Before I lost Dominic, I know that I, like others who had never experienced the death of a child, undoubtedly said and did things that were hurtful instead of helpful.
I painfully remember sharing at a Thanksgiving women’s gathering and, meaning to encourage the ladies, said something like, “I think we are able to better face the big disappointments or trials in life, but find the daily drip, drip, drip of unfulfilled expectations to be a greater challenge.” A bereaved mom in attendance set me straight (in a very kind and gracious manner!).
That exchange has come often to my mind in these months after burying my son. I wish I could go back and have a do-over.
I hope that my pain has made me more compassionate, more sensitive to those around me. I pray that I will extend grace and mercy to everyone I meet. I want to be a light, not a candle-snuffer!
I’m convinced that most people want to bless and not hurt.
So here is a list of things (from my own experience and from the experience of others) that can be particularly damaging to bereaved parents when dealing with their loss:
Offering platitudes and quoting Bible verses is unhelpful.
Don’t say, “At least you have your other children.” Which of your own children are you willing to give up?
“God needed another angel!” This is just bad theology as well as unhelpful. God doesn’t need anything and my child is not an angel. He is a redeemed member of the Body of Christ and in heaven with Jesus.
“He or she isn’t suffering anymore.” That may very well be true, but it’s not comforting to hear it.
“All things work together for good…” I may believe that in my heart of hearts, and may come to feel it again one day, but in the days immediately following my son’s death, I didn’t need to be reminded.
“He (or she) wouldn’t want you to be sad.” How do you know what my child would want? Being sad and expressing my pain honors his or her memory.
“God will use your son’s death to bring people to Jesus.” Yes, He might. But He did not need my son to die in order for anyone to receive Christ. He may use my son’s death, but I will speak honestly and say that I would not have exchanged Dominic’s life for anyone.
“It could have been worse” or any sentence beginning with, “At least…”. My child is dead. I cannot have him back. I’m sure there are more painful ways to lose a child besides a motorcycle accident,but it is a matter of degree, not kind. Just please, don’t.
“Don’t try to make your grief “equal” to the parents. Sometimes in an effort to comfort we might say things like “I understand how you feel. I was devastated when my grandfather, or aunt, or best friend died”. My mom and sister proceeded my daughter in death and their loss, as difficult as it was, didn’t even come close to how difficult it has been to lose her. And don’t compare the loss of your beloved pet to the loss of someone’s child. JUST DON’T! Almost everyone I know who has lost a child has had their loss compared to that of someone’s pet. My daughter’s death was compared to that of someone’s pet lizard.”
Asking for details of the cause of death or the conditions surrounding the death of any child is not helpful. If a parent wants to talk about it, listen. Otherwise, keep curiosity in check.
“I did not appreciate [a close family member] persisting to know why our son took his own life. I don’t want to tell her as she will dwell on that forever and I want to celebrate his life, not his death. I also didn’t appreciate those folks telling me to stay strong. I am strong, but if I wanted to be a puddle, I am allowed to do that too.”
Please don’t label us as “strong”–you may mean it as a compliment but we hear it in many ways. One way might be that we are not honoring our child by grieving hard enough. Another way might be that we are expected to act strong even when we don’t feel strong. Trust me, you have no idea what it costs a bereaved mama to hold back the tears.
“I get so tired of people telling me I’m so strong also. I too am a puddle often but no one sees me during these days alone.”
It’s true that no one can fully comprehend our pain if they have not felt it. But it is possible to educate yourself about ways to support grieving parents.
“I wish people were more understanding but the problem with that is about the only way to understand is to go through it and I don’t want that for anyone.”
Please don’t withdraw from us as if we have a communicable disease. I know it makes you uncomfortable to be around me and my grief. It makes me uncomfortable too. But companionship and encouragement can mean the difference between grieving well and being overwhelmed by sorrow.
“I wish one of my good friends had reached out to me more. See we both work for the school system so we had the summer off. I never once heard from that friend all summer. It really hurt.”
“When I got home my church family was there then suddenly I was home alone. Everybody left me home ”
Show up to the funeral. Put aside petty differences. Extend grace. It’s not about you.
“His father didn’t even come. Not even to the funeral. No one brought food or sent flowers. Not even after the funeral. I was left alone a lot frightened and confused. Within a few months I was homeless.”
Be the church. Be the person that writes notes weeks and months after the funeral. Check in with grieving parents and keep checking in. Even if they don’t return a phone call, the act of letting them know you care is meaningful.
“After the funeral, there was a huge sense of abandonment from everyone. I don’t think that was intentional by anyone (except my family members, lovely!) but yeah…..there were hundreds of people at his funeral, and I probably didn’t know half of them. I wanted to thank people, but didn’t know who to thank! Lot of support, but when it was over…….it was over.”
“[Some close family members] were total jerks about the entire ordeal, so if there were anything really, I wish they had sucked up their egos and petty jealousies, and been there more for my other kids. I no longer have ties with them.”
“One huge topic that is discussed in my bereaved parents Facebook group is the response from the church for grieving parents. Sadly, most churches just don’t know what to do so they do…..nothing. Some are great for the first couple of weeks after the death and then….nothing. A very few provide the needed support in the months after such a devastating loss.”
Please don’t rush us to meet your timetable of when our grief should subside. It will take as long as it takes. Sometimes we can participate in life and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we smile, sometimes we cry– but we will always miss our child.
“People, for different reasons, want you to get back to normal. We can’t even remember what normal was ”
One of the biggest fears of bereaved parents is that their child will be forgotten. Don’t forget. Speak to them about their child. Share memories. Say their name. Be present (even with a text, call or card) on important dates.
“No one would come for my son’s first anniversary. I was left home alone…abandoned felt like.”
Loss will enter everyone’s life at some point–there is no escape.
We educate ourselves (as we should) on so many issues–work hard not to offend, to understand, to reach out. Bereaved parents don’t want pity, they would like to be better understood. We did not choose this journey, it was thrust upon us.
A little bit of kindness goes a long way.