The loss of a child is painful for surviving parents. As friends or relatives, it’s hard to know what to say, but your words and actions can make a difference.
When a family member or friend dies, it is a painful experience. When a child dies before a parent, the grief can feel overwhelming. While you might not have ever experienced the loss of a child yourself, you most likely know someone who has. But what do you say to someone who lost a child and how do you console them? It can be a difficult and awkward situation, but there are ways you can help those parents grieving their loss.
While you might be tempted to offer old platitudes, such as they’re in a better place or there is a reason for everything, that might not be the best things to say to someone who lost a child. If you need some guidance on what to do in this situation or just a few kind words to say, this should help. You can also learn what not to say or do in these instances.
What You Can Say to Someone Who Lost a Child
Many people tend to avoid saying anything in this situation because they are afraid of slipping up and causing additional pain. Avoidance won’t help anything and might make a painful experience worse. Here are just a few things you can say to someone who lost a child.
- I am so sorry for your loss. Saying this is perhaps one of the best ways you can connect with a grieving parent. You acknowledge that they have experienced a profound loss and have your deepest condolences.
- I wish I had the words to help you, but I don’t. Rather than ramble on and on about anything and everything, it’s ok to admit that you have no idea what to say. Just being there is sometimes enough comfort.
- I don’t know how you feel. Admitting that you don’t know what it’s like to be in this situation can be a huge relief to grieving parents. So many people might try to compare this loss to another one they have experienced, but nothing is quite the same as a parent losing a child.
- I am keeping you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. While this might seem like another platitude, telling someone you are thinking of them in their grief can offer a little comfort. Grieving the loss of a child can feel isolating, and just the idea that someone includes you in their daily prayers or thoughts is a small condolence.
- I am always here to listen. Often someone who has lost a child doesn’t need or want to be around someone who constantly talks. You might feel like you need to say something, but sometimes the grieving parent just wants someone to listen, no matter what they have to say.
- Share a memory of the child. Many parents who have lost a child fear that their little one will be forgotten. This feeling is especially true for children who have died at an early age and didn’t have a lot of time to leave a lasting impression on their world. Sharing a memory or an impact their child had on you will offer more support and sympathy than you can imagine. It shows that their child wasn’t just a passing thought, but influenced those around them.
- Silence. Sometimes it’s okay not to say a thing at all. A lot of people feel the need to fill the silence to keep the parent from thinking of their child, but sometimes that’s all the parent wants to do. Sitting with their thoughts might be painful but sitting with them with the support of a friend can help.
The Loss of a Grown Child
Words of sympathy for the loss of a grown son or daughter can be just as challenging as those for the loss of a young child. Remember, the loss of a child, young or grown, is painful because it doesn’t follow the natural order of things. Parents are meant to go before their child, and when they don’t, it’s hard to cope.
- At least they lived as long as they did. Try not to minimize the loss of a grown child by saying this. It doesn’t help parents deal with the loss any better. They would rather their child lived an even longer life than themselves.
- Understand there might be guilt. Parents who have lost a grown child might feel guilty for outliving their children. They might also feel guilty if their child died due to things like suicide, drug use, or drunk driving. These carry a social stigma and parents might feel guilty that they didn’t see a problem sooner.
- Adult children often have families. Adult children may be married and have kids of their own when they die, and that can add to the grief of the parent. Not only do they need to deal with their sadness but the sadness of their child’s spouse and their grandchildren.
- Be present. The best thing you can do for a parent is just to be present, whether that means helping out around the house, holding their hand as they cry, or sitting in silence with them. Just because a child is an adult doesn’t mean their loss is any less painful.
What You Can Do to Help Someone Who Lost a Child
Sometimes your actions can speak louder than your words, