What Should You Do (and Say) When Someone Loses a Child?

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It’s a private club no one wants to join, yet hundreds of thousands are inducted every year. Once you’re in, there’s no getting out. You’re in for life. There are no outward signs that reveal our membership. No secret handshake or clever bumper sticker to single us out. We usually discover fellow members through whispers of friends. When we meet, there is an instant bond that can’t be duplicated. A silent understanding. Without witnessing our brutal induction, the only way to spot one of us is by catching a glimpse of the sorrow in our eyes. That torment you see, is the pain of losing a child.

For a bereaved parent, healing means we’ve found the strength to function another day. We got out of bed that morning. We can eat, bathe and get out of an old housecoat. Healing from the loss of a child, simply means the pain is no longer visible to the naked eye.

My husband and I joined this club in June of 2008. This week I learned that July is International Bereaved Parents Awareness Month. This is good. People who have not lost a child want to know how to handle friends and family that have. It’s a very uncomfortable place, not knowing what to say, or how to help.

Too often, bereaved parents have to deal with well-meaning people, trying to make it better–and saying the stupidest things that just compound the pain.

My first encounter with such a person, was in the receiving line of my 13 year-old boy’s memorial. Just four days earlier he died when a truck T-boned the vehicle he was riding in. He, along with his brother and two friends, were in the middle of an unmarked intersection not far from our home. It was tragic for everyone involved: the teenaged boys on their way to basketball practice, two sets of parents, and the man who had just left a bar in the late afternoon. Our Danny died at the scene. As I stood beside his casket, an elderly woman came up to me, took my hand in hers, and said, “God just needed another flower for His bouquet.”

That’s what I have dubbed, greeting card theology. Every bereaved parent I know has a similar story.

Yes, we understand that the intentions are to help and not hurt. That’s why we never say anything. We just try to force a smile and say thank you.

My family was incredibly blessed. We were engulfed by loving friends and a close community. In this awareness month I wanted to give you a peek into what truly helped us in the worst moments of our lives.

Here’s what you can do (and say) when someone loses a child:

Don’t Ask–Just Do It.

It seems the right thing to do, to offer assistance. People genuinely want to help in some way but don’t know how — or where — to start. So, they offer to be of assistance in anything the bereaved parents need.

Here’s the problem: the parents don’t really don’t know what they need. They are in survival mode.

It’s almost impossible to describe those first days. There is a constant battle going on in your brain, as your mind struggles to force your heart to accept the unthinkable. To continue to breathe after your heart has been ripped from your chest, is all you can do. The pain you feel touches every aspect of your being.

Life swirls around you, and what once made up the substance of your world becomes insignificant. Unfortunately, our lives are made up of hundreds of insignificant tasks. Mowing the lawn. Taking the dog out. Feeding the cat. Weeding the garden. Washing the car. Buying black socks for little boys. The list is endless.

Whether you are a good friend, or an across-the-fence acquaintance, you probably know when the lawn needs cut. Mow the yard. Weed the garden. Buy the siblings left behind funeral clothes.

Just stepping into someone’s life quietly, and taking care of the mundane, is a wonderful gift.

Silence Speaks the Language of Love.

One of the most precious memories I have from that horrible time was walking into the hospital waiting room and seeing four couples, our closest friends, sleeping in the chairs. Each couple, cuddled up in one way or another, sound asleep. Waiting. Waiting through the night with us. Letting us cry. Just sitting in silence, most of the time. Actions, truly speak louder than words.

See next page for what not to do:


What you shouldn’t do:

Don’t Try To Join The Club 

It’s human nature to try to relate, to empathize. That’s how we connect with one another. We tell each other our stories. That’s how we share our lives.

This is not the time.

It’s not the time to share the loss of a grandparent, or a beloved pet. Although, these may be the most devastating events in your life to date, they sound hollow in the ears of someone struggling to comprehend how they will live through this loss.

There are events in our lives that go beyond hurting us. They change who we are, from the inside out. They are life-altering events, that when you are hit my them, every aspect of your life is in danger of shattering. Losing a child is one of those events.

Acknowledge their pain. Don’t try to understand–it’s incomprehensible. Accept it’s a sorrow you don’t want to know.

Don’t Expect A Grieving Parent To Go Back To Normal–Ever. 

A couple of years ago, I sat in a coffee shop visiting with a new friend. A few tables across from me sat a woman dabbing the tears in her eyes. The streams kept coming in spite of her efforts stop them. I couldn’t help but notice, and pointed her out to my friend. She knew the woman well, and leaned forward and proceeded to tell me her tragic story.

The woman crying in her coffee, just as I had done so many times before, had lost her youngest daughter in a car accident. It had been two years. By the look on her face, it had happened yesterday. That’s because, for her, the time passing only drove home the reality that her baby girl wasn’t coming back.

Yes. Life does go on. You don’t have to tell that to a bereaved parent. Grieving parents have to fight for reasons to join life again. Life back to normal is not an option. A normal life is one with your child still here. Bereaved parents have to create a new normal–and that can take many years.

Bereaved parents, like all of us, cannot go back, they can only go forward. They have to find their own way into a future they never wanted–they just need you to walk along side.