Do you know someone whose child died?
Are you wondering what to say to them or how you can help?
If you don’t know what to say to heartbroken parents after the loss of a child, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you!
Most of us were not taught how to help grievers. And what we were taught was usually incorrect.
• To grieve alone
• To put on a happy face
• To be strong for our loved ones
We were even told that Elisabeth Kübler Ross’s five phases that terminally ill patients often go through when dealing with their own deaths are stages of grief. Unfortunately, a lot of people apply those stages to grievers rather than people who are facing their own mortality.
Just because a piece of advice is popular doesn’t mean it’s helpful.
Talking about the death of a loved one can be taboo too. It’s as if grief is in the same category as talking about politics, money and religion. Frankly, grief and loss are two of the most misunderstood topics in the world.
Is it any surprise then that we don’t know what to say to bereaved parents and family members who are experiencing grief?
So, let’s address this here and now. We know you care, have a big heart and want to help (or you wouldn’t be reading this).
Here are helpful things to say to parents who have had a child die and answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about what you can do for them.
What can I say to someone who has lost a child?
Start by telling the truth about yourself or asking what happened:
I can’t imagine how heart-breaking that must have been for you.
I don’t know what to say.
I feel uncomfortable when people are sad.
Do you have some tips on how to listen, so they feel safe, heard, and supported?
Be a heart with ears. Follow every word they say and stay in the moment.
Be patient. Give them time to talk without interrupting. It can be hard for grievers to formulate their thoughts and words, so they may take longer than usual.
Let them share openly without judging, correcting, criticising or analyzing them.
Remember, it can be painful for grievers to talk about their loss. Allow them to feel listened to and safe, even if you feel uncomfortable.
Is it okay for me to cry while they’re talking?
Yes! Allow yourself to have your normal and natural feelings too. If you feel like crying, then cry. If they say something funny, then laugh right along with them.
Is it okay to talk about my own child who died or other losses?
Remember that every relationship is unique, so we don’t think people should compare losses. However, if listening to them brings up memories for you, go ahead and tell the truth about yourself. You might say something like,
“I hear you loud and clear, and although I don’t know how you feel, I can certainly relate to what you’re saying. When my son died, I felt……”.
Is it okay to talk about the child who died?
Yes, it is. It’s common to think that it’s too painful for bereaved parents to talk about their child who died, so well-meaning friends and family often avoid the subject. The problem is that it can also be painful when no one wants to talk about it. Grieving parents may think that their child has been forgotten or that no one cares, so they should feel better by now.
Should I give bereaved parents space to be alone?
You’ve probably been told that grievers just need a little space. We hear it so much in our culture that you might think that avoiding mothers and fathers after their child died is helpful, right?
Grievers might feel like there’s something wrong with them if they’re being avoided. They may wonder, “Why don’t I feel better already?”. This can lead to Academy Award Behavior, i.e. acting as if they are healed when they aren’t.
How long will my grieving friend need support?
Grieving parents tend to be showered with love and attention immediately following the loss, which is great. They also need grief support down the road. Continue to show up for them during the weeks and months following the death of their child. You might even keep track of important dates, like the child’s birthday, so you’ll remember to give them a loving call on those often-painful days.
Should I recommend the Grief Recovery Handbook, 2 ½ Day Personal Workshop or your Grief Recovery Support Groups to grieving parents?
Absolutely, if you feel it’s the appropriate time. We know that time by itself simply passes. It’s the actions we take within time that allow us to heal after a loss.
One thing that’s important to remember is that a mother or father who has experienced the heartbreak of losing a child might be afraid to do Grief Recovery. They might also think they’ll never recover.
As Russell Friedman put it,
“One of the most prevalent and damaging concepts related to the death of a child is the idea that you can never get over the death of a child. While it is impossible to ever forget your child, the idea of never getting over it adds a life in purgatory for the surviving parents and others.”
In over 43 years of helping grievers, we’ve seen heartbroken parents get complete with the hopes and dreams about the future that will no longer come to fruition. We’ve seen them able to think about their kids without feeling agonizing pain.
So, by all means, feel free to direct your grieving friends and loved ones to The Grief Recovery Method where they will find the resources, they need to heal their broken hearts.”