Bereaved Parents Have Different Needs For Different Situations
Everyone is different as to how, when, and if, they will accept comfort over losing a child. The how, where, and when of each loss is different for each situation. A parent mourning the death of a child after a long illness may require a different sort of comfort than a parent who lost a child suddenly. A parent losing a child from an accidental drug overdose needs a different sort of comfort than one whose child died from suicide. Yet again, one whose child died as an infant or small child mourns differently from one whose child passed away as an adult.
People Are Either Too Zealous, Or Too Shy, To Offer Comfort
Our sages were very much in tune with human nature. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said ‘…Do not comfort a mourner when his dead lies before him.’ (Pirkie Avot, chapter 4) Rabbi Shimon is saying I should not attempt to offer words of comfort before the child is buried because the parent’s grief is just too intense for any consolation. Rather I should assist the grieving person with any practical help they may need, and save the words of consolation for later.
After burial, it is customary for people to go to the mourner’s home to offer comfort. People are sometimes uncomfortable doing this because they simply don’t know what to say, or what not to say. I may think it’s better not visiting for fear of saying the wrong thing. But when someone has suffered a tragic loss, it is at this very time that he/she needs support from family and friends. It’s better that I make an attempt to reach out to the parents. Even if I can’t find the right words, my presence shows that I care.
Positive Things To Say To A Grieving Parent
So what do I say to someone who has just suffered child loss? I can answer this question by recounting what made me feel better when my son passed away:
I don’t have to say anything. I could just sit near the person.
I could give a hug. This says volumes.
I can say ‘I don’t know what to say…’
If I knew the child, I could share stories about him/her.
I could ask the parent to talk about their child. ‘So tell me about your child. What was he/she like?’
I could ask if the parents need anything like making meals, going grocery shopping, buying toys for the other children, offering financial support if I am able to. Even something small goes a long way to help lessen the stress the parent must be feeling.
I should let others know about the person’s loss. How uncomfortable for everyone if an uniformed acquaintance encounters the parent sometime later and innocently asks ‘How’s your kid doing?’
I should try to do something in memory of the child and let the parents know.
What A Grieving Parent Doesn’t Want To Hear
So what should I not say to someone who has just suffered the loss of a child? Well, here are a few tidbits that either set me on edge or turned me off entirely when my son passed away:
‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ I know this is the ‘standard’ thing people say to a bereaved person. In fact, I’ve encountered websites which recommend saying this as an opener to the bereaved. There’s nothing wrong in saying this, however, after person after person says this, it gets rather trite. People mean well, but frankly, I got sick of hearing it.
‘At least you have other children.’ Each child is irreplaceable. The other children are not a substitute for the one who died. In fact, I shouldn’t even ask if the person has other children. The very question intimates that the others will be a replacement for the one who is gone.
‘How did the child die?’ Asking the parent to recount the whole miserable episode of their child’s passing is not ‘comforting’ the person in any way. If the parents want to tell you, they will.
Talk about my own loss. The focus here should be on the bereaved, not me.
Going on and on telling the parents how miserable I feel. Even though I may be deeply affected by this person’s loss, again, the focus here should be on the bereaved. They are the ones needing comfort. I shouldn’t make them feel as if I’m the one who needs comfort.
Rationalize why it happened. If I’m suffering from a tragedy, I can analyze my own shortcomings and say ‘Oh, I think G-d is doing this to me because of this and this, etc.’ I can say this about my own suffering, but I have no business saying this for someone else’s suffering.
Bring religion into it (unless you know the mourner is receptive to it). ‘He/she is in a better place, it’s G-d’s will, etc.’ This is a tricky one, because sometimes the mourner wants to hear these things, and sometimes they don’t. I would have to know the person very well and gauge whether these words would be helpful. If I don’t know the person well, it’s better I don’t talk about religion.
Abandon the mourner after time passes. Too often, people think that as time goes by, the grief will lessen and go away. For child loss, this is simply not true. The grief may lessen, taking on different intensities and different forms over time, but it will never go away. Just as bereaved parents need support from others now, so will they need support in the future. I can try to be a friend, come for a visit, talk on the phone, ask if they want to go out for coffee, anything that will make them feel that they and their child are not forgotten.
So, What’s Really the Right Thing To Say To A Parent Who Has Lost A Child?
When my son first passed away, despite my being an observant Jewish person, I didn’t want to hear anything about religion, about what G-d wants, etc. I just couldn’t handle it. After some months went by, I could slowly talk about death and spirituality as it related to my son. For almost a year, I never thought I would want to attend any happy occasion like a wedding or a birthday party. Now, I’m willing to go, but it’s bittersweet, because I wish my son was here to enjoy these things too.
The suggestions given above are only suggestions. The ‘right’ thing to say really depends on the circumstances of the child’s passing, the stage of grief the person is in, and what he or she is ready to hear from others.
So many, including myself, fall into this one inadvertently… I always try to keep this in mind.
David, I’ve said it too, so have most people. I think it’s just that we’re all trying so much to ‘help’, we sometimes lose sight of who we’re helping. All the best.
This post is a good reminder. There are so few comforting “right” things that one can say in the face of such an awful loss and so many wrong, painful things one could say, that even people with the best of intentions can mess up.