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.
Helpful Articles and Resources
- How to help a friend who lost a child to suicide
- The stories you share about our beloved dead mean the most
- My grief timeline, the first two years (I lost my son to suicide)
- Helping teenagers with the death of a sibling to suicide by Molly Senecal
- Who’d have thought my son’s worst enemy would be in his own head
- Grief journey in a jar kit for those who’ve lost a child
- What to say to parents who’ve just lost a child
- Recommended grief books (includes loss of a child by suicide)
- What to say to grieving parents? (video)
- Make the memorial service for the death of a child meaningful
- Loss of a child: Say this, not that
- Grief resources including support groups