7 Things NOT to Say to A Grieving Parent

Kindly callers hurt her, too, with the well-meant platitudes with which they strove to cover the nakedness of bereavement. – Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery

I first fell in love with Anne from Anne of Green Gables in 1989 when my family moved from Minnesota to Oregon. I was 14 years old and anticipating the move. The night before we left, my sisters and I stayed at my best friends house where we watched the Anne of Green Gables movies for the first time. I fell in love with Anne’s spunk and never ending chatter. However we were left with a cliffhanger. Gilbert was sick and dying but we couldn’t finish the end of the movie. I had to know what happened, so I read the books.

It’s interesting what you remember and don’t remember. After all these years all I remembered of Anne’s adult years was that Gilbert was able to get her dream house complete with a stream running through the yard. So imagine my surprise as I was reading through the books again to discover that Anne’s first child was stillborn. In the world created by L.M. Montgomery everything seemed happy and serene. Life was simple and pleasant. Sure the characters went through troubles, but nothing so terrible as child loss.

What Not to Say to Grieving Parents

It’s strange, but I found some measure of comfort in knowing that even in L.M. Montgomery’s day, people did not know how to handle grief. When people don’t know what to do or say, the platitudes they end up offering hurt so much more than they realize.

People sometimes think if they say the “right” thing they can help lessen or take away the pain. But in reality there are no words that can “cover the nakedness of bereavement”.

After the accident that claimed the lives of my only 2 children (you can read about it here), I heard my fair share of “well-meant platitudes”. Though I understood people were trying to help, the following words hurt and minimized my grief.

1) They’re in a better place

A kind older lady said this to me at the reception following the memorial service. I still remember how this statement was an emotional punch to the gut that had me physically take a step back. This statement completely misses the point of grief. It doesn’t matter where my children are. They are NOT with ME and I miss them. As long as they are gone I will be grieving.

2) How can I help? Let me know if I can do anything?

I know people say this out of a desire to be helpful, but really isn’t. My entire world had just imploded. I could barely breath. Getting dressed was an accomplishment of epic proportions. If that’s all I managed in a day, things were going good. I didn’t have a clue what I needed. And if I did know what I needed, I most likely didn’t care. Asking the bereaved person how you can help generates pressure for them to think about and give you ideas. If you truly want to help, here is a list of things others did for me that I found helpful and deeply appreciated.

3) Call me if you need to talk

 I had perfect strangers giving me their phone numbers. People I barely knew offering to listen. I even had someone set up a meeting for me to speak with a pastor I didn’t know, just because he too had lost a child. Again, I know people just wanted to help, but this wasn’t helpful. And in some cases it just made me mad.

Grief is an intense and intimate emotion. I wasn’t about to share my grief with strangers or acquaintances. I couldn’t share the intensity of what I was feeling with people I had no relationship with. I would share my grief with my family; friends and those I already had an established relationship with. I did not have the energy to build new relationships.

I would talk with the people who didn’t have to offer to be there for me, because I already knew they were.

4) I know what you are going through because my ________________________ died.

With this statement people are trying to find a way to connect to my grief. I get that. But there is nothing like the loss of a child. NOTHING. Our children represent the future. As parents we have dreams for our children as they grow. We worry over them, take care of them and guide them. Children are supposed to survive their parents. When a child dies this natural order is broken.

Child loss is not the same thing as losing your parent, step-parent, uncle or dog. I once heard that my Grandpa had said he’d lost his parents, a wife and a child and by far the worst was losing a child.

So PLEASE unless you have lost a child, never tell grieving parents you know how they feel.

5) You can have more children.

Shortly after the accident, I actually had someone tell me they were praying I would have another baby by the end of the year.

This statement implies that my children can be replaced. No child can ever be replaced. Each one has a unique personality and purpose in life. Whether or not more children are possible, my children are gone. And as long as they are gone, my grief will exist.

Child Loss has no end to grief.

6) This is a good time to reinvent yourself. (Or any version of “Its time to move on”)

Most of the time when people say things that are hurtful, I know they are trying to help and I let it go. But this statement was the one time I let the person know what I thought of what they had to say. I had seen the damage this kind of statement made in the lives of those around me.

People who are grieving a traumatic loss are not in a place to make major life decisions. The best advice I think I’d ever heard after dealing with a huge loss was “Don’t make any major life changes for a year”. It took me 2 years to voluntarily make any changes to my life. But when I did I knew it was the right time.

The problem with trying to make major life decisions or changes right after a traumatic loss is that we are still in shock. It takes a lot longer than people realize for this shock to wear off. It doesn’t go away after a few weeks, or even months. It can take a year or more. It took me longer because I went through a series of other losses after losing the boys. As one of my professors in college stated, “Loss begets more loss”.

Our society is in such a hurry with grief. But grief cannot be rushed. After experiencing a loss, individuals need to take the time to process that grief. It’s not a time to work on breaking bad habits, trying to start a new habit or a time to reinvent yourself. It’s a time to just breathe, cry, and adjust to a life without the loved one who was lost. And that takes time. A lot of time.

7) God won’t give you anymore than you can handle.

This statement. Sigh. I have a physical reaction to this statement every single time I hear it. I cannot smile at the well-meaning people who say it and pretend it’s ok, because I know they mean well. I have to say something, because this statement is simply not true. Nowhere in the Bible does God say “I won’t give you more than you can handle”. But God does PROMISE to be there for us in ALL THINGS.

I think this one needs a blog post all its own.

The next time you encounter someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one and you feel like you need to say something a simple “I’m so sorry” or “I’m sorry for your loss” is sufficient. It may feel inadequate, but it’s the kindest thing you can say.

7 Things NOT to Say to A Grieving Parent

2 thoughts on “7 Things NOT to Say to A Grieving Parent

  1. That was very beautifully written. I am a hospice palliative nurse and have been for many years but sometimes I still stubble with the right words. You have offered insight that I will keep close to my heart. I am truly sorry for your loss. But you have helped me to move forward in my job and that is precious! Blessings to you!

    1. Heather, thank you so much for letting me know my words have helped you understand how to help your patients and their families. That is why I do this!

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