Our grief-averse culture seems to rush us to the finish line; that place where things are just happy, and our loved ones are remembered only with smiles and upbeat feelings—But honestly, there is power in dwelling. Power I am happy to claim.
Things people say to the bereaved
Death is awkward in our culture. (How I wish it wasn’t!) And because of this awkwardness, talking about death is often hard. It doesn’t have to be, though. These are 10 things you can say to a loved one after the death of their child.
We are conditioned within modern society to look for the silver lining in every crappy day. For some things, this is fine. But when it comes to extreme loss and pain, there often isn’t a bright side.
If you know a parent with both a living and deceased child, it’s something to be aware of. Because the most supportive thing you can say in that situation is to acknowledge the work that goes into raising and grieving, simultaneously.
STILL grieving? Yes, I am still grieving. I am still grieving, because the work of grief is never done. I am still grieving, because I put into my grief what I cannot put into life with my son. I am still grieving, because he is STILL, and will always, be dead...
Loved ones often want to cheer you up after loss, but sometimes, you don’t want or need to find cheerfulness. Sometimes (often!), you need to just sit and grieve. “Let’s cheer you up” can be hurtful after loss. Acknowledgement is so much more supportive.
There is a myth in our society that we need to “move on” and “heal” from loss and grief. But grief is eternal and no one understands that better than the bereaved. Acknowledge & honor this need to maintain connection even after death. Acknowledge that grief, like love, lasts as long as it needs.
If you truly want to support someone who feels guilt, fault, or blame after the death of their child, then listen, acknowledge, and mirror back to them. This is so much more powerful and authentic than any glib phrase. Please don’t tell them “It wasn’t your fault”
Sometimes the most empathetic-sounding statements can be the most unintentionally hurtful. “I would never survive it” implies you would choose death or suicide over living after the death of your child. This is a flippant thing to say. Please don’t.
“He wouldn’t want you to be sad”—This is ridiculously untrue. Instead of telling the bereaved how to feel, or worse yet, speaking for the deceased, consider honoring both the life and the grief. Like any other authentic emotion, it is ALWAYS okay to be sad, especially after a death.
One of the many aspects included in the loss of a child are the missing milestones—first smile, first kiss, and the years in between. These physical things that can only be done by doing. These missing memories. Telling me my child is with me in spirit is NOT the same.
Adoption is an inordinately beautiful thing. It is also often used as a generic straw solution to the “problems” of child loss and infertility. Please don’t push adoption on the infertile or the bereaved. Listen to their feelings. If it’s right for them, they will bring it up when it’s time.
When I was new in my grief, I had a good friend tell me, “at least you can pregnant.” He almost immediately became my EX-good friend…There is literally no statement that can follow the words “at least” that is in any way supportive or gentle or kind. Nothing. It simply isn’t possible.
“Why didn’t you…”
Have you ever said these words? Many people have. It’s a common question the bereaved experience after loss, particularly if or when a loss may have been preventable. It’s also a form of distancing; of inserting a barrier in the conversation.
I’m sure it’s not intentional. You hear my story, and things get awkward. You want to fill the space. You call me “strong,” because that’s what you’ve heard other people say. You call me “brave,” because it sounds inspirational…
There is this trend in modern times, of building all these mental health resources and installing hotlines, but we don’t talk enough about how hard it can be for those who are struggling to pick up the phone. When I was in my darkest place, I didn’t have it in me, most days.
When the bereaved are deep in their grief, they often don’t know what they need. Please consider offering specific things:
I’d like to bring you dinner this evening. Is that okay?
Would you be interested in a walk in the park tomorrow morning?
A simple change in phrasing makes such a difference.
Growing up, I heard the words “be strong” a lot…And maybe this is something I have internalized. This sense of false stoicism, where emotions are suspect.
I think something that isn’t realized about loss is that pain after loss is sometimes important; it’s a measure of the strength of the love that remains. Instead of wanting to remove that pain, consider giving it a place. Listen without judgement. Let your loved one’s complicated feelings exist.
What you need to understand is that your loved one isn’t there right now; they are here. And here, today, they are hurting. As much as you want to point them to “someday,” it is so much more important to acknowledge where they are, today.
I was tagged in a post the other day. An expectant parent had unexpectedly lost her child, and a mutual friend wanted to connect us. But then I was reading through the other comments on the post, and I found one that said, “someday this won’t hurt so bad,” and to be honest, I wanted to scream.
Children are not replaceable. I know you probably don’t think they are…
I know you probably don’t think you can grab one baby out of a parent’s arms and then give them a different one with no consequence. (You DON’T think that, right?)
But this is what we are sometimes hearing.
When I was new in my grief, there were a number of situations where people said or did something and I wanted to respond, but I just didn’t have the words. Now that I am further out, I have put together a set of potential scripts to use in these situations.
I think we are all familiar with the golden rule, but one of the most powerful things I have ever heard was to follow the platinum rule: treat people how THEY prefer to be treated. The words we use matter. And if you can’t say something kind, or supportive, maybe don’t say anything, at all.
They said time heals, but they lied. Time doesn’t heal. It’s only a measure of the length of the process.
It is common in loss circles to talk about finding thankfulness in the life we have left. There are so many things wrong with this sentiment. The biggest problem is that it assumes the bereaved can’t be thankful and grieving at the same time. The other main problem is the unspoken assumption that thankfulness is a “cure” for grief. It isn’t.
Many years ago in the Before, my then-boyfriend asked me not to say, “I love you, but–“. As he pointed out, the word “but” is minimizing; it negates the importance of everything that came before. I think of this today, and I realize how much more valid my experience feels when I remove any “buts”. It definitely helps.
Two big influencers lost children this year. In the wake of heavy criticism of their public grief, I wrote this piece in defense of sharing photos and talking about our beloved deceased children. Today, that story was published in Scary Mommy.
Positivity is a choice, and it’s important that it remains an individual one. You can’t force other people to feel positive; you can only make them feel bad about feeling differently.
We default to these standard phrases when seeking to comfort others in pain. Unfortunately, these phrases actually make the pain worse..