What Not to Say When Friends Have Lost a Child
With luck, many of us will never have to confront that moment when we have to comfort a friend who has lost a child. But should that tragic moment come, it helps to know in advance that while nothing can take the pain away magically from such a shattering loss, there are some things you can say that for some folks will make the pain worse.
So many people with good intentions think they are being helpful or saying "the right thing." In the case of a child who has been lost, there is no single "right thing". But there is a way to not harm.
Here are a list of things that people do say that can hurt more than help.
RELIGIOUS SAYINGS THAT CAN GO WRONG
God must have needed an extra angel. Even though we may not understand it, this is all part of God's plan. God never gives us anything that we cannot handle. Your child is in a better place now.
The truth is that God didn't make a child die to get an angel. The theological notion that God would take a child as part of a plan, or as a way to show us how much we could handle paints a pretty uncompassionate figure of God. If the parents do have a faith tradition, they need to hear words of comfort, not of an attempt at justification for what has happened.
POINTING TO OTHER CHILDREN
Well, thank God you have Sally and Bobby.
Surviving children do not somehow magically "flow over" to full the spot that the deceased child has occupied. Yes, the remaining children are beloved, but they are not a substitute for the dead child. Andrea in "Circle of Moms" says:
"I just have to share what bothers me most after the death of one of my twins. If one more person says to me "Well at least you still have one" I'm going to haul off and punch them! I am well aware that I have one of the twins and feel very blessed for that, but that doesn't rid my heart of the pain I feel for the loss of his brother. I miss him everyday even though his brother is still alive...quit being so inconsiderate people! Let's remind people that if you don't know what to say, don't say anything at all...silence is ok."
ASKING ABOUT FUTURE CHILDREN
So do you plan to get pregnant again?" or Well, you are still young. You can always have/adopt another."
This reads out to the grieving parent as a way of saying that the dead child is replaceable -- able to be swapped out for a new one. It is obviously not helpful. If we think before we speak, this gets clear. The problem comes when we are so overwhelmed by the need to say something helpful, that we choose a panacea that really doesn't help.
YOU PROBABLY DO NOT KNOW HOW THEY FEEL
I know just how you feel. I lost my father last year." or "I lost my pet dog last month. (A friend of mine was actually told that.)
The first impulse can be to compare griefs, to let your friend know that you understand. But unless you have also lost a child, you do not understand. Losing a child is a unique grief. So unless you have shared that particular loss, it won't be helpful to tell them that you understand. They know that you do not.
SETTING A TIME LINE
"Well, it has been six months/a year -- this should be getting easier by now." Time heals all wounds."
Grief runs on its own timetable. And a grief as large as this runs slowly. It really is not up to you to judge how long it should take. Getting better isn't ever going to happen...although feeling less immediate pain can happen.
SOME RANDOM INAPPROPRIATE THINGS
Well, it's easier to lose him at 3 months than 12 years." Why do you still have that picture of him on the mantle/in your wallet?"
Maggs in "Life After Aidan Christopher" has posted a wonderful list of DOs and DON'Ts that includes:
*DON’T Be afraid of reminding the parents about the child. They haven't forgotten.
*DON’T Be afraid to cry or laugh in front of the bereaved.
*DON’T Assume that when a grieving parent is laughing, they are over anything or grieving any less.
*DON’T Wait until you know the perfect thing to say. Just say whatever is in your heart or say nothing at all. Sometimes just being there is comfort enough.
Noemi, a BlogHer who lost her beautiful 6 year old son says on her site, Touched by an Angel"
Clichés are said with the intent of making the parent or family members feel better……to find something positive in the loss. When we care about someone, we hate to see them in pain. To try to minimize their hurt people we’ll often say things like, “I know how you feel……” “It was God’s will……” “Perhaps it was for the best” or “you can always have another child.” While this can work in some instances, it never works with grief. Don’t try to make sense of the death or find a reason.
Sheri and Bob Stritof on About.com speak of what did not help them:
We also hear dumb statements about how lucky we are to have four healthy kids and how our little ones are in a better place...The reality is that having surviving children doesn't lessen the pain of losing children. The reality is that I don't care where they may be in the after life, I would prefer to have our babies with us.
Rachel and WordsOnMyLife had this to say:
The most important thing someone can do is to listen to us. Mention our child by name and realize that because he is no longer here with us, it doesn’t mean we don’t think about him or want to talk about him...If you say something insensitive and catch yourself, just apologize and move forward.
There is a wonderful organization out there that is cited in many blogs and was very helpful to dear friends of mine when they first faced this tragedy in their lives. It is called Compassionate Friends. It is a volunteer organization made up entirely of parents who have lost their children. They provide resources, meetings and help for the grief-stricken family of a lost child. Please, if you need it, check it out. If you know someone who may need it, find a gentle way to let them know that it exists.
Love helps the bereaved. And sometimes that love is expressed without words: in silence, with a hug, with our presence, with our ability to listen, with our prayers. The biggest blessing you can be to your friends who have lost a child is simply to be there to listen. Over and over again. As long as it takes.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool