Things Not to Say or Do to a Grieving Parent

Some of these things might change. I know that, for me, things that I was sensitive to in the first few months were not the same as they were a year later. If you don't know what to say, a simple "I'm sorry" is always good. When a parent loses a child, you can't fix it for them. What you CAN do, however, is support them, be there for them, and listen.

DON’T ignore the child's death. Talking about other things in an attempt to make the parent "happier" might likely have the opposite effect. 

DON’T change the subject when they mention their child. If they bring the child up themselves, chances are they want to talk about them. 

DON’T tell them what they should feel or do. Even if you've lost a child before, all experiences are different. 

DON'T avoid the parents because you feel uncomfortable.Being avoided can make the parent feel as though they and their child have been forgotten.  

DON'T let your friends, family or co-workers grieve by themselves. Grief is already isolating in its own way. (Well...we already know how I feel about that. I guess in some cases they felt like a month or two was long enough.) 

DON'T make any comments which in any way suggest that their loss was their fault. (This can be unintentional, too. I recently worried about Iris and had someone tell me that I would be fine with her, that they had been "watching" me to see if I did anything inappropriate with her and hadn't witnessed anything that they should be concerned about.) 

DON’T point out that at least they have their other children (children are not interchangeable; they can not replace each other). (Yep, good thing I have that back-up child!)

DON'T say "Your loved one is waiting for you over there," "God wanted him," "It was God's will," or "God knows best." (Just try to convince a grieving parent that someone else knows what is best for their child. Besides, religious might comfort YOU but that doesn't mean it comforts the other person.)

DON'T bring up a religious reference at all unless you know the parents' religious orientation. Because the thought of the child being in Heaven is comforting to you doesn't mean that it will be for the parents, especially if they are atheist or have other beliefs. 

DON'T say “you can always have another child.” (Children are not replaceable and what if the person can't?)

DON'T reference the child's age as a positive attribute of the death. My child was 7 weeks old. Although I didn't know him for as long as someone who lost a 16 year old knew their child, I still knew everything about him and loved him. Saying "at least he was just a baby" is not helpful. It's actually kind of cruel.

DON'T say “you should be coping or feeling better by now” or anything else which may seem judgmental about their progress in grieving. (How do you know when they should be feeling better? Grief never goes away. This also puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the parent who might feel as though they are already trying hard enough as it is.)

DON'T say that you know how they feel (unless you've experienced their loss yourself you probably don't know how they feel). (Even if you HAVE experienced a similar loss, it's a pretty individual journey.) 

DON'T suggest that they should be grateful for their other children. Grief over the loss of one child does not discount the parents’ love and appreciation of their living children. (I can't even go there with this one. Grieving parents ARE grateful for their other children-that doesn't soften the blow of losing one, however.)

DON'T tell them not to cry. Crying helps some people. It's better to cry than to bottle up emotions. 

DON'T tell them what they should feel or do. (This includes going to therapy. Not everyone does well in therapy, can afford therapy, or wants to go. It's a personal decision.)

DON'T try to find something positive (e.g. a moral lesson, closer family ties, etc.) about the loss. There is NOTHING positive about losing a child. Period. (Someone told a dad I know that at least he can save money every month by not buying diapers. )

DON'T allow your own fears to prevent you from offering support to the bereaved. (Being around grieving people can be awkward and scary for you. But not half as scary and sad as it is for the person who is grieving.)

DON'T say, "If you need anything call me" because the bereaved don't always know how to call and ask for your support. (And will probably immediately forget that you said that.) Instead, just do it. Visit them, bring them food, start doing their proactive. Don't wait for an invitation.

DON'T think that good news (family wedding, pregnancy, job promotion, etc.) cancels out grief. (Yes, happy things do still happen to us and around us. That doesn't mean we are "cured.")

DON'T have expectations for what bereaved parents should or should not be doing at different times in their grief. For some people simply getting out of bed and getting dressed is a huge accomplishment. They will do more when they are able to. (I wish all of Pete's friends that caused us so much grief could read this and understand it.)

