When people lose someone that they love, especially when it’s their child, it is a time of great sadness and grief.
It can be difficult for others, who have not experienced this type of tragedy, to know what words are appropriate to say in this kind of situation. But there are a few phrases and actions which may provide solace during the grieving process.
Here’s what to say to someone who has lost a child, according to mental health professionals, parenting experts, grief counselors, and more.
Dr. David Beatty, MRCGP, MBBS, DRCOG
Retired General Medical Practitioner, Strong Home Gym
Say how sorry you are for their loss and say positive things about the child they’ve lost
To lose a child is the most devastating thing that can happen to a person. Because it doesn’t happen very often, it means that the average non-medical person hasn’t had the experience of talking to or consoling a bereaved parent. It’s an extremely difficult time for everyone.
When you’ve heard the tragic news, what do you do?
- Do you make contact?
- How do you make contact?
- What do you say?
- What do you do?
There is no rule book to answer these questions. Much will depend on the parents and how close your relationship is. How much do you think they might want from you, and how much are you able to give? How would you normally communicate?
During first contact
The parents are inevitably grief-stricken. The first stage in any bereavement reaction is almost always shock, numbness, and disbelief. Often you’ll hear the bad news via a text or a phone call.
Are you the person the bereaved parents would want to be present at a time like this? If you are an immediate family or a close friend, you might be. Make contact soon. The closer you are, the more appropriate it is to call or visit in person. If there’s no response to a call, send a message.
- Say how sorry you are for their loss and say positive things about the child they’ve lost.
- Offer to visit and provide company, but don’t be pushy if they want time alone or have other support in place.
- Be sensitive to what they want.
- If you’re in a position to offer other help, do this.
- Maybe they have other children that need looking after.
- Perhaps offer to bring food over – they won’t be hungry, but they still need to eat.
- Offer to be a liaison to notify certain groups such as family, school friends, social groups, or neighbors. This can save the parents from getting involved in long-winded calls with acquaintances they might not have the time for at the moment.
When you see the bereaved parents, they will usually want to tell their story. You may find a simple question like “What happened?” is all you need to open the flood gates.
Listen and be supportive without inflaming any strong or wrong opinions on what’s happened. Some bereaved people will go quiet and retreat into themselves, processing thoughts internally.
If you aren’t in the parent’s inner circle, I would suggest making contact by text to express your condolences or send a card.
Make yourself available for a call if they want to talk and possibly offer help if there’s something useful you can offer. Don’t expect long text conversations or even a reply in the first few days. The bereaved can be overrun by a string of callers and visitors, which they often aren’t up to dealing with.
Leading up to the funeral
The bereaved parents have lost their child and are usually shell shocked. They then have to face various bureaucratic and administrative chores when they are least able to cope with them.
You might offer help in this area:
- Various agencies and people have to be notified of the loss.
- A funeral has to be arranged, usually with some sort of a gathering or celebration of the child’s life afterward.
- Decisions have to be made about choosing a funeral director, selecting a venue, transport, and other burial or cremation details.
- Family and friends need to be notified of the funeral date. With COVID restrictions, there may be a limit to the number who can attend. If so, people will have to be told whether or not they are on the invite list.
These are areas you may volunteer to help out.
My cousin passed away in Ireland last year. There were restrictions in place regarding travel and the number allowed to attend, so I couldn’t attend. Fortunately, the service was broadcast live via the church website. If this facility is available, I would highly recommend it.
It gives the opportunity for friends and relatives who would not be able to attend to feel part of the funeral service.
Who’s going to do the eulogy and the readings? The post-funeral event needs to be planned. Most events of this size will take months of planning: this has to be arranged within a week or two. After the day of the child’s death, the funeral day is usually the most emotionally taxing to all concerned.
After the funeral
The average bereavement period is about 13 months. When a child is lost, there are a lot of reasons why this could be longer. Over the course of the next year or so, there will be special days that have to be dealt with.
Each Christmas, birthday, and holiday will be the first without the child. They can be hard days. The anniversary of the death is another difficult time. Every time the mother sees a friend or acquaintance for the first time, the loss will be brought up and discussed.
If the parents are forewarned about these things, they may be able to handle them better. They need to take one step at a time and not expect immediate closure.
Types of bereavement reaction
It’s normal to have a bereavement reaction, and each person’s reaction is different. The emotions mentioned below don’t necessarily happen in the same order or even happen at all.
