What Not to Say to Bereaved Parents PLEASE!

By Suzanne Leigh
Published on the Huffington Post

You know better than to say something like, “He/she is in a better place,” or, “You’re lucky you have other children,” don’t you? Here’s a list of other well-meaning blunders reported by bereaved parents that have made us squirm.

  ‘When my mother/sister/dog/best friend died, I …’

All bereavements are painful, but most parents would agree that losing a child is uniquely excruciating because it defies the natural order of life. Although your loss doesn’t necessarily have to be off-limits in conversation, avoid using your own experience as a means of connecting with a bereaved parent. Keep the focus on listening, rather than sharing.

  ‘Let me know if there’s anything we can do.’

Highly unlikely we would do that, especially in the early immobilizing days of grief. Much better to take the initiative by thinking of something that might be helpful and giving us the option of saying yes or no.

‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’

Ouch. I hope you do have the emotional depth to  “imagine” what we are going through, especially if you are a parent yourself. This makes us feel more isolated. (But points for not saying, “I know how you feel.”)

  ‘I couldn’t do what you did. You are so strong.’

What were we supposed to do when our child’s disease became terminal … put him up for adoption?

‘I’m bringing dinner for tomorrow.’

Nice, but check first that our freezers aren’t bursting with frozen casseroles from other good Samaritans. Offering to grocery shop, walk the dog or take the car for an oil change might be even more helpful, especially in those early days when managing simple tasks is very challenging.

  ‘Happy Christmas/Hanukkah/Thanksgiving/Birthday,’ etc. 

Happy Nothing, please! For the first few years, all of the above are painful milestones in which the loss of our child is amplified. That doesn’t mean you should skip the seasonal salutations or the bereaved’s birthday, but keep the merriment on mute. And if you are going to send a holiday card, think very carefully before sending a picture of your own children. (According to my mentor and mom friend Donna, receiving a Christmas card with pictures of the sender’s healthy kids is one of the most common grievances of bereaved parents.) Three words on your holiday card, “Thinking of [late child’s name],” will be deeply appreciated. And please skip the well-meaning but hurtful well-wishes to, “Have a great day,” or, “Enjoy your weekend.” For bereaved parents there will be no great days or enjoyable weekends for a long time. Years, possibly (and most of us are OK with that — we deserve the right to grieve for as long as we need).

   ‘You’ll feel better eventually.’

Maybe. But unless you’ve lost your own child, you’re not qualified to make this prediction.

‘What happened before she died?’

Curiosity is so unwelcome.

   ‘You’re doing great!’

Thanks, but wearing my social mask doesn’t mean I’m doing great. Better to say, “It’s good to see you.”

  ‘Your family is in my prayers.’

Thank you, but keep in mind some of us might have different spiritual perspectives if you want to talk about your interpretation of God.

Just listen, please!

Why is this about what not to say, rather than what one should say? Because being present for a bereaved parent is much less about talking than about listening, if we choose to share our grief with you. So-called active listening  -– reinforcing what is being said, deferring advice and judgment –-  might be the most healing gift you can offer.

But there is one topic that bereaved parents are always hungry for you to talk about: our late child. Relay those conversations you had with our child (including those seemingly ordinary ones), your observations of them and your special memories. Put them in writing; they will always be treasured. Say their name –- we ache to hear it. Remember their birthday; surely the hardest day of the year for a bereaved mother. Tell us that you, too, miss their gorgeous presence.

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