What I Would Like to Hear as a Grieving Parent
There’s a look I see on people’s faces whenever I say we lost one of our children. It’s as if they’re gasping for air for a moment and struggling to find something to say.
Often times, the words that tumble out first aren’t helpful, although I believe they’re always said with that intent. I would suggest people take a moment. It’s OK to take a breath and think about the heart of the message you’re trying to get across. Here are the things most often said to me, and what you could say instead:
1. “She wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
I have heard this so often. And now I see it constantly being said to other bereaved parents, especially during the holidays. I actually don’t even think it’s true. Because I think our angels understand our grief with a clarity nobody else can. I think they know it’s OK to be sad, to ache and to yearn.
And frankly, I hope they’re too happy where they are to have our sorrow affect them at all. Because if you’re right and if they don’t want us sad — but we are, as we always will be — well, then we’re just failing as parents again. And that sentiment hurts so much more than it helps.
Instead I would love to hear, “I’m sorry (insert name) isn’t here.” If you’re inclined, you could offer to take a specific task off their plate that’s difficult for them, knowing they very well may say no.
2. “You need to XYZ for your living children.”
Again, there is an undercurrent of unintended judgment here. You have to remember the tender ears these words are being spoken to. They’re knocked down already. Doubting already. They need to be built up gently because it’s easy to tear them down.
And what do our kids really need? You have no idea. And truthfully, neither do we. No parent ever nails that. But we’re doing our best to navigate this choppy water. Leaning perhaps on our partner or other bereaved parents or counselors to figure out what is the right thing to do in such a wrong situation.
And we may make choices that aren’t what our surviving children need immediately. The thing is, that’s OK. Counterintuitive perhaps, but not wrong. We have to put the oxygen mask on us first before we put it on our children. If we don’t put ourselves and our needs first, sometimes we’ll be overtaken and eventually be unable to give them anything of true selves.
Instead I would love to hear, “I’m sorry (insert name) isn’t here.” If you are inclined and perhaps a little worried about the surviving siblings, you can offer to help, but be prepared for no answer.
3. “This parent did or didn’t do (blank) when her child died.”
I have heard this one probably most of all. How it was for somebody else you knew, or read about or saw interviewed. But the thing is, there is no guidebook on grief. No blueprint for how to rebuild a house on a broken heart. It’s different for all of us, even if someone else lost their child at the same age or to the same thing as we did.
And, as I am starting to truly grasp, even when you’re the parents grieving the same exact little girl with tender brown eyes and eyelashes that seem to never end, it won’t be the same.
It’s not the same for me even day to day. The battles and the successes vary. I find that to be especially true during the holidays when it feels like everything is more heightened and intense.
Instead I would love to hear, “I’m sorry (insert name) isn’t here.” And if you are so inclined, you can offer to introduce your loved one to another bereaved parent you think they might be able to bond with. You can always offer me. I may or may not be helpful for them and vice versa. I have made quite a few genuine friendships with other parents traveling the same lifelong road as me. But while the loss of a child can be an immediate connection, it doesn’t necessarily result in an immediate bond.
Speaking of which — this is just my two cents — this is what I would like to hear: my daughter’s name. That she is remembered and that I am, too. I think the only universal truth in all loss is that there is no universal truth.
But for today these are mine, and they might be somebody else’s, too.