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What do you say to parents who’ve just lost a child?

You have no idea what to say. Will talking about their child make it worse? Will it trigger more grief? No. Because we think about the one we lost every day till the day we die. It changes over time. But we never, ever forget for even one day.

If that parent lost a child to suicide or drug overdose, they suffer the stigma of a “less noble death” even though both of those causes of death are from diseases of the brain. So people say even less. Parents who’ve lost a child are avoided, eliminated from guest lists, and otherwise ostracized because people find it awkward to ask. (By the way, if you want to know how to support a parent who has lost a child specifically to suicide, that’s here.)

If you have an invitation to an event, send it anyway and add a note that you don’t know if they are ready but you’re going to let them make the decision whether to come or not. And if they come, don’t avoid asking about their child because you think it’s awkward.

From the parents I speak with who’ve endured this, the last thing we want is our child to be forgotten.

Fortunately as a Southerner by birth, my family defaulted to visitation and food and everyone followed suit. But families are from all over now and sometimes will choose to remain by themselves. For me, that week with my family and friends was a lifesaver for me. I dreaded their leaving. Being “alone” got old after a couple of hours. So do check in because people can change their minds.

In those first few days after the loss, the family is stunned, shocked and basically not processing information. I could not put a meal together and following any kind of routine was impossible. Grocery store? Walking the dog? It seemed so impossible to accomplish in my suspended, surreal world at that time. I didn’t know who I was. Many were asking, what can I do? Or call me if I can do something. Some were even telling me names of people to contact. Very well meaning but I couldn’t have remembered that name to save my life.

When you get news that bad, you are literally disabled. So here are some tips and it does depend on the family.

Be specific. Be intentional

I had to plan a funeral than I had never expected to plan and I had to write an obituary, fill out paperwork and send death certificates. While the world did not stop spinning, my life did. Here are some examples of what to do and say.

  • Friends want to know how you want to handle this. Can they ask about (child’s name)? Is there anything specific that I can pass on that you DO NOT want to be asked about? (e.g. the actual method they used)
  • I’m going to the grocery store. I’m getting you something to drink and some kleenex. What else do you need?
  • I am going to be here Saturday to mow your lawn
  • If you are planning a service and want help, I would love to be part of that
  • Let me come by and take your dog out for a walk. I’ll be back around 5. Is that good?
  • Let me arrange some meals for you. We’ll start tonight. Do you have any dietary issues? I’ll share a schedule with you

Don’t be afraid to talk

Do speak up. I always say, the worst thing you can say is nothing at all. Say what feels right for you and just know that men get less support than women. And they need it, too. Avoidance is the worst! These are just examples of what to say to give you an idea.

  • Let me tell you a story I remember about [insert name]
  • I may say the wrong thing so please let me know when I do that
  • I am sorry for your loss. I know that’s cliche, but I am truly at a loss for what to say. I hope that’s OK
  • Can I help you find some pictures to put out of your son/daughter?
  • Can I just give you a hug?
  • Do you want to talk about your son/daughter? Help me know them better.
  • What can you tell me about [insert name]?
  • I am not afraid of your tears
  • I am struggling to find words but just know I’m here for you and I’m going to think of something to do and do it for you
  • I don’t know what to say. I wish I did. I wish I could fix this but I can’t and I think I’m struggling with that the most.
  • I feel very awkward that I am at such a loss for words, but your son/daughter was so important to me, I want you to know I’ll never forget him/her

Do not invalidate their feelings. It’s trite to say things like “you’ll get over this,” or “he’s in a better place.” Saying you don’t know what to say is OK.

I hope that just gives you ideas on what you are comfortable saying. I would love to hear your ideas.

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Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked TEDx speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my younger son, Charles to substance use disorder and suicide on June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, coping strategies/resilience, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Professional Speaker Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

6 thoughts on “What do you say to parents who’ve just lost a child?”

  1. Everyone was here and offering to help, dinner was brought the first couple of days but within a few days, no more phone calls, meals or visits.
    I need to get away from the house distract myself from the constant pain but no one is calling or coming
    What happened
    I guess they’re afraid to say the wrong thing or maybe my tears bother them
    It just makes this Hell harder

    1. The SAME thing happened to me. I would later have a conversation with my friends and have had many many conversations with friends who are at a loss over what to do after a friend loses a child.

      Your tragedy seems so big and overwhelming, they are overwhelmed by it. FEAR is the number one thing they tell me. I’ll press gently and say “Why text when you can call?” And the friends will say this or that and finally– bingo, they’ll light up and say, “I’m scared I guess.” It does make your grief harder. There are many things someone can do so I’ll share a few with you.

      I decided to have people over. I was incapable of cooking or buying what was needed and I asked them to supply that part and I’d provide the space. Pretty clean space. Not perfect. But good enough. That set the tone.

      The other suggestion I have is to sit down with one friend and tell that one person and ask her to communicate it to others. Because honestly everyone is different and wants something different. I was like you. I wanted to do normal things even if I wasn’t a total joy to be around. And I resented that no one was reaching out. But it really was fear. Because they told me so later when I was writing my first book.

      Also specify that you will need and want to talk about your loved one who died. You don’t need an hour. Just a few minutes and then you can listen or have other conversation.

      Ask someone over to watch stupid rom coms on netflix or some benign activity that let’s them know that you want to be together and you don’t need much other than their presence.

      I created this worksheet to help people kind of think through things regarding what they need. While you might not have this out it will offer some guidance I hope. This one is for loss of a child. https://annemoss.com/wp-content/uploads/friends-and-family-worksheet-loss-of-a-child-fillable-1.pdf

      I found a grief group. That helped a TON. Because your friends are just not going to be able to provide the support you need entirely. Because they don’t know.

      This page has some links to grief groups focused on loss of a child. I went to those regularly. I started with two. https://annemoss.com/resources-2/grief/

      I hope those help.

  2. I think saying that you’ve been thinking about the child or family is nice. But I wouldn’t say praying for unless you were certain the family was as religious as you are. We cringed every time someone said that were praying for us or for Alexander.

    Telling the family you’re lighting a memory candle is nice. There’s a big national day to light candles for children that have passed that’s organized by compassionate friends.

  3. This is so helpful. Many people don’t say or do anything for fear of upsetting the family more. Knowing that being specific and intentional is important to those wondering how to help. Thank you again for sharing.

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