What to say to a parent that lost a child

Losing a child is arguably the most difficult challenge a person can face in life. When I lost my son Davey in July of 2016 I was plunged into the most profound grief and sadness I had ever experienced. In my 55 years on this planet I have been through a lot, however this made every other challenge I encountered seem trivial by comparison.

It wasn't just my son that died in a car accident on that hot muggy day in July. I died too. I instantly became a completely different person, changed to my core by an event that brought up all of those deep existential questions that I had previously just brushed aside. In the initial days I was in free-fall and found myself surrounded by hundreds of people that wanted to express their sympathies, doing everything they could to support me and my family.

The vast majority of my friends and family handled it with grace and compassion. A few were so overcome with emotion they blurted out things that only made my sadness more profound but as time passed my grief evolved and the types of discussion I had with people changed.

My goal with this post is to share the things people said to me that had an impact, both positive and negative. I provide this to serve as a resource, helping you understand how to speak to parents that have lost a child. If someone you know recently had a child die you are going to be challenged as a friend or family member to help them. If you suddenly find yourself confronted with a parent that discloses they have lost a child you may want to equip yourself with healing messages that can come out naturally.

The following are the things people close to me said in the initial days and then the months that followed. We had a celebration of Davey's life three days after his passing that effectively served as his funeral. Over six hundred people showed up on short notice from all over the country.

I fully recognize now that any time someone loses a child it is devastating news, not just to the parent but to everyone that is impacted. All of these people took time out of a hot, muggy Saturday late in the summer to put on their Sunday best and show their support for us as a family. Dozens jumped on airplanes to fly across the country for just a few days and many drove long multi-state car trips just to get to us.

To every single person that showed up, called, texted or sent a card or letter: thank you. Your support was deeply appreciated. You know who your friends are when you are faced with something so difficult and yet they show up to offer support, even if sometimes they don't really know what to say.

I provide the following feedback to help clarify how the words that were said impacted me when I was in my most broken and fragile state.

A few of the things I was told that only accelerated the sadness:

"That's the most horrible thing that can happen to a person"
"That is awful! I don't know how I would handle this"

Yes, I am confident those statements were true, but when you are talking to someone that is already taking an emotional beating it's not helpful to point out the obvious. It's like yelling "Your house is on fire!" to a person that's desperately trying to climb out the window of a burning home.

"I just feel horrible. This is the worst." 
"I haven't slept since I heard the news. I'm a mess."

When people emphasized how awful they felt personally it didn't have the impact they probably hoped. Instead of coming across as commiserating with me, it felt like someone attempting to pull me down even lower. I realize now that was not the intent, but at that time I was not thinking rationally.

A few folks tried to fix me. One did this by telling me she knew exactly how I felt because she had a friend that nearly lost a child. This gave her the complete understanding of my situation and the confidence to tell me what I should do to feel better.

Unless you too have lost a child it's best not to say "I know exactly how you feel". I've now met and talked to dozens of parents that have lost children and even now I will not say that. Each person's grief is different and it feels like someone is trivializing it by saying that.

I don't believe it's possible to "fix" a grieving parent with a few sage words, as wonderful as that thought is. The closest I've personally come to getting a quick morale boost has been when speaking to fellow parents that have experienced this type of loss and were able to share what helped them.

Several friends used this as an opportunity to proselytize their religious perspective. While most of my friends know I was brought up in a Catholic home, I was not a practicing Catholic and had drifted from the church. If you know the parent you are speaking with has strong religious beliefs, finding the correct quote or passage may help them. If you aren't sure - absolutely sure - about their religious perspective it's best to not push your beliefs on them unless they ask you for that kind of guidance.

Before I get into the things that you can say with confidence I'd like to share a couple key perspectives to consider before you begin talking to a grieving parent:

1) Be Brave
You are about to speak to a person that had their life turned upside down. They are looking to their friends and family for strength. If your emotions are getting the better of you that's okay, it just means you care about them. Try your best to look them in the eye, even if yours are also filled with tears. Do not be afraid to hug them.

2) Listen
Far more important than what you say is how well you listen. Give a grieving parent the opportunity to express themselves to you. Don't judge them, just listen. Silence is not awkward if you are supportive and paying attention to what they have to say.

3) Love
Feeling love in your heart for the parent you are about to speak to is the best way to approach them before saying anything. If you can feel love for anyone, even a casual friend, this is the time to generate that feeling inside yourself and direct it at the grieving parent. The person looking back at you doesn't need your pity, they need your love.

With these basics in place the best phrases said to me were variations on this:

"I am here for you"
"If you need anything just ask"
"I am praying for you"
"You and your family are in my thoughts"
"I can't stop thinking about you and your family"
"I don't know what to say" - yet there they were in front of me

And, the most powerful one coming from friends:

"I love you"

Each of these messages came through clearly: I was supported and acknowledged. I may not have shown it at the time. Photos of my wife and me from those first few weeks after my son's passing are dim reflections of the light we used to carry in our eyes, and the light we have back now.

Another thing both my wife and I loved hearing were stories about our son. Davey was 24 and many of his friends had high school and college stories about our boy that we had never heard before. Sharing those stories - even the ones we HAD heard - were like a soothing balm.

How you handle the days, months and years after that is different. I've had some incredible friends that check in on me regularly. Even now two years later they call, shoot me a text or make a time to sit down and chat. I feel it's one of the many reasons I was able to heal the way I have.

It’s so easy to be a friend when everything is going well, but your true friends are the ones that are there for you when everything starts to spin. You reach out to stabilize yourself and they put out a hand to support you, even when you’re spinning so hard you can take them down too.

I still very much like to talk about Davey since he will always be my son. When friends bring up funny stories about him it's a little bittersweet but at least I get to talk about my boy. Even better is when people send me a picture of something they saw and say "Hey, I saw this and immediately thought of Davey!"

It may be one of his favorite candy bars, a business that includes his name in it or a butterfly that landed nearby. The idea that I'm not the only person that continues to think about my son is a tremendous gift to me. I cannot tell you how much it means to me to share those little memories or to create new ones by association.

Want to be a hero to a bereaved parent? When you see something that reminds you of the child they lost take a picture of it and send it to the parents. It's really important to continue doing that in the years that follow. There is something truly magical about receiving those messages.

As time continues to pass know that the parent you have a friendship with will indeed change. Trying to get them "back to where they were" or "normal" is literally impossible; the change they are experiencing is unavoidable. Just because they have become a different person doesn't mean you shouldn't invest time in the relationship however.

At this point in my journey I've met and had deep discussions with dozens of parents that have lost children. When you enter this club that nobody wants to join you do indeed meet some sad and broken people. I've also met some of the most amazing souls, people that have strength they never knew they had. They have a level of empathy that is striking and have a depth to their character that is incredibly beautiful.

I believe that every one of those sad and broken parents can join those of us that have learned how to rebuild our lives into one of joy and happiness. A key part of it is the love and support of their friends and family.

The challenge for you dear reader is to be that loving support system for your friends. It's worth the investment.

Comments

Susanne Molter said…
David, you have absolutely captured everything I felt and am still feeling , i lost my son Zach, on July 3rd, 2016. I like you love hearing anyone mention his name for any reason and especially tell a story about him. It just touches my soul and makes my heart sing ! You put into words everything i would have loved to. You have my deepest condolences about your son. He certainly is a handsome young man ! You are in my thoughts and hope we all find some peace and joy in our lives . Thank you ... i just love what you have written ! Susanne Molter
Unknown said…
Most notable when my son was killed this past April was all the people who came either to my home, the visitation, the funeral and afterwards who asked if there was anything they could do. They didn’t know they were already doing it simply by their presence. I let them know that that in itself was everything
saxsons said…
You and your family have my sincerest sympathy, David. It's been a year and a half now since Cam died and my friendship count has certainly gone down. There are people that don't know how to deal with me now, are uncomfortable in my company and vice versa! I've also discovered people that I didn't consider to be more than casual acquaintances have stepped up their contact with me. A casual text message or email makes such a difference when you feel that you are alone in your grief because the one thing I have learned is that grief is a life sentence. It morphs, ebbs and flows, and turns us completely inside out but it never, ever leaves. Those people that understand are the precious few we include in our inner sanctum. Many do not make it. Thank you for helping outsiders see what they can do to be included in our close inner circle.
Unknown said…
I have lost more “friends” than I have now after losing my son. After avoiding my like a plague, I sent a quick text before blocking one of my dearest “friends” and told her- Lucky you! All the time you dodged me and I wasn’t even contagious!!! One friend actually told me she knew exactly how I felt because she had lost a damn cat. I could go on- but we each have our personal tortures. It’s a club none of us ever wanted to belong to.
David Alison said…
@Susanne Molter - Thank you so much for the kind words! It is indeed special when people mention our son's name or tell us how something reminded them of him. Since we don't get the chance to create more physical memories or take new pictures of our children this is at least something that feels like we are still including them physically in our lives.

