After five years of living without my younger daughter on this earth, my skin has thickened a bit to things people say that are insensitive or ignorant. But I still remember how emotionally fragile I was the first year or so. How hard it was to talk about Rachel, and especially to have to tell someone about her death, without tearing up, even when I knew ahead of time she might be the subject of conversation.
So, when someone hit me with an unexpected or less than thoughtful remark, my already frazzled nervous system and broken heart frequently overreacted.
I understand that death and grief are hard subjects to talk about. People want to give comfort but are often at a loss for words, and dealing with tears is awkward. The death of a child is every parent’s worst fear and, fortunately, not a loss most people suffer, so the oddity of it makes talking about it even more difficult.
I get all that. I really do. Still, I’ve often been baffled at the words that come out of some folk’s mouth.
Here are some things NOT to say.
1. “I understand; I lost my (fill in the blank) recently.”
Unless that blank is your child, you do not understand. The loss of a child is unlike any other. If you haven’t lost a child, and I pray you have not, then you do not understand.
2. “Are you still grieving? Are you not over this yet? Maybe you need counseling.”
Yes, I am still grieving. No, I am not over losing my child. I never will be. Losing my daughter changed me as profoundly as becoming a parent did. I will miss her and grieve for her forever. And, that is perfectly normal.
3. “Your child is in a better place.”
This is true. I know without a doubt that Rachel is in Heaven. But, I want her here. She was only 30. If she had lived 60 more years she would have gone to Heaven and I would be there to welcome her at the gate. The thought of living the rest of my life on earth without one of my children is almost unbearable.
4. “At least your child is not suffering any longer.”
This is not a remark I’ve personally encountered. But, many of the bereaved parents I know lost their child to physical or mental illness; some have children who took their own life. Parents grieve and worry when a child is suffering. They would give anything for their child to recover. They beg God for miraculous healing. Death is NOT the solution they wanted.
5. “At least you have/can have other children.”
Children are not replaceable. Which of your children would you give up if you had a choice? I know parents who have lost their only child or all their children and are past child-bearing age. Even younger people may not be able to have more children. And, again, another child does not replace the one who died.
6. “At least . . .”
Let’s just stop right there. If the sentence you are about to say starts with “at least,” please don’t say it. There is no mitigation that makes the loss of my child easier to bear.
Maybe this sounds harsh. Maybe I’m bitter. Has missing my child turned me into a cynical old woman?
I don’t think so. In fact, I believe my experience has made me more compassionate, more attuned to the pain and grief that may be tucked into another’s heart. It’s made me want to help grievers and educate those who love them. I have adopted Galatians 5:22-23 as my guidepost.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!Galatians 5:22-23
So, what should you say to someone who has lost a child?
Say: “I’m sorry.”
Say: “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.”
Say: “I’m praying for you.”
If you knew my child, say her name. Tell me things about her I may not know because your relationship with her is different from mine.
Don’t say anything. Hug me or sit with me and hold my hand while I cry or pray.