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Our daughter passed away nine years ago. Since then I’ve discovered that there are many ways life changes after you lose a child, including your relationships with friends and family. One of the things that has made the grieving process so awful for me is the thoughtless questions and comments from others who are either trying to find a way to comfort me or need to make sense of what happened for their own comfort. Those exchanges have sent me further and further into a hole. In the months following her death, I turned into a hermit because I didn’t have the strength to withstand the awkward conversations that made leaving our home feel like stepping on a land mine. Ultimately I lost several close friendships I had before my daughter passed and chose to distance myself from others because of things certain people said that I just couldn’t get past.
With all that in mind, here are the things you should never say after someone has lost a child if you truly want to support them through their grief.
1. He/she is in a better place. I’m pretty sure it’s human nature for us to seek out something positive about a terrible situation in an attempt to help someone we love feel better, but there is nothing positive about losing a child. NOTHING. Do not say they are in a better place or that things happen for a reason. I know it is uncomfortable to sit with someone else in their grief but being there, sometimes without saying anything, is the best thing you can do. For grieving parents, there is no better place for their child than in their arms.
2. God had a plan for your child. Even the most devout Christians may be struggling with their faith after a loss. People brought crosses for my children to wear and told me that God chose my daughter to be with him. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family so normally these gifts would be appropriate but everything about my faith was shaken as we said goodbye to our daughter. Unless you know with 100 percent certainty where a parent’s faith lies after their loss, keep your beliefs in check and follow the griever’s lead when it comes to faith-based convos.
3. I know how you feel. I lost my dog last year. This was said to me as I ventured out of our house for the first time for a walk. Looking back I’m kind of proud of myself for not running back inside and hiding under a throw pillow for the next five years, although I think I was too stunned to move. There is no grief like losing a child. We all hope our pets will live forever and we’ll see our parents, grandparents, and siblings well into their nineties but we know one day they will pass. No parent is prepared to watch their child die and there is no comparable grief. Even losing a child at different points in their life can be hard to compare to another child loss situation. We lost our daughter as an infant and I will never say, “I know how you feel,” to my dear friend who lost her 5-year-old to cancer; our experiences were different and I cannot attempt to understand her pain.
4. You should be feeling better by now. Grieving parents are trying their hardest to get through each day. Some days are good and some days it’s hard to even get out of bed. Saying things like, “I thought you were doing better,” or implying that they should be further along in the grieving process only makes them feel less supported. Grief is a crazy process. They may have a day in Year Five that’s just as awful as those days right after their loss. The best thing you can do is give them permission to feel whatever they need to feel. The intensity of feelings will change over time but a parent will never stop missing their child.
5. Just be thankful you already have a child. Telling a loss mom, “At least you have your other children,” is implying that what she has should be enough to make up for the loss. When people have reminded me to be thankful for what I already have I’ve had to stop myself from lashing out at them about just how thankful I am for what I do have. Losing a child makes you realize just how fragile life is, telling me to be thankful implies that I’m not doing this grieving process right and my sadness isn’t valid. I could have 20 more children and I would still miss the one I lost. Having other children does not negate the loss of one.
If a friend or family member loses a child the best thing you can do is let them lead. Find out where they stand with their faith and their comfort level in heading out into the world again and follow along. Are they up for a dinner out, or is bringing them their favorite coffee as much social interaction as they can handle right now? Meet them where they are in their grieving process and do what you can to help them through in any manner you can.
No matter what, keep trying. The loss moms I know can list off the friends they’ve lost since their child died. Sometimes people don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything at all. A parent who has lost a child has been through the most excruciatingly painful experience of their life. They don’t need you to offer your expertise or personal experiences, they just need you to be there, holding space for them until they’re ready to return to the world again.