I would also offer to the folks that have commented here (some Unknown) that just because a friend doesn't know how to deal with you and avoids you, that's perfectly okay. You simply have a depth now that not everyone can even begin to understand. I've talked to some friends that told me they avoided me because they had no idea what to say and didn't want to hurt my feelings. My goal with this post was to help some people see that you can have a tremendously positive impact on another person's life by simply being there for them.

Demonstrating love, compassion and empathy are noble traits that reflect back directly on the person providing it.
Julie Shepherd said…
@JShepherd - My daughter has been gone for 8 yrs, I still get cringe-worthy comments, the worst was "Glad to see you're getting over this." That chilled me to my core.
I agree whole heartedly about the remembrances, silly or serious. One of the best cards I got was a note card from one of my daughter's softball teammates who took the time to handwrite a memory of a specific tournament game they had played. Nothing special just a funny memory that took both of us back to a happier time.
Unknown said…
Very well written and true David. Losing my daughter was the worst thing in life. I love to hear her name and enjoy when family and friends talk about her. You summed it all up beautifully. God bless you and your family in your quest to continue in life without that huge piece that is gone. But, it is what they would want for us, so we have to do so. Thank you for all you said.

Doug Keown
Diane Morano said…
Thank you, David, for putting into words what has been on my mind since we lost our dear son on May 29, 2017. One of the most hurtful texts I received was from a lifelong friend who texted me, There are no words. That was it. I realize people don’t know what to say, so I am looking forward to sharing your blog.
Alexis Soof said…
I have a family member who recently lost their son. This post is very helpful and offers an insight from the other side. I've learned that I've said some of the right things and some of the wrong ones too. Thank you.
Amber Miller said…
Just as we pick the best roses from our garden to keep, so does GOD. He picks his best Angels on Earth to keep for himself. �� sorry for your loss.
Diane Morano said…
David. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts and advise. God bless you. Well done. Amazing how many similar experiances we had with folks reactions to the loss of our son. Had a childhood friend compare the loss of his dog( but added the perspective my grief "must be worse"), and just a plethora of comments were made that I found stunningly poor judgment from people I thought more highly of, then they managed articulate to be, at the horrifc time of his passing. During the madness and numbness felt at the time of JJ's passing, I quickly relaized, that only those of us in this lousy club, can have a perspective , and so I stopped being insulted or hurt, and just began to think of them in terms of my new, unsolicted perspecitve that comes wht this type of life changing event. I also had folks say things that raised my appreciation of them, seeing thier heartfelt effort to offer some relief, most notable was a close buddy who grabbed my elbow at the reception following the funeral, and simply said "I love you man". Perhaps his own hardships prepared him better, to help as intended. Another came to vist a week after the funeral, when everyone else had moved on, and could only sob during his visit. I knew he was a good man, but that showed me he "got it", to the degree someon who is not in this lousy club can, and a true friend. I also experperianced the plague effect, the avoidance, the never mention it or him, as if, it isnt reality, or some dirty secret best left unspoken.I love when folks talk about my son, it is a balm to know he is not just convieneintly forgotton. Sadly, we also experinaced life long "freinds", that actually offerred malice, and silence , I presume, as they had a deteriorating relationship with our son just prior to his passing, they were unable to provide us simple decency and pay respects, at the time we were as devistated as a parent can be. It was a eye opeener to thier true charictor, and the nature of our relationship being one contigent upon what we could offer them, but not recipricol. There is alot of truth in the old saying a friend in need is a friend in deed. I count as a blessing, my ability to now differntiate between friends and everyone else who occupies a place in my life, and not be hurt or disappointed when my expectations are not met. One change for me that came from JJ's passing, is to know well, its what you give in life, not what you achieve, that is soley important. I value those that are givers, and pity the takers. I expect nothing, and relish whn the good in people shines through. Your sir, are shinning bright.....
Diane Morano said…
That was me, Jay, not Diane, I dont use social media. so I piggy bakced on hers....

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