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Supporting Grieving Families: What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Child

I am so very sorry for your tragic losses. Our son died just15 months ago and we too understand heartbreaking loss. I want to share what we've learned about comforting those who grieve.

Our hearts are broken for you in the tragedies that you've been faced with and I want to express my deepest sympathies for your losses and sorrows. May you feel some measure of peace in the days and years ahead as we all continue to pray for those of you who have lost loved ones or been affected in any way from this trauma.

Our family lost our son about 15 months ago and I understand the depth of pain and horror an unexpected death brings. I had written an article that was published last month that included a section on how to comfort a grieving parent. Here is an excerpt that hopefully will shed some light for those of you who want to help your friends and neighbors who were directly affected. Some of the information can be modified to help anyone grieving not just a parent...

What do you do or say to a friend or family member who has lost a child? Regardless of how the death occurred, many are in unfamiliar territory when this happens and just don’t know how to handle the situation. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience. Losing a child is the wrong order of events whether that child is 2 years old or 30 years old. Parents normally die first so this intensifies the grief.

- Do show up…for the funeral, to bring by a casserole or whatever. Friends, even close ones, sometimes don’t know what to say, are afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, don’t handle death well etc and stay away. Some don’t even send a heartfelt note because they just don’t know what to say. You may later hear from a mutual friend how badly they felt and that they think of you often. Bottom line, it’s hurtful and just adds insult to injury. Show up even if you feel helpless.

- Don’t say just let me know if you need anything. We’re too shocked and/or depressed to think straight. Just bring by food, paper plates, cups, Kleenex, chocolate, whatever. Nobody is interested in going to a noisy grocery store or anywhere else for that matter for quite a while. If there are siblings, offer to take them to a movie, the park, anywhere. Then we can cry as loudly as we want without fear that we’ll upset them further, or take a needed nap, or just not have to take care of someone else’s needs for a little while.

-Don’t be hurt if phone calls aren’t returned. No matter how promptly we used to return calls, sometimes we just can’t do it for days, weeks or months. Leave nice messages, send cards or emails. They’ll be listened to, read and appreciated. It just might take a while to come out of the fog enough to respond. 

-Invite the parent to lunch, to go for a walk etc. It most likely will be quite a while before we feel up to accepting an invitation, but it’s nice to know you’re being thought of. Don’t give up inviting, the yes may come in a different week or different month.

-I’ve found (and every parent I’ve spoken with agrees) that what people amazingly think is comforting is actually the opposite. The only thing most of us find comforting are hugs and/or the words “I’m so, so sorry for your loss” and “I’m praying for your family.” Period, that’s it. Pretty much anything else is upsetting, insulting etc and we’re put in the awkward position of knowing that you’re trying to be compassionate, but we just want you to stop talking. Telling us about your friend’s experience with losing a child, or when you lost your beloved pet, or the neighbor’s cousin etc is of no comfort at this time. Reminding us that luckily we have other children isn’t a comfort. Pointing out the silver lining isn’t the way to go. In time we may see clearly what blessings have come from our tragedy, but we don’t need others to point them out. It stings; we know what the silver linings may be, but none of these blessings bring our child back and that’s what we really want. If they were sick or in pain we want them back healthy. Reminding us that they’re in a better place is like all the other comments. We want them here. I personally have a strong faith and it does bring me comfort that my son is happy with Jesus, but the fact is that I want him happy here and then later to be happy with Him.  People have said things like “Cheer up, it’s time to smile again.” “There’s a new year right around the corner and things will start looking up.” These comments are meant to be encouraging, but what it says to a grieving parent is “You’re doing this whole grieving thing wrong or taking too long and it’s making the rest of us uncomfortable.”  We each grieve differently and on our own timetable and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I could give so many examples of what was meant to be helpful but was hurtful. Suffice it to say we want very few words… I’m so sorry, we’re praying for you. That’s it. Hugs, a shoulder to cry on, listening, nodding, showing love through actions, those are the things that can be comforting. Some try to be brave and don’t want to upset you by crying in your presence, but there’s a comfort in having others cry with you.  You may be surprised by some of this information. I surely was, but now I know it to be true from both my experiences and those of the bereaved families I have met. My wish is for something from this article to be of help which enables you to better truly comfort others. I wrote this poem 2 ½ months after losing our son, Christopher, which captures the reality of new grief.

Unexpected Darkness

Shattered,

Gutted

I can’t stand to be around people

The sound of voices irritates me

The din of their idle chatter is deafening

Laughter unbearable

Normal everyday life is an insult

The sound of the television is jarring

Music is upsetting

I cringe at sunlight

The leaves change color, how dare the world go on

It makes me angry

I only want the solace of my bed,

A warm comforter and a fluffy pillow my shield against the world

People hug me, I don’t want them to, I may break down

People don’t hug me, I want them to, I need to cry

Others find it hard to even make eye contact with me

My pain may rub off on them

I am half crazy

New, raw grief.                                                       

                                                                                                                                               Irene Rowland    

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Weston J. December 22, 2012 at 08:39 AM
decent proposal, But the death of a family member is not something to bring up in this case.
Stephen Marton December 22, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Weston J. what did you read ?? isn't that, what was said ?? just asking
Missy Hash September 04, 2013 at 12:36 AM
I love your poem that's exactly how I felt and didn't feel like I could express it... Thank you
Katherine M. Lawrence March 25, 2014 at 12:23 AM
Great poem. Sorry for your pain.

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