Did you know July is National Bereaved Parents Month? Truly, it’s an awful kind of a thing to have to recognize, but I’m so glad for it. For parents who have gone through this horrible tragedy, a dedicated time that more people can recognize their pain and loss — and learn how to talk about it — is meaningful.
Because recognizing loss, and saying the right words (or the best possible words, under the circumstances) is so important to make those suffering feel known and loved.
But first: It’s important to recognize that everyone processes grief differently. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to respond. But getting honest feedback from friends on what to say, and what not to say, has been so helpful to me, whether I’m supporting a friend who’s lost a child or partner, one who’s house has been destroyed by a hurricane or fire, or someone who’s dealing with a horrific medical diagnosis.
I hope you never have to use these tips. But if you do, here’s how to breach the awkwardness and know what to say to a friend who’s grieving.
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Photo by Nathan Dumlao
For starters, just say *something*
Some people err on the side of complete silence, out of fear of upsetting or offending their friend. Or perhaps you just don’t know what to say. Or it triggers something in your own past that makes it difficult to handle.
Whatever the reason, of course confronting grief of all kinds can be awkward. But saying nothing can be even more hurtful than you realize.
If you regularly called this person to chat before their loss, don’t stop. Don’t slow down. Keep calling at that same rate; maybe more, if you sense they’re not getting broad support from others.
It doesn’t have to be “perfect.” Simply say you’re thinking about them and just wanted to check in. Tell them that they were on your mind and you wanted to say hello. Tell them that you’re around if they need anything at all.
The last thing you want your friend to think is that their loss (or their loved one) is an unimportant topic to you.
Avoid the phrase “at least”
“At least” they didn’t suffer long. “At least” you have another child. “At least” you still have time to get pregnant again. “At least” your insurance is covering the bills. “At least” you have supportive family around.
If someone has just experienced life-changing loss, there’s no “at least” for them, so just try to eliminate those words from your vocabulary.
Also — and this should be obvious (but apparently isn’t) — don’t ever tell someone that their loss makes you grateful for the things in your life.
I know people are just saying what they’re feeling when they say something like “I’m hugging my children closer tonight” but saying it out loud is not helpful or comforting. At all.
Don’t make comparisons
It’s natural to try to find common ground with someone, and when you have a friend who’s just experienced a major loss you may feel that you have less in common now. Avoid reaching for comparisons to try to get it back.
Never compare their loss to the loss of their pet, or a tough breakup. Sorry, not the same. And while it comes from a place of seeking empathy, there’s no need to find ways to say “I know how you feel.”
Support their decisions, whatever they may be
When someone has been given a terrifying medical diagnosis or is facing a truly life-and-death decision, unless you’re in the room with them when it happens, they’ve most likely done their research. They’ve spoken to experts and doctors and holistic practitioners, they’ve searched for experts on web, they’ve talked to family, and all these people plus the stranger in the checkout line at the grocery have offered up their opinions.
What they need now is support.
Only if they ask your opinion should you give it. And then, do so gently and honestly.
If they don’t ask for advice, then zip it.
That said, you can ask if they want any help researching treatment options — but if the answer is no then don’t try to push essential oils or macrobiotic diet tips or forward every clinical trial notice you come across.
Related: How to cope with grief and loss (and support others who have):
An interview with Kate Inglis
Photo Ben White
Do not, do not, DO NOT imply they could have done something to prevent a child’s death
Haven’t we all seen it online? A terrible tragedy is in the news, and someone says, “Well that’s why I never let my child…” It’s bad enough to do it in public forums where a grieving family of strangers may see it — but to do it to an actual friend or family member. Just no.
If you’ve thought about “what if…” or “if only…” then so has the grieving parent. Keep it to yourself, or if you have to get it out, confide in someone totally unrelated to the situation.
It should go without saying, but it is not helpful to shame or guilt a parent who has just lost a child.
Offer specific help
When a parent is grieving and their world has just fallen apart, they aren’t sure what they need or maybe can’t articulate it. So don’t ask, “How can I help?” Instead, make specific offers.
Can I bring you pizza for dinner at 6 tonight? Can I swing by and pick up your daughter to do some back-to-school shopping? Can I come get all your laundry and deliver it back to you at noon tomorrow?
Make sure they know they have that freedom to be honest with you. If they don’t think it will be helpful, they can say no.
A note about delivering food or groceries: People in mourning can find it exhausting to have to visit with every kind person who drops off a meal, but may not say so. Instead, offer to leave out a cooler at the front door where generous friends and family can drop off meals or groceries. This small gesture can be an emotional lifesaver.
Share your favorite memories…when they’re ready
Some grieving parents love to hear people talk about their child. It makes them feel like their child is near.
Write a letter to the parent sharing your favorite stories about their child. (Don’t worry if it feels too soon — they know what a sympathy card looks like, and they’ll open it when they’re ready to read it.)
If you want to send photos, mail a hard copy and put it in an envelope inside the card marked “photos,” so they don’t open before they’re ready.
Related: How do you talk to your kids about depression and suicide?
Resources and tips for a very tough subject.
Photo by Noah Buscher
Honor their memory
Find a way to honor the memory of the child for the long term: Plant a tree in their favorite park. Start a collection of their favorite books at the library. Start a walkathon to prevent whatever it is that took their life. Donate a bench at their school.
Or, on a more personal level, remember their birthday. Remember the day they passed away. Reach out, and do something to let the parent know that their child will never be forgotten.
If you’re really close with the person, talk about how they’d like to mark that day, and work with them to honor their own wishes and needs.
Don’t get offended if you aren’t getting what you need right now
Your heart may be breaking too, but your friend won’t be able to comfort you while she’s in the dark days of grief. And that’s not her job. If she doesn’t return your calls, don’t be offended.
It may feel like you’ve completely reorganized your life to be there for a friend who doesn’t seem thankful; but you need to wait until her fog passes.
For now, look outward and find other friends to support you. Also, reach out to others who are checking in with your own friend so you can get an update on their well-being, especially if your own calls or texts aren’t going returned. Again — it’s not personal. She’s just grieving.
Recognize your limits
There may be times when your own grief is so strong that being there for your friends seems as if it will push you over the edge of what you can handle. It’s okay to take a step back, take care of your own emotions, and reach out to some of their other friends to say, “We’re struggling right now…can you check on them for us?”
Getting through grief takes a village, and it’s okay to take time to heal your own heart too.
Simply ask: “Is this helping…or not?”
Every once in a while, check in with your friend to try and learn whether your behavior (calls, check-ins, support of any kind or even giving your friend space) is comforting. Or, perhaps it’s causing pain in a way you hadn’t considered.
Perhaps your friend would prefer you not to send pictures right now. Or maybe they feel burdened by food drop-offs and would like you to shut down the Sign Up Genius.
Just let your friend know they can be honest with you; that their comfort and care is your number one priority, whatever that means.
Top image: Photo by Mike Labrum via Unsplash