In the months after Sofia died, I read book after book and online article after online article about losing your child. Reading that other people had had the same or similar feelings made me feel less crazy, a little less out of control.
Only some of what I read touched on other people trying to support the grieving parent/s and often it was of the ‘saying anything is better than saying nothing’ kind. Not saying anything can make the grieving person feel alone and not supported, like other people have forgotten what happened. This can hurt, even a long time later. On the second anniversary of Sofia’s birth I was very grateful to receive messages from some family and a couple of friends, but saddened by those who ‘forgot’. Sometimes people can be too concerned about causing the grieving person more pain, failing to understand that the pain is there anyway.
But sometimes, saying something is more hurtful than saying nothing. It’s important to think before you speak (or write). And it’s important to remember that you’re speaking to a shattered person, a person who has a long road to recovery in front of them. So here’s my list of phrases not to say.
“I know how you feel.”
Every situation is different. Everyone copes with tragedy differently. No two people are the same and no two tragedies are the same. By saying this I’m certainly not suggesting that one tragedy could be worse than another. No parent should ever outlive their child. Simply, every tragedy is unique. To the grieving person, saying ‘I know how you feel’ belittles what has happened to them and doesn’t acknowledge their individual grief; you’re also putting the focus on you rather than the grieving person you’re trying to support. NEVER compare your grief to someone else’s.
“You can have another child.”
The child who died is IRREPLACEABLE. If someone’s partner died would you say ‘You can find someone else’ to make them feel better? Whether the child was ten years old, ten weeks old, ten days old or had not lived beyond their mothers’ womb, the parent will grieve for the rest of their life for that child. Any other children they already have or may have afterwards will never replace or even make up for the child they are no longer able to share their life with.
“You can try again.”
Are you sure they’re physically able to try again? Don’t make assumptions. Both parents also need to be emotionally ready to try again and this takes time. Don’t try to push a grieving parent to move into the future. Up until a short time ago the future was filled with hopes and dreams for their child. Now that future doesn’t exist and the parent must be allowed to move through their grief at their own pace, coming to terms with the fact that their life will never be the same, even when at some future point they are able to again live life.
“Things happen for a reason.”
(or anything mentioning God’s plan, will, etc.)
This seems to be the catchcry for many people when faced with trouble, believing it gives comfort. For some people it obviously does, but the grieving parent is likely to scream back at you (even if it’s only in their head), ‘How can you think there’s a decent reason for my child to die?!’ Are you saying the child died so that the parent could learn a valuable life lesson?!? Personally I think this phrase should be reserved for trivial occurences, if used at all, and NEVER for life changing events. Sometimes bad things JUST HAPPEN. There’s no need to analyse them, and there’s no need to try to find logic and order in the world. No reason will be good enough to justify the loss of their children to a parent.
“How do you feel?” or “How are you?”
Early on, when the pain is still raw it’s extremely difficult, actually more like impossible, to explain the mess of anguish, anger, fear, guilt, shock and whatever other emotions are all coming and going, and competing to be felt. The grieving parent may not even be able to distinguish for themselves what they’re feeling, and as they move through the grief process (remembering that everyone’s grief process will be different), these emotions will shift and change and merge.
Sadness is the normal response of a grieving person, and they need to work through their grief at their own pace and in their own way. If, for whatever reason, they don’t allow themselves to feel what they need to feel, respond in the way they need to respond, or they simply deny or surpress their feelings, the pain doesn’t go away. It stays with them, sometimes turning up in destructive ways. Allow the grieving parent to feel ok to express any emotion around you without feeling the need to bottle anything up because you don’t like it or it makes YOU feel uncomfortable.
“Call me if there’s anything I can do.”
The grieving parent will probably be feeling so overwhelmed by their grief that they won’t know what their needs are at that moment. Things like life’s routine tasks will be impossible for them to think about (and they probably won’t want to think about them), let alone consider what you can do for them. Be specific. Ask them if you can do something specific for them, checking if it’s ok. For instance, ‘I want to cook some meals you can put in the freezer. Would that be ok?’
So what else CAN you say?
It is enough to say “I’m sorry.” You can also be truthful and say something like “I don’t know what to say to you, but I’m always thinking about you.” Or you can simply give them a hug (perhaps the grieving person finds talking just as difficult as you do).