What TO say to the grieving

When we lost Xavier, we were incredibly lucky with the support we received.   Very few people said “the wrong thing”.  And whilst I know most of our friends and family were lost for words,  we felt their support, their prayers and their love.  This is not everyone’s experience after losing a child.

There are plenty of excellent blog posts about what not to say to a grieving parent.   I wanted to talk about why these things are hurtful and some alternatives.    Grief is different for every single person, but at the same time there are commonalities about what gives comfort and what does not.   If you cannot find the right words, that’s okay – just say that rather than relying on trite platitudes.  The sweetest sound will always be my baby’s name.

At least you have your living child/ren.
A bereaved parent is highly aware of their blessings – it may be the only thing they are holding onto.  They don’t need you to point them out.  They did not gain those living children as part of this loss and those children are also grieving their sibling.  In addition, grief is time consuming and tiring work – it can make looking after other children very difficult.   The slack that would be given to a mother of a newborn baby is not afforded to a newly bereaved mother, even though she needs it just as much.
Instead say “I am sure that your living child/ren are a huge comfort right now but I can also see that you need to spend time with your baby and your grief.  Can I help you out by baby sitting?”

You can have more children.
Firstly, you don’t know this nor do you know what the parents have decided regarding have more children.  Secondly, it’s actually irrelevant.  This grief is about their child that has passed away – children are not replaceable or interchangeable.
Instead say “I am so very sorry that (say their baby’s name) couldn’t stay longer.  I will always remember him/her with you.”

It could have been worse – your husband / wife /older child might have died.
You play head games in grief.  You think of people you would  have rather lost than your baby.  Don’t second guess what the result of that horrible game might have been.  Besides, this comment is never going to be comforting to a person who is now suddenly terrified that loved ones can be snatched away  without cause or reason.
Instead say “I can’t understand why this happened to you.  It’s just not fair.”

There are in a better place / this happened for a reason.
This might be your belief.  But I can tell you now, the only person that gives comfort to is the person that hasn’t lost the child.  The best place for any child to be is in their parent’s arms and there is never a good reason for a child to die.  This just isn’t helpful and I think we only say it because someone taught us to say it when someone dies.  Perhaps it has it’s place when an elderly person dies, but not an infant.
Instead say “I don’t know how the world works and why such terrible things happen.  I wish your child was still with you and I will remember them always.”

It was only a miscarriage / thank goodness you lost them now, rather than when they were older.
There is no “only” in child loss.  Every person deals with things very differently and there is no right or wrong.  There are no measures in child-loss grief, there are just different circumstances and the same aching longing to hold our babies.  If you have children, ask yourself – would you prefer to lose them now or later on?  It is an impossible question and trying to answer it gives no comfort.
Instead say “I am so very sorry for your loss.  I am here if you need me.”

I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning / I couldn’t be as strong as you are / The Lord only sends you as much as you can survive – you must be so strong.
The truth is, if this happened to you, you would be getting out of the bed in the morning. You would be trying to make things work.  Your family and friends would still need you.  Your heart and head would have stopped and life would keep moving around you.  Whilst it is probably not what you mean, when this is said to a grieving parent they can hear the intimation that the speaker loves their baby more – that the loss of their baby would render them incapable and therefore their love must be greater.   Strength comes to you because you need it, not because it existed prior to loss.  Extra pain is not allotted to those with extra strength.
Instead say “The days must be really difficult and I want to help you.  When can I bring dinner around for you?”

My sister/friend/mother/aunt lost her baby, and she didn’t carry on this way.  You need to get over it.
Every grief journey is different.  Some are intensely private and you actually wouldn’t have a clue what their heart really looks like.  Others need to express their pain publicly.  Some have never been allowed to express their grief.   The pain of losing a child doesn’t go away, it dims with time but often flares up.  A bereaved parent will need to talk about their child.  Will have bad days, even years after loss.  A grieving parent learns where their grief is accepted and where it is not.  You need to decided which kind of friend you want to be – the one that can live with the discomfort and be there, or the one that would prefer  your grieving friend wear a mask for your benefit.  Think about why you want them to “get over it”.  Do you just miss the person that they used to be or are you genuinely concerned for your friend’s emotional wellbeing?  If you are concerned about their wellbeing, then you need be there for them.  Whatever that might look like.
Instead say “I know that you will miss (say their baby’s name) forever.  Do you want to talk about her/him?”

If you are genuinely concerned that their grief is overwhelming them to a point where it is unhealthy – that is they aren’t taking care of themselves or their family or they seem suicidal, say,

“I know you will miss (say their baby’s name) forever.  I miss them too. I am worried about you.  Is there anything I can do to help?  Do you want to talk? ”    

Educate yourself and contact your nearest SIDS and Kids.  They have counsellors who are experienced in consoling the grieving and they can help you understand what your friend needs and how you can help.

Ever since you lost your child, I have been terrified of losing mine.  Being around you makes me uncomfortable. 
Fortunately, child loss isn’t contagious.  But you do feel terribly, terribly alone.  Having people move away from you because they see their worst fears realised in your life adds to that isolation.  It is natural to fear something that has suddenly become real in your world, but that’s something you need to deal with – not the parent that has lost their child.  Think about the level of your friend’s discomfort and compare it to your own.  It’s not that bad is it?
Instead say “I am so very sorry that (say their baby’s name) isn’t with you.  They should be in your arms.  Please let me know if being around my baby/bump makes you uncomfortable. “

I don’t pretend it’s easy to find the right words.  I don’t pretend it’s easy to go out of your way and really help the grieving.  I don’t pretend that it’s easy to step out of your comfort zone.   But, at the end of the day, if you think any of it’s really hard, it’s nothing compared to losing your child.

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2 thoughts on “What TO say to the grieving

  1. Thank you for this post Robyna. As a baby-loss mum I have been hurt by the remarks of people who do not mean to be hurtful, but who clearly have never been guided on what TO say. I hope your post helps those who may be lost for words, or who may have tried to offer comfort in misguided ways. I think many underestimate how meaningful it is for a bereaved parent to hear another person say their child’s name…

  2. As a woman way too familiar with miscarriage, I was faced with the “my sister didn’t behave like this” comment. It was gut wrenching to think I was doing grief “wrong” and sadly was the catalyst to our friendship falling apart.

    You are spot on to say everyone experiences grief differently. Well done on this post.

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