has said this is the most unhelpful comment said to them. Refrain from ever saying this. Period.
-“I know/understand what you are going through/feeling.”
Unless you have lost a child yourself don’t say this. And please don’t follow this statement with “…I lost my dog/cat/grandparent/parent/friend”. The loss of a child is really the ultimate kind of loss and one you will never understand unless you have lost a child. Yes, if you have lost a family member who isn’t your child, or if you have lost a friend, you know what grief feels like. However, you have no idea what the grief of losing a child feels like. If you absolutely want to say this statement because you have lost someone close to you who isn’t your child and want to somehow find common ground, please preface it or follow it up by saying, “I know my loss is not the same as losing a child and I have no idea what you are going through.”
–Don’t compare your baby/child loss.
This is an expansion with the above comment. Unless you have experienced the same kind of baby/child loss you probably don’t understand or know what this person is experiencing. And even if you have experienced the same kind of loss you still might not understand what that person is going through. Each loss is different. I will never understand what a mother who has experienced a miscarriage feels like because I’ve never experienced a miscarriage. Nor will I ever understand what a parent who has lost a child they were able to take care of outside of their womb, no matter what their age, feels like. Yes we have all lost a baby/child, but each loss is different. This doesn’t mean one loss is easier or harder than another. They are just different and stating that is completely fine and should be said even though it might ruffle a few feathers. Yes, we have all lost a baby/child and we understand the grief that surrounds us with the death of our baby/child, but they are different losses. Think of it this way… if my son, Turner who was full term, would have been born alive and died AFTER his birth instead of just mere hours before his birth, no one would ever think to compare their miscarriage to his death. Bottom line…don’t compare your loss to another mothers loss or tell them you “know how they feel/understand what they are going through” unless you have experienced the same type of loss. In most cases it’s not helpful. I plan on making a longer sperate post on this topic. I’ll get that up soon.
-“Time helps heal all wounds”
No amount of time will help heal this wound. When you lose a child a part of you has died with them. You are irrevocably changed forever. Losing a child is a wound that doesn’t ever heal completely. Even when some sort of healing comes, you don’t heal in a way where you no longer think about that child, wish they were here or come out the same person you once were. All time does is help you manage how to better live with this pain and sorrow for the rest of your life. For me, it is also a constant reminder of just how long it has been since I last saw or held my child.
-Tell parents who still have children here on this earth to be grateful for the children they do have/to just focus on the living children.
This statement or anything like it is like a punch to the gut. Pouring salt in an already massive wound. Trust me…we ARE more grateful than you could ever understand. If anything, most grieving parents have a new kind of love so deep and appreciation for their living children others could never understand unless you have experienced the death of a child. If anything I’m extremely grateful for them because they have literally saved my life. Your living children are unique individuals and so was the child you lost. Having living children doesn’t lessen or ease this pain. Focusing on them and their needs when you are in your deepest moment and in the depths of despair, especially when they are also grieving the loss of a sibling, is very hard. Knowing you can’t fix their pain is crushing. Having living children is such a blessing, but also extremely difficult because it’s a reminder of events, life circumstances and milestones you won’t ever experience with the child who is no longer here. Just know we are more than grateful for the blessing of the living children we have, but we are grieving heavily for the child that died and THAT is completely fine
-If the parents are Christian, don’t assume that they will be able to handle it, be ok, or feel less pain and sorrow because of the knowledge they have of the gospel and knowing they will see their child again.
