One of the many reasons speaking to someone who has experienced a loss is so difficult is because we know words can’t ever assuage the mourner’s pain. Multiply that by a thousand when imagining a parent’s searing grief and pain, even if it’s been years since their loss. If you find yourself awkwardly fumbling for the correct thing to say and the right comfort to offer, what you need to know is that just acknowledging their loss, asking about their child, and letting them express their love, pain, or anger is a bigger comfort than you think. But if you need extra guidance in speaking with someone who has lost a child, then read this. Right now. But only if you want be a good friend.
1. I Remember Your Child
When death occurs, the person seems to just evaporate. Poof! Gone. The reality of this is the most stunning thing for a parent to deal with, because we were so intimately involved in their everyday life. One day you’re fixing sandwiches and worrying about if there are clean socks, and then it all just stops.
There will be no more family pictures, no more names in the class roster. Those things will go on without the child being there, and this is the thing that hurts the most. Rest assured that a parent who has lost a child will be marking every single one, for years and years. Forever. They are hurting already, even if they don’t show it, and your bringing it up is not making the pain any worse. In fact, it makes it SO much better.
The absolute worst thing for a parent who has lost a child is the knowledge that they will be forgotten. This planet had them for such a short time that often they didn’t get to make the impact that someone who lived for decades does. They simply weren’t here long enough to make that kind of impression. There is this ridiculously harsh reality, this aching knowledge that as the days, then months, then years go by, this little life will get further in the distance.
Parents are left with this incredibly heavy burden of keeping their child’s memory alive. You can help. You probably know someone who has lost a child. Connect with them. Today. Tell them a memory that you have of their child, and how that child’s life lives on in you too. Ease that burden. That’s the stuff that real friendship is made of.
2. I Stopped By Your Child’s Grave
This goes back to #1. If you’re local, then you can do this as often as you can, or if you’re in town for a visit from far away, go by when you’re in town.
This is not weird. It’s not morbid. Suck it up; death is something that we all live with. For someone who has lost a child, it’s all too real, and they’ve been dealing with it in this crazy, ridiculously intimate way. Tending to a child’s grave is not fun, it’s painful. For those of you who might not know – cemeteries mow the lawn and that’s about it. There’s trash blowing around sometimes and other various stuff that makes it not nice. People can be jerks, and you can make that better.
Knowing that someone cared enough to go by with some fresh flowers and to clean off the grave will make a person who has lost a child feel ridiculously loved and appreciated. There’s not even a real word for the feeling that this elicits in a person who has lost a child, a mix of sadness and shock and thankfulness.
It’s best if you don’t let them know beforehand, and just let them know after that you stopped by and that it was meaningful to you. That way they don’t feel pressured to go with you. If you make yourself known to be that friend, then they might ask you to go with them sometime in the future. Again, the stuff that real friendship is made of.
3. Anything That’s Not Patronizing
Don’t hide it. Be out there and just speak about the situation. Say SOMETHING. ANYTHING. God help us, the WORST thing you can do is pretend like life is just going on and nothing happened. It’s like their child never existed. Remember from four paragraphs earlier? They are always thinking about it. You are not somehow bringing it up when they’d forgotten. The mere fact that you’re engaging with them on this subject is a comfort. So many people just kind of stare and make pleasantries. That’s horrible.
But speaking of horrible things, don’t be patronizing. Unless they begin talking about the afterlife, don’t bring it up. Parents don’t want to think about where their child is; they can feel deep down the hurt of the loss and that’s just about it. And whatever beliefs they might espouse about religion or the afterlife, those are guaranteed to have been shaken by this experience.
There are always questions about what happens after death, where we go and what it’s like. The bottom line is that we don’t know; nobody knows. When you say stuff like “your child is in a better place,” you’re making all kinds of assumptions that really just make your friend ask those horrible questions again. If they open up to you about where their child is now, then feel free to discuss it. If not, then shut it.
Oh, and don’t ask them how they’re doing, how they’re holding up, or anything else along those line. The answer is that they’re doing horribly. If your friend says anything else, then this is a calculated lie to be pleasant to you.
All of that being said, you can really talk to them about it. Even if you do accidentally say something wrong, it’s still better than just not saying anything. There is nothing that you can say that will make it worse, not even a little. They’ve already been through the most devastating event possible, so don’t think that you have some incredible power to make it worse. I mean, really, you’re not that powerful. What you can do is actively engage with them about it. It will help them to heal, whatever little bit of healing is conceivable after the loss of a child.
There is really just no way around the fact that this whole thing sucks. But there is no way to overstate this – being there through these hardest of times is the stuff that real friendship is made of.