DON'T force bereaved people to talk about their loss. They will engage you when the time is right. (There are people in my life who bring things up JUST to get a reaction out of me. Not cool.)

DON'T Expect grieving parents to be strong and don't compliment them if they seem to be strong. (This makes us place unreasonable expctations on ourselves.)

DON'T say "I couldn't go on if something happened to my child." Although you might think this is a compliment to the person's inner strength, sometimes it makes the parent feel as though their love for their child is less than what yours is for your own child, simply because they are breathing. 

DON'T assume that when a grieving parent is laughing, they are over anything or grieving any less. 

DON'T think that children are too young to appreciate loss or death. (But please talk to your own children about the appropriateness of bringing up the loss around our children or ourselves. Questions are fine. Repeated references to our child being "dead" to our faces are NOT fine.) 

DON'T talk about the person's feelings or grief publicly with your blog or social media statuses. It's highly inappropriate to write a status talking about how your friend is feeling suicidal or to write in detail about how your friend is handling their grieving process. That's not your place. (I had this happen. It was...weird.) 

DON'T compare their loss to a loss you've had. At least, don't do it out loud to them. Losing your dog/grandma/uncle/cat was undoubtedly sad. But it's not the same. Sympathy is great. Empathy can be even better. At least in the beginning, however, most grieving parents want to talk about their own experiences and find something to relate to. If you haven't lost a child yourself, this is a topic best steered clear of. 

DON'T complain about your living children. Eventually, you and your friend/family member/co-worker might get back to a point where you can talk about how ornery your child is being and the other person won't be sensitive to it. For awhile, however, this is something you should avoid. They would probably give anything to have their child break a figurine or backtalk. You won't find much sympathy here. 

DON'T question their decisions. If they want to have another baby right away, your job is to verbally support them, even if you don't understand it. If they want to get naked and do the hula on the front lawn, at least offer to wait on the porch with some towels. Unless it will   physically harm them or possibly have them arrested, just try to go along with it. 

*Many bloggers have written similar entries about this. For a tongue-in-cheek (yet entirely familiar to most of us) account, visit Susan's entry entitled "How to support someone properly following the death of their child"


Michelle (Grieving Mother of Baby Boy 11/12/11-2/7/12) said...

"DON'T say 'I couldn't go on if something happened to my child.' Although you might think this is a compliment to the person's inner strength, sometimes it makes the parent feel as though their love for their child is less than what yours is for your own child, simply because they are breathing."

Yes! Thank you for including this as it seems to be all I hear. What a person does and how a person feels can and often times are two entirely different corners of the room known as mourning. Though my son Elliott passed away 4 months ago, I have never been more stoic with eyes so dry...I need to cry but have no idea how to begin. Everyone feels I should be over it and am so strong to have "overcome it and gotten on with my life" but my biggest secret is - I haven't even moved beyond numb! Thank you again for sharing your story and I must say your son is beautiful :)

Rebecca said...

Sometimes I was afraid that if I started crying I would never, ever be able to stop. And yeah, at 4 months I was still feeling a little shocked and numb. Just trying to push myself to keep going. It's been almost 2 years for me and it still hits me like a ton of bricks and I don't feel like I have really moved on. :-(

I am sorry about your son. This is the worst thing that can ever happen to a parent and it breaks my heart to hear about someone losing a child.

Rhonda said...

Sometimes for me "im sorry" makes me mad know? Its crazy after my destiny's funeral i had a lady tell me youll have more kids! Then another tell me she knows my pain.... yet neither had lost a child and for sure not one to sids.

Rebecca said...

I hate the "you can always have more kids" or "at least you still have your other one!" My children are not replaceable. And I don't think you should say that anyway because you don't know that the woman CAN have other kids. People can be so unthinking and cruel.

Rhonda said...

Amen.... in this dark time of my life, i had a bright light. My mom lost my lil brother 31 yrs ago so i actually had someone who knew exactly what i was going through.