What to say to a parent that lost a child
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.
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.
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.
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.