What [not] to say to bereaved parents
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
“At least you’ve got other children.” When people say this to me, I feel slapped — regardless of their good intentions. When someone remarked “Imagine if he’d been an only child,” I was offended and hurt. His death was no less of a loss or of an all consuming pain to me because he had siblings.
Elizabeth Brown wrote SunRise Tomorrow: Coping with a Child's Death after her daughter’s death from a sudden-onset, flu-like illness. “Don’t tell anyone whose child is about to die that there are things worse than death, even if it is true. Don’t tell anyone that giving up a child for adoption must be worse than giving up a child to death, even if you think that at least, with death, the pain has ended. Don’t tell a parent that unless after you have gone to the funeral home to choose a casket for your own child, you still feel death is the easier alternative. Still, perhaps you should wait until you see them lower the coffin with your child into the ground.”
She added that it would have been devastating, at the visitation, “to hear comments about how good LeeAnn looked.” Brown noted: “She looked dead.”
Melody Huffman, after the death of her son Matthew, had a strong reaction to the well-intentioned person who said, “God won’t give us more than we can bear.” She wrote, in her blog titled When a Child Dies, “Are you saying my son died because I am a strong person and God doesn’t give us more than we can bear? Are you saying because I am strong, my son died? Are you saying you are weak and that is why your child is alive?”
Here are many of the most common mistakes (i.e., long remembered, least forgiven) and unintentionally hurtful statements made to grieving parents (using the gender-neutral term “he” for your child) :
Phrases that minimize the total devastation of the loss in any way:
At least you’re young. You can have other children.
At least you lost him at an early age. (Or before he was born; before you had time to get attached.)
At least you got to see him [insert milestone — crawl, walk, graduate, get married, have a child, whatever].
At least you have your faith.
At least you got to be with him when he died (or see him before he died).
At least he doesn’t have to suffer any longer [paralyzed, in pain, on chemo, etc.].
At least he died in his sleep. [Died suddenly. Died peacefully.]
At least the doctors tried. They did everything they could.
At least he died in the service of his country (bravely, fighting a fire, etc., etc.)
Sidestep phrases that attach a heroic quality to surviving, too, as if the parent was chosen for their bravery (they may resent an inference that you did not intend to give).
I don’t know how you can be so brave. I know I couldn’t do it.
God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.
If you have lost a child, too, don’t take this opportunity to tell all of the details of your story now, while their pain is so fresh. You could be a valuable resource to them later. One way to acknowledge it: “I lost a child myself, and my heart really breaks for you on this incredibly sorrowful day. Please let me know if I can ever be of any help to you in any way.”
Thank you, also, for avoiding phrases that imply God made a choice to “take” their child. Unless you have the credentials and experience, and have been asked by them to provide a religious framework, it may be resented if you say:
God took a little angel to heaven today.
Try not to “help” the individual cope with a well-intentioned phrase that inadvertently sounds patronizing or sermonizing:
No one understands God’s design. We can only accept it.
Say What? That’s the million-dollar question.
Sometimes it’s most natural, and best, not to say anything. Sometimes a hug means more than 1,000 words. Tears often mean a great deal, if they are authentic and not overwhelming to the parents.
Listen. If the parent brings up the child or death or fears, LISTEN. Don’t change the subject or try to reassure them. LISTEN. Hold a hand. Hold a gaze. LISTEN.
Don’t judge. A parent may ask you to take them to the death site. Take them. A parent may ask you to visit the cemetery with them. Go. You may be expected to step outside your comfort zone with regard to accompanying them to new or unexpected outlets for their grief.
Make allowances for their grief, for their (sometimes inappropriately directed) anger. Please do what you can do (responsibly) to support them as they find their way through their aweful nightmare.
How can you simply (or ever) express your own grief? Do any of these phrases ring true?
I loved him, too. He will always be remembered in my heart.
What can I do to best support you right now? (Pray, cook, clean, take you out for a coffee, take your other children to a park for an hour?)
I am feeling such a pain for your loss, such a sorrow in my heart for your family.
I feel so helpless. All I can say is that I care and my heart breaks for you.
I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you.
Thanks for visiting the watering hole. I hope you found something here you needed. Your feedback is appreciated on this site. Maybe you have advice not included here?