When learning that someone has just lost a child, people are often at a loss for the right words to say. Instead of simply saying “I am sorry.” there is often this strange phenomenon where people feel a need to quote a cliche, which does much more harm than good.
Here are some phrases to avoid when you learn that someone has just lost a child:
“It is for the best.”
This is a nonsensical thing to say to a bereaved parent; regardless of the circumstances, it certainly is not a good thing that their child is dead. The pain and the grief they are feeling are enormous. Words like these diminish their grief, and trivialize the death of their child.
“At least you still have your other children.”
Again, this is a rather thoughtless thing to say. The presence of other living children may bring comfort or not, but again, doesn’t mean that the loss of the child is any less important. We are each individuals, and children are no different. Appreciate that parents have known their child as an individual, and grieve for them as an individual. Even if this child was an infant, or lost during pregnancy; they were an individual child whose parents had unique love for, dreams for, and a bond with.
“It is God’s will.”
This is rarely comforting or helpful. If someone believes that their child’s death is the will of God, then they will most likely voice this feeling. Not everyone shares the same faith in the same God. This may even be an affront to someone whose child has just died; “If God took my child then why didn’t he take away my pain and anguish? Am I being punished and made to suffer?”
“Are you going to have another baby?” or “At least you can always have another baby.”
Children are not replaceable. This statement, especially in the days and weeks after the death implies that children are expendable commodity items. While the idea of a future child is often on the minds of bereaved parents, it is not a matter of replacement. You would not ask a newly-widowed person if they will be getting married again soon. Nor should you ask the newly bereaved parent if they are going to have another child.
“I know how you feel.”
No, you don’t know how they feel. Even if you have lost a child of your own in the exact same circumstances – you have no idea how another person is feeling. Do not diminish their pain by saying “me too”. When speaking to the parent about their grief, it may or may not be appropriate to voice that “you understand” what they are saying, but you should not go so far as to say that you know how they feel after losing their child.
Now that we’ve gone over some things that you should not say to the bereaved parents… what should you say? Here are some ideas of things that are supportive and helpful:
“I am so sorry.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I am here if you want to talk about it.”
“I am remembering your child today.” (on the anniversary of the death or the child’s birthday.)
“I know you are hurting and I want to be here for you.”
When a parent experiences the death of their child, it is an acute pain and grief that they are feeling. It is usually best to just speak from your heart and if you find it is an awkward silence – that is OK! If you are at a loss for words, say so! Parents who have lost a child would much rather hear your sincere sadness and support through your stumbling and ineloquent words than some canned phrase that is thoughtless and hurtful.
Take a moment to think before you speak. The parents will forever remember your graciousness.