Shock is usually the first reaction. The person may feel numb and have a sense of disbelief.
Denial often follows. The parent may avoid discussion about the bereavement; they may be confused, frightened, or even elated. They may try to carry on as if nothing had happened, often leaving the child’s room untouched, as if the child will return.
This phase is usually overcome within a couple of months.
Anger nearly always happens at some stage. Sometimes there is logic (or at least a thread of logic), but it is often completely illogical. The anger may be directed in almost any direction.
Doctors may be blamed for what is thought to be a slow diagnosis, wrong treatment, or failure of treatment. The partner may be criticized for not seeking medical advice quickly enough or for not pushing for some aspect of the care to be sped up. A parent may feel guilty (usually without any genuine reason). They can go through every single small action leading up to the illness and death.
“What if I did this?” or “Should I have done that?” may be heard time and again. This is where you need to provide lots of reassurance.
If you’re a family member or a close friend, there is every chance you’ll be the brunt of this anger at some stage. I’ve known families to be split apart because of the events leading up to and after a bereavement. Try to be sensitive to this and make allowances. Anger usually passes within six months.
Bargaining can be another feature. They struggle to find meaning.
“This happened because of that.”
“If I’d been a better person, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Why didn’t God take me and let my child live?”
Sometimes the narrative of what happened changes.
Depression of some degree is very common. This can manifest in all sorts of ways. Poor sleep, poor appetite, low energy, and apathy are some of the symptoms. This usually eases by about 12 months.
Acceptance is generally arrived at after passing through these other stages of the bereavement process.
However, It doesn’t mean the grieving parents have forgotten their child. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still sad when they think of their loss. It means that they are no longer overwhelmed by one or other of the features mentioned above.
Professor (Emeritus) of Pediatrics, Prisma Health Children’s Hospital-Upstate | President, SC Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics
As a now retired pediatrician and medical geneticist, I know from experience the anguish that families experience with the loss of a child.
Whether the circumstances include a previously healthy child who died from a tragic accident or a child with a chronic health condition who succumbed to their disease, families are never really prepared for their loss.
They need our support, especially when we might be uncomfortable and not know what to say. Let me lend a few words of advice:
Be present; let them cry and talk
Often the best thing to say is nothing—just be present. Families derive an incredible amount of emotional support from folks that are willing to share in their pain and just let them cry and talk. In these circumstances, listening is critical.
Do not be judgmental. Do not try to make it about your experiences. Let them know how incredibly sad you are and share in their loss. Do not make empty promises or say “empty” things like “let me know how I can help.”
Comfort them and try to assuage their guilt
Families often feel very guilty about the loss of their child. “If I had just done this” or “if I had listened to the doctor” are two common laments I have heard.
It is our job in that circumstance to comfort them and try to assuage their guilt. While we can tell them genuinely that it was not their fault, we must acknowledge their feelings and accept the process to work through the guilt will be lengthy.
Do something tangible
Bring meals. Show up for support—to their house, to the funeral, to babysit sibs or other helpful tasks. Send personal handwritten notes, in addition to emails. In short, actions of emotional and physical support will let them know how much you care. Do not shy away from being engaged.
Keep in contact even in the aftermath of loss
In the aftermath of loss, families will continue to need help and support. Oftentimes, friends and neighbors misinterpret a grieving family’s calm as a sign that they are doing okay and settling into their new reality.
This new reality will be longstanding and will not go away even when they appear to have overcome their adversity. Anticipate that they will continue to need help and do not shy away from being there and continuing to do something tangible.
By that continued support, you are helping them more than you know. They will not ask for help; you need to give it.
Encourage support groups or professional help
Even the most “solid” families are rocked with the loss of a child. They will need support that often exceeds our abilities to help. Most medical centers have support groups (including pastoral support) that can provide:
- Ongoing support.
- Compassionate care with other families.
- Professionals that can help families in these dire circumstances.
These support groups also know that the pain and anguish does not go away anytime soon, and they are ready to be there for an extended period of time. The families with loss might need extended help with mental health professionals going forward.
Anticipate family dynamics changes
The loss of a child usually shakes a family to the core. Shaky relationships can fall apart, and even sturdy relationships will need support. Encourage them to seek the help and counseling that might be needed.
Help the siblings of the child that died
The siblings of the child that died are often neglected in this whole process. The siblings might feel the same guilt, loss, and grief as the parents but will likely express these feelings in different ways. They might become sullen, have school problems, or act out.