This may be different for everyone, so I can only speak on my experience with this topic, although I have heard other bereaved parents say the same. One of the biggest struggle for me has been hearing the typical Christian responses and comments following Turners death. Some of these include “he is in Jesus’s arms”, “now you have a special angel watching over your family”, “God only takes the special ones”, “God needed another angel”, “what a comfort it is to know you will see him again”, “he was just too special to be here on this earth”, “he wasn’t meant to be here”, “God never gives us more than you can handle”, “you must have been one of Gods most strongest spirits to be the mother to a child so special”, “God does everything for a reason”, “you need to have faith/joy in the resurrection/plan of salvation” etc. To further explain my thoughts and feelings on this I am going to make a whole post for these comments and others like them and why they haven’t been helpful. There is so much I don’t have time to explain in this post due to length and time. Just know that many of these comments are more hurtful and not helpful for a parent who wants their child here in their arms and not in Heaven. No parent wants their child to be in heaven instead of here on this earth with them. We don’t want to wait to see our children again, hold them again nor do we want them as a “special angel.” We want them here. Now.
–Don’t ask the father of the child how the mother is doing without first asking him how he is doing and being there for him.
Fathers are often overlooked and their grief and pain is pushed aside. People constantly worry and think about the mother, but very rarely reach out to see how the father is, to listen to and support him in his time of need. Both Mother AND Father have lost a child. And yes, quite often the parents will grieve very differently, but that doesn’t mean either of their pain is less/more intense or more/less manageable. Fathers often times are left to do the hardest things a parent will ever have to do. These things include, calling funeral homes to make final arrangements while hearing people haggle over prices to prepare their child’s body for burial, calling cemeteries to discuss the possibility of having to buy a plot for their child’s final resting place, telling friends and family through phone calls, emails and text messages that their child passed away, having to tell their other children (if they have any) that their brother or sister has died and watch their whole world shattered before his eyes…knowing he can’t fix their pain, etc. Then they usually have to return to work quickly after the death of their child because if they don’t the family will suffer financially. They aren’t automatically given the time or concern they truly need. They aren’t given the time they need to even process what has happened and learn how to live their life without their precious child. In many ways they are forced to deal with life quickly and in a way that isn’t helpful shorterm or longterm.
–Ask a grieving parent if/when they are going to have another child.
Seriously…just don’t. I think my jaw hit the floor when I got asked this question right after someone asked me “where is your baby?” and having to tell them Turner passed away. No subsequent child could ever replace the child that passed away. Ever. And if someone does chose to have another child after the loss of one of their children it doesn’t mean they are done grieving, have “moved on” or are ok. It also doesn’t mean they are trying to replace the child they lost. They will forever grieve the loss of that child even if they seem outwardly “ok”. Children aren’t puppies or kittens. You don’t “replace” one with another one to somehow fill a void. It’s a very personal decision to make and one that is frankly no ones business. Further, if you do happen to know someone who is now carrying another child after the loss of one (especially if they lost that child during pregnancy, delivery or shortly thereafter) please know they are probably thinking the very worst each day. They probably won’t be able to feel true joy and happiness for the life they are now carrying until they have a screaming baby in their arms to take home. The pure joy and excitement of pregnancy is gone for them. It’s now been replaced with fear and pure terror. They probably will be fearful for a while, even after birth because they’ve experienced too much to be nieve enough to think “it won’t happen to them”.
Ok, so now that I have spewed all the unpleasant and unhelpful things out, let me tell you about the many, many, many things that people have said or done that has helped more than anyone will ever know. You don’t have to do ALL of these things. Rather this is a list of things that will help your friend/family member know you love them, are here for them, and support them during this difficult time.
–Acknowledge this persons child as just that. Their child.
A child that isn’t replaceable. A child that was a unique individual. Let them say their child’s name and speak of them. Their child’s name is like music to their ears. Say their child’s name to them, even if it has been years since they have passed. Share memories you have of them if you have any. If you think you will make them sad or upset by mentioning or including their deceased child it more than likely won’t. Trust me, these parents haven’t forgotten about their child, no matter how long it has been since they passed. They think of their child everyday and will continue to do so for the rest of their life. It will probably make them happy that you took the time to remember them and that they lived. One of my greatest fears is that no one will remember my son or speak his name. That he will in time be forgotten by everybody except our family. I want people to talk about him and ask me things, even if they don’t have any memories with or of him, because it means he lived and his life mattered. If you are unsure if they want to talk about their child, just ask. They will let you know.
–Say something and don’t avoid them.
Saying something is better than saying absolutely nothing to a parent who has lost a child. And if you don’t know what to say, because you probably won’t, just say, “I am so very sorry. Please know I am here for you and thinking about/praying for you and your sweet [insert child’s name].” That’s it. You can never go wrong with simply stating how devastated you are for them and that you are there for them. A grieving parent knows there is nothing you can possibly say that will make it better. But saying nothing at all is almost like you are choosing to not acknowledge their child, that they lived and their life mattered. So please say something even as uncomftable as it may be. The momentary uncomfortableness you may feel saying something to a grieveing parent pales in comparison to the uncomfortableness they will feel for a lifetime. Step out of your comfort zone and just be there for them. We already feel like we are the elephant in the room so please don’t avoid us or say nothing.
-Remember their child in some sort of fashion.
This could include, sending a piece of jewelry with their child name and birthday on it, planting or giving a tree/flower/plant to the family in memory of their child. Donating money in their child’s name to a worthy cause. Sending a card in the mail. If you are unsure of what you could do, ask the parents and I’m sure they will gladly give you a suggestion.
-Offer a listening ear.
Truly listen without trying to fix. Even if the words you hear are painful, unpleasant or things you wouldn’t expect to hear. It will mean everything to a grieving parent for you to listen. These parents know who they will be able to turn to in time of need. They will know those who will support them when they truly need the support. Please be on that list of friends.
-Be present. Be present now, a month from now, a year from now and even 5 years from now.
Grief isn’t linear. It doesn’t have a time table and it doesn’t prepare or give advanced notice when the waves of grief decide to come crashing back in. Those first few months people are amazing but from what I have heard it is after that first year that sometimes becomes harder. People have moved on and no longer think the parent needs support. Just be there and let that friend or family member know that they can count on you to be there for them when they most need it.
–Be patient. Be understanding. Most of all allow grace and forgiveness for your friend and family member.
Your friend or family member has experienced the worst kind of pain, sorrow and heartache one will ever go through while here on this earth. More than likely they will be a pretty crappy person to be around for quite some time. They may cancel on you at the last minute, they may not feel up to doing anything for quite a while. They may even yell and get angry with you for small things. When you extend an invitation they might turn it down, especially for happy occasions like bridal showers, baby showers, wdddings, birthdays, etc. You’re interactions may be awkward and uncomfortable not only for you but most definitely for them. They may be awkward for some time in social situations or gatherings or may not attend these kind of gatherings for a long time. The person you knew before their child died is gone and won’t be coming back. Learn how to embrace the new person they are and are becoming. Give them time, and I’m not talking months or a year, parents will grieve a lifetime for their child. However, you might be pleasently surprised by the new person they become over the years.
-When in doubt, always offer service.
Instead of saying, “let me know if you need anything” just do something instead. More often than not the grieving parent won’t ask for help. Not because they don’t need your help, but because they probably have no idea what they need help with. It’s a struggle to even have a clear mind when grieving the death of your child. Offer specific service such as, “I am bringing you dinner tonight. I will drop it off at 6pm” or “I am coming to mow your yard. I’ll be there at 9am”. Do something specific and don’t leave it as an open ended offering. If you do decide to offer a service to your friend/family member remember that those acts of service are many in the beginning. However, the time they may be truly needed is months down the road when they are still grieveing and everyone else has gone back to their normal lives. Bringing a meal or offering service at any point in time will help immensely as the grieving never ends.
I hope this list helped you and I really hope you continue to take the time to truly understand how to help someone in their time of need and to avoid fixing a grieving parent. Being present and having a listening ear is often times the best support you can offer them. Again, I honestly hope and pray you never really know what to say to a grieving parent, and that this list is one of your sources of knowing. Because if you do know exactly what a grieving parent needs and doesn’t need to hear that would more than likely mean you are also a grieving parent. And I wouldn’t wish this kind of knowledge on anyone.