They will need significant support, and it is so important for us to recognize that their silent acceptance of the situation might just be the tip of the emotional iceberg that is brewing inside. Be prepared for a variety of responses and respond with compassion and empathy as they work through their emotional turmoil.
A great deal of literature has been devoted to the loss of a child. When it comes our time to talk with the family that has lost a child, the steps above might provide some comfort.
But again, let me reiterate that listening and being present are the keys to the initial steps. Those two skills demonstrate our resolve to help the family and to be there with them in their grief.
Parenting Coach | Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Counseling & Wellness Collective
I’m not sure if there is anything in the world that fills people with more despair or hopelessness than losing a child. For a parent, a lost child is felt deeply whether it’s at 12 weeks gestation or 45 years old. Of course, it’s different.
But the pain and despair are prevalent in both experiences in different ways. Losing a child is not something that a parent should ever have to go through, and yet, people lose their children every day.
As a therapist specializing in perinatal mental health and bereavement, I see many parents who have lost children. With earlier losses, like miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths of children under five, well-meaning people tend to say all of the wrong things.
In general, humans are uncomfortable witnessing the suffering of another person for a sustained amount of time, and in an effort to “fix” things, they say things like, “at least….” Or “maybe you should….”
Comments like this devalue and invalidate a person’s feelings and leave them feeling isolated and misunderstood.
With losses of children of all ages, the same human tendency to fix and shy away from uncomfortable situations leaves parents feeling alone in their grief. Being near a grieving person is hard work for the support system as well; it’s unclear what to say to make them feel better.
My message is this: there is nothing you can say or do to fix the situation. Nothing.
Accepting this truth releases the burden from people to heal their loved one’s pain and allows them how to focus on supporting them through their lifelong grief.
Imagine if you were seriously injured in the wilderness. Would you rather be alone or have a companion to support you through? The friend cannot lessen the pain that you feel, but they can sit with you, bring you food, tell you stories that distract your mind, and really listen to you to understand what is going on.
All of the same rules apply to talking to a friend who is in emotional pain. Here are some things that you can do to help them as they move through the grief:
“How can I support you? Should we talk about your child or is that too much right now?”
First, ask them what they need. We love to assume that people need something specific and a lot of people tend to assume that parents never want to hear the name of their lost child again. In my experience working with bereaved parents, this is very rare, but occasionally the case.
Ask them, “How can I support you? Should we talk about your child? Should we share memories? Or is that too much right now?” Then show them that you love them by listening.
Remember, you can’t fix it, but you can sit and hold space for the person’s pain.
Tell them that you are there for them and use your actions by showing up and checking in
Next, Reinforce the idea that you are here to talk when they need you. Lots of parents get to a point where people stop supporting them as they did right after the loss. It becomes too emotionally intense, and we tend to shut down to protect ourselves from holding too much emotional pain.
Tell them that you are here and use your actions to prove the truth of your commitment by showing up and checking in.
Parents who lost very young children often feel like they are alone in the loss. They feel as if they are the only ones who remember their children’s birthdays and other milestones. Showing them that they are not alone in their memories by acknowledging those dates and the lost child can help them tremendously.
In general, the message is this: treat them as if they are injured.
They have been critically injured, though you can’t see it physically. They will start to heal, but they will never be quite the same after this experience. This new world without their child is unknown territory.
Be gentle, give them space to heal, and listen to what they need from you. Be a companion as they learn to live in this new wilderness.
Dr. Darin Detwiler, LP.D
Author | Assistant Dean at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies | Food Industry Consultant, Detwiler Consulting Group, LLC
Over the past 28 years, I have talked to far too many parents grieving the loss of a child due to foodborne pathogens, such as E.coli or Salmonella. In most cases, these children were under five years of age. The shock and anger of these parents are often accompanied by self-doubt.
I recall one father who cried with me over the phone, unable to let go of his guilt over not being able to protect his four-year-old daughter from becoming ill and dying. He also shared his fear that he could not be a good father for their surviving two-year-old child.
Many parents on these calls look at the future and imagine themselves demanding someone being held accountable, being fired, and being sentenced to jail time. They want to point blame and demand change. They talk of PTSD and of not being able to discuss their feelings or their needs with friends, peers at work, or even family.
Related: How to Help Someone With PTSD
Friends want to move on. Co-workers are uncomfortable with bringing it up. And family sometimes wants to look the other way.
One family shared that their daughter’s death from E.coli – a pathogen normally tied to cows – was a sore topic of discussion as they are cattle ranchers who come from a long line of cattle ranchers and whose community is centered around ranching.
Another family shared with me that their invitation to the family gathering for Thanksgiving (the first one after they lost their child to E.coli) included a note asking them not to talk at all about the son they buried only a few months earlier. Why? Because it would be a real “downer” for the rest of the family.
I don’t look forward to these conversations, but someone needs to be there as a resource for parents in this situation.
My goal is to listen, offer my insight, and my experience.
In 1993, my 16-month-old son, Riley, became ill from E.coli tied to contaminated meat at a fast-food restaurant. While fathers proudly recall their child’s first steps and first words, my memories of Riley as a toddler also include holding him in a hospital bed as he mistook an IV bag for a baby bottle.
I remember seeing his face and his blonde hair as he was put onto a helicopter to be airlifted to Children’s Hospital. I remember his little boy’s body dwarfed by tubes and wires and monitors in his hospital bed. And I will never forget seeing him again outside the hospital as he was carried in the world’s smallest white coffin.
I have lived more than half of my life in the shadow of those events in 1993. Since that moment, I have heard many people offer their thoughts and sympathy – often leaving me wishing that they thought about how their words impacted me.
In my 2020 TEDx talk, I shared how I speak with parents who have lost children and how they question their ability to parent their other children. These conversations are tough but needed. These conversations have helped me to better consult with groups that offer support to grieving parents.
No grieving parent wants to hear, “She’s/He’s in a better place.”
This is one of the most common examples of a message that is often perceived as insensitive, generic messages. How is the family’s home not a good place? This is a message that can best be described as ‘insulting’ to grieving parents – especially if they have other/future children.
Similar to this is “It was all just part of God’s plan.” This is particularly harmful to those who look to their church community for support.
I am not alone in experiencing inner turmoil when I hear the phrase “I know what you are feeling/going through.” This message is also perceived as an insensitive, generic message.
Neither I nor any other parent believes that some other person can know what they are feeling or going through, especially those who have not been in this situation. This can also be perceived as a well-wisher trying to own an experience that the people currently dealing with the loss of a child would rather avoid.
So, what are some examples of messages that grieving parents do want to receive?
“I am happy to listen.”
Perhaps someone should consider a message such as “I am happy to / can I be there to listen.” Many are literally looking for permission to vent or to ask questions. They want validation of and for their fears, their struggles, and their loss.
They are seeking some new definition of their identity in many cases, as they no longer have a child, nor the dreams/plans they had. Holidays have now lost all meaning, and some things, like an empty kid’s room or the toys and little clothes, are stark reminders of loss and even failure.
My experience is that only those who really cared about me asked this question.
“How can I help with things at home/tasks at work?”
Another welcomed message is along the lines of “How can I help with things at home/tasks at work?” Many parents in this situation are eliminating normal tasks in order to stay afloat with their larger needs and responsibilities.
Sometimes, the smallest help can mean the most – especially to those who do not know how to ask for help. My personal experience is that this ‘ask’ by people wanting to help is just as valuable – if not more – than the help itself.
One concept that is often overlooked by well-intended senders of these messages is the fact that while they can recognize that the grieving parent, who has lost a child, that parent holds inside that they are still the parent of that child – even when a chair sits forever empty at the family table.
Perhaps a takeaway from my experience is that for those in these situations – especially with all of the loss and health impacts of the global pandemic and other causes – a message cannot always cheer someone up.
However, the wrong message can create the opposite of the desired outcome.
Heather Z. Lyons, PhD
Licensed Psychologist | Owner, Baltimore Therapy Group
When attempting to offer comfort to someone who lost a child, you don’t need to come up with the perfect statement that will take the pain away because that’s just not possible. That being said, making yourself known as a source of support can offer some light and warmth at a difficult time.
Words of comfort might come in two categories: those focused on the child that passed and those focused on the mourners.
Offer opportunities to reminisce
Sometimes people avoid talking about the person who has passed in an attempt not to upset the survivors. However, most survivors share that there isn’t a moment, immediately following the death, that they aren’t thinking about their child.
Let them know you’re here to listen and share your own stories.
What is it that you remember about the child who died? Maybe it was that they were always smiling? Maybe he was a horrible dancer who danced anyway? Or they called other people out when they need it? Share that along with a recollection that illustrates that characteristic.
Offer comfort and let them know just how much they’re loved
It never makes sense when children die before their parents. Empathize with and reflect back on the injustice of this experience (“This just isn’t right. I hope you can feel the love I’m sending your way.”). Above all else, let your loved ones know just how much they’re loved.
This might not happen in words as much as in your availability and responsiveness to your friends. If you need to:
- Set a timer to check in every few days or weeks to remind yourself to make contact in different ways, including a call, text, visit, letter, or small gift.
- Keep in mind that your loved one will likely receive lots of support in the first few months following the death of their child but will still have a need for support long after the initial buzz has died down.
- Keep your timer going.
Make specific offers on how you can help and follow through
If you can’t find the right words, it’s possible that words aren’t your primary means of expressing comfort. When people suffer a loss, it’s said that there are three groups of people who can help:
- The people who can be with you.
- The people who can distract you.
- The people who can do for you.
If you’re finding yourself at a loss for words, it’s possible that you express comfort at times like this by doing. If that’s the case, lean into that. Make specific offers for how you can help and follow through.
So much is needed at a time like this, including notifying others, making arrangements, cleaning, and even walking the dog. As long as it’s ok with your loved one, put yourself to use.
It’s difficult to know what to say to someone who has lost a child, but here’s what not to say:
- “At least you have other children.” Children are not interchangeable. Having others doesn’t make up for the loss of one.
- “You can have more children.” Ditto. See above.
- “For the sake of your other children…” Any sentence that includes the words “for the sake of your other children” should be banned from escaping your lips. For instance, “Try to enjoy the holidays for the sake of your other children” just adds guilt on top of the hurting parent’s grief.
- Ditto on “you should.” You don’t know what the person “should” do because everyone grieves differently. Your “should” likely adds to the burden of all the other “shoulds” that are already in their head.
- The last thing a grieving parent needs is the additional stress of feeling like a failure as a spouse, parent or employee.
Keep in mind it isn’t always what you say, but what you can do. Replace the above comments with:
- Memories of their child. In a card or a conversation, share good memories of what their child meant to you.
- Say their name, and let the grieving parent say their name as much and as often as they want. Some people assume that saying the child’s name or bringing them up causes pain. It is far more painful for the parent to lose the connection with their deceased child when no one mentions them.
- Ask if you can take the other children to the park or out for ice cream. Give the parents the gift of knowing that their children can still experience fun days, even if they themselves are not emotionally equipped to offer that themselves at this point.
- Holidays are going to be particularly painful. Make a gift basket for the entire family and leave it on the porch. Offer to go shopping for the family. Invite the other children over for a day of crafts related to the holiday. Decorate cookies, dye Easter eggs, carve pumpkins.
- Remember the child’s birthday and the anniversary of the death. Send a card, call the parent, send flowers.
- If you want to offer advice, be careful how you word it. Instead of saying, “You should,” try, “I don’t know if it would help you, but I knew a mother who found it helpful to…” Or if the advice comes from personal experience, “It helped me to…”
- Offer to go to a grief retreat or an art therapy class with them.
Author, “Surviving My First Year of Child Loss: Personal Stories From Grieving Parents” | Holistic Counsellor & Coach | Grief Recovery Expert
Grieving the loss of the child is probably the most challenging experience any parent goes through in life. It is not something that a parent is ever prepared for. Equally, it is challenging for those people surrounding them. Friends and family members who want to be supportive are often helpless, lost for words, and some even flee the scene not knowing how to be there in the face of the adversity of life and death.
There are plenty of lists including do’s and don’ts when supporting a grief friend. Support is of utmost importance to the healing of grief. Even though we might not always know what to say, we need to be present for the grieving. Here are some guidelines that will help you do and say things that are supportive.
“I am sorry for your loss”
This is probably the most common sentence you hear after a loss. It is a good start and definitely better than saying nothing at all and changing the side of the road. Some grieving parents have shared with me that they are glad for people to talk to them, even if they know nothing else to say besides “I’m sorry for your loss”.
Others have shared with me that they’ve heard this sentence too many times and have become annoyed by it. Personally, I think it is more about what happens or doesn’t happen after this sentence, which I will describe in the following paragraphs.
What to say to someone who lost a child is just one thing to be aware of. What I have come to understand when working with grieving parents is that it is almost as or even more important to know how to be with them.
Our presence, verbal or non-verbal, speaks for itself. Whether you are triggered with your own grief history, or you’re secretly intending to fix their grief, the grieving parents will sense it.
As well as supporting them you need to support yourself, you need to practice self-care. You need to find someone to talk to, to find support for yourself if you are struggling in this situation.
Don’t assume or tell them, ask them instead
Instead of assuming, asked him how they are: “How are you today?” rather than “I know how you’re feeling” or “this must feel terrible”. “I wish I had the rights words to say” goes a long way.
Telling them to not feel sad or suggesting alternatives like “you can have other children” are completely insensitive and useless. A grieving parent never once another child, they want the child that they have just lost back if they had a choice.
Accept their way of grieving
Grieving is not an illness and therefore does not need a cure. Every person grieves at a 100% for their loss, in their own personal way. In whatever you say convey your acceptance of their way of grieving.
Suggestions and comparisons
Suggesting what might have helped you or comparing their grief to yours is not helpful. Encourage them to find their unique expression of grief, whether that is through talking, crying, wailing or also through no emotional outward expression. There is no better or worse way of grieving.
Grieving it is personal, just like a fingerprint, and unique given the circumstances and the relationship between the parents and their child.
To sum it up: knowing what to say, especially for support people with little experience in the loss situation their friend is in, is very important and Greatly supports the potential for healing after the loss of a child.
Remember: People need to be heard and validated first and foremost. They don’t need fixing because grief isn’t something needing fixing because it’s not broken. Grieving is not the problem; it is the solution.
- Say “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m here for you” or “I wish I had the right words, just know I’m here for you.”
- Ask “How are you today?” Listen with intent and compassion.
- Be present, fully, with your whole heart.
- Ask questions, be interested.
- Accept their way of grieving, accept silence.
- Be there, continue to interact.
- The grief belongs to the griever, everyone grieves at 100% for their loss.
- Accept the pain of loss and the bleakness of the present situation.
- Get consent before you offer advice or strategies.
- Offer a hug.
- Say “I know how you feel” or “Don’t feel so sad, it was for the better” or “You can have other children.”
- Ask “How are you?” without being interested in the in-depth answer.
- Avoid the griever because you feel uneasy.
- Compare grief, Sentence starting with “At least . . .”
- Prescribe what has helped you, apply pressure or try and fix or fade their grief.
- Stay away believing ‘the need time alone.’
- Minimize their grief or comparing to other’s grief.
- Try to look for the good in the situation. When it’s dark, it’s dark.
- Offer unsolicited solutions.
- Smother them with pats on their back.
I would strongly suggest that one should avoid the tired phrases we often hear after a loss, for example:
- “Everything happens for a reason…”
- “It must have been their time…”
- Suggesting that one should be excited that the child is in a “better place.”
Grieving parents do not want to hear loved ones trying to make sense out of a fundamentally traumatic experience. We often want to make sense or bring the emotional temperature down to soothe our experience of the grieved parent, but that is the opposite of what is needed.
Grieving parents need folks around them that can bravely and empathetically stand by them as they process such a life-changing loss. They will mark the timeline of their life into two separate seasons – before the death and after the death.
They need friends that can tell them the truth – that the loss is not fair
They need to hear from loved ones that “I will never tell you to move on or get over it.” Often when there is a loss, initial support can disappear as time goes by. Parents desperately need to hear, “When time passes, and you still want to talk about your child, don’t hesitate, call me. I will pick up and will want to hear about your child, even if I heard it all before.”
There is often a phenomenon that can happen where other parents avoid the grieving parent because they don’t know what to say or have such discomfort with their loss – they can become pariahs.
Include them on any invite you would have extended prior to the loss with the caveat that they can turn it down if they are not up to it. Friends that are able can offer, “If you need to pretend for a moment that this didn’t happen, you can call me, and we can talk about everything else,” as parents can use a break from the exhausting work of grief.
Vague promises to help after the loss of a child are often unhelpful. The pledge, “if there is anything I can do, call me.” gives the grieving parents no idea what you are offering. Be specific; if you can offer food, childcare, etc., say so.
Do not promise something you can’t follow up on
If you have a particular skill that could be helpful, offer it. Understand that the needs of a grieving parent may change over time – make other offers of support that fit where the parent is.
Remember to contact them on important days – their child’s birthday, holidays, the first day of school, etc. Offer if you are able to plan an activity with them on hard days – either to distract or honor the lost child, whichever the parent needs. If you can’t think of what to offer, ask.
Kate Fraiser, M.Ed
Parent Coach, Connect Point Moms | Director of Early Childhood Ministries, Grace Point Church
“Would you be willing to share with me what happened?”
Here are three things I suggest to help comfort someone who has lost a child:
This is more than just sitting next to a person – it’s about being with them by making eye contact, touching, or hugging if they are all right with it (always ask first!), and keep bringing your thoughts back to the present moment.
Not thinking about your own circumstances, or planning what is for dinner later, or wondering if you’re saying the right things, or hoping this would be over soon. But on this person. In this moment, right now.
Most people who are grieving want a chance to express their feelings. You don’t have to try and “fix” it. They’re not broken. They just want and need someone to listen and care and be present.
You can ask, in a caring, non-judgmental way, “What happened?” Or, depending on the situation, you may need to say, “Would you be willing to share with me what happened?” After asking, you simply need to be quiet and listen.
This is not about you, so refrain from sharing a similar story from your own life, and just hear what they are saying and feeling in this moment. Remember, you are asking to allow the one who is grieving to tell their story to express emotions and not to give you information.
If they ask if you’ve ever lost a child, answer honestly, but then turn it back to them. You may say something like:
- “Yes, and I remember what it was like for me, but I want to hear how you are dealing with this.”
- If you never dealt with a similar situation, you might say, “No, I cannot imagine what you are going through, and I hope you will share that with me.”
Offer to handle specific tasks
One of the most common things someone who is grieving hears from others is to “Let me know if you need anything.” In all likelihood, this won’t happen. When you are grieving, the last thing you need to think about is, “What do I need?”
Having a lack of focus and being pulled in several directions at once is very common and can leave you lost when it comes to making decisions.
However, when someone offers to perform a specific task, such as bringing over dinner, doing laundry, shoveling their sidewalk, mowing their grass, cleaning their home, babysitting, or picking up someone at the airport is far better than asking them to make a decision about how you can help.
Even if they decline your offer, they know that you are willing to help out in a tangible way. It is also possible that they may ask you to do something other than what you suggested because they really know that you are there for them.
Grief Coach, Life After Child Loss Program + Coaching
“I don’t know what to say or how to help you correctly, but I love you, and I’m here for you.”
There is no right thing to say because there is nothing to say that can take away a parent’s pain. Most things people try to say are trying to “fix” what happened.
Before I can say what to say, here’s something not to say. If your sentence begins with “at least,” then just stop. Things like:
- “at least you had your child as long as you did…”
- “at least you know you can have a child…”
- “at least you got to say goodbye…”
Any of those kinds of things only minimize the enormous pain a parent is going through, and it doesn’t fix anything.
Instead, try saying things like:
- “I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m here for you.”
- “There’s nothing I can do to fix what happened, and this sucks.”
- “I don’t know what to say or how to help you correctly, but I love you, and I’m here for you.”
These kinds of things are not trying to take away the pain of grief from a parent who needs to feel their grief. They hold space for the pain and don’t try to minimize it.
Ultimately, everyone will respond differently and want different things said to them, so it’s difficult to give a phrase that will feel supportive to everyone; the biggest thing is to be there and hold space for them.
Please don’t disappear and don’t say anything because of your own fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s better to show up and say the wrong thing than to disappear from someone who needs the most support right now.
Heidi Bright, MDiv
Subject Matter Expert on Grief, Grieving an Addict | Author of a Chapter in “Loss Survive Thrive: Bereaved Parents Share Stories of Healing and Hope“
“I remember when your child…”
Tell a funny or positive story using his or her name. This helps us believe that our children will be remembered. One of our greatest fears is that they will be forgotten. By bringing up stories, you are letting us know that our children are remembered in positive ways by others.
I lost my son Brennan to a heroin overdose in 2015. He was only 19. As the days and weeks crept by, I discovered that my most cherished gifts from others were their stories about him, along with their open-hearted warmth as I shared my own thoughts and feelings about him and my role in his life.
I found it especially helpful when they affirmed the positives in us both and reflected back to me the things they heard me saying.
These were gifts I repeatedly needed because my mind was in chaos, and I felt a deep need to repeat myself and to hear happy stories again and again and again. Eventually, an inkling of order was restored to my mind, and a little space opened up within me.
Understand that our agonizing grief can go on for years. Sending cards or phoning on significant days shows us our loved ones are not forgotten. While you cannot know exactly how we feel inside, your repeated acts of kindness mean the world.
“Tell me one of your favorite memories of your child.”
We want to keep our loved ones’ memories alive and share stories about them. Listen attentively with an open heart. Lovingly mirror back to us and validate what you heard.
After my friend Mica lost her daughter, I asked her to share one of her favorite memories. Mica told me a beautiful story about her little girl collecting snails that soon crowded her bedroom.
When Mica’s birthday came around a few months later, I gave her a large white snail shell nesting on a white piece of fluff, all sitting in a pretty glass bowl. “This snail is from your daughter for your birthday,” I said.
Mica placed the shell on a window sill as a daily reminder that her daughter’s love remains with her.
Valerie Cordero, Ph.D.
Co-Executive Director, Families for Depression Awareness
“I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I’m here to listen.”
Be a sounding board as they process their feelings. If the loss was recent or sudden, parents might still be processing what happened and their emotions. Say, “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I’m here to listen.”
If they want to talk about the circumstances surrounding the death or what they are feeling, listen with empathy while resisting the urge to ask too many questions. If they are not ready to talk about it, at least they know that you are available to support them.
Share fond memories of the child
After some time has passed and the loss is less fresh, find opportunities to share your memories of the child. You may think hearing happy memories of when the child was alive will make the parents sad, but it often does the opposite.
“Can I share a memory of [child’s name] that came to me the other day?”
It acknowledges that the child impacted those around them. Ask, “Can I share a memory of [child’s name] that came to me the other day?” This is especially important to do in the months and years after the child’s death when parents may feel they are the only people still thinking about their loved one.
Peter Kingsley, LICSW-A
Social Worker | Behaviorist, Master’s Degree on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cedar Trails Counseling
Focus on their need to talk or cry
Implicit in the question is the belief that a friend can say something that will make it better. The truth is that losing a child is full of expected grief and usually traumatic.
Unlike the death of an elderly loved one, the grief over a child may be compounded by surprise, desperation, or blame. None of these can be resolved by saying the “right thing.”
I would suggest two things: first, what not to say and second, what you can do.
Rather than worrying about what to say, consider the things that are often said that can hurt. Dismissive or demeaning comments such as “they’re in a better place” or “bless your heart” can feel invalidating to the bereaved. “If I can do anything, let me know” is a time-proven way to avoid doing anything.
What then can be said to those grieving the loss of a child? If you find yourself sitting next to a grieving person, don’t worry about saying anything! You can’t take the reins of their grief; you can only ride with them for a short while.
To support a grieving person, don’t focus on that common thought “what do I say?” Focus instead on that uncommon person sitting next to you. Focus on their needs around the house. Focus on their need to talk or cry. Focus on their other children that need dinner.
Simply put, the less you focus on yourself, the more supportive you will be.
Editor, Katherine Rosman
Be compassionate and don’t bring another parent’s loss into the conversation
The experience of losing a child is extremely painful, and no parent can adequately prepare themselves for the loss of a child. While it is natural for friends and family of grieving parents to want to reach out and help, finding the right words to express your sympathies can be very hard.
The best advice I can give when speaking to parents who lost a child is being compassionate and not bringing another parent’s loss into the conversation.
They need to feel that their child’s life was of importance and that it meant something to those who knew their child. Focus on their loss; it is unique to them. Offer your sincere condolences and offer your support, let them know that you are always available to help out, to talk, and there is no timeline.
For example, you can say, “There are no words that I can say that will bring you comfort. Whenever you are ready, and you would like to talk, I am always here for you.”
Everyone grieves differently, give the parents the space they need to process their loss. There is no going back to normal for the bereaved family; when everyone else moves on with their lives, the family will live their lives without their child.
The grief of losing a child is unlike any other, so check in frequently with the parents and make a concerted effort to communicate no matter how uncomfortable it can be.
Kathryn Ely, ALC, NCC
Associate Licensed Counselor | National Certified Counselor | Advance Trained Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Empower Counseling & Coaching
Nothing that we can say will make someone who lost a child feel better. We do not have that power.
The best thing to do in this most difficult situation is to let this person know that you can only imagine the pain she is feeling but that you are here for her in any way she needs you. You are here to listen, to be shoulder to cry on, to deliver a meal, to take a walk with, to just be with.
Then back up your words with your actions.
Be there after the services, after everyone else has gone back to their lives. This is when she will need you the most because she is not going back to her life as she knew it.
She must establish a new normal. Check on your friend or loved one and make sure she is caring for herself- getting out of bed, showering, eating. Don’t rush her grieving process but help her engage in activity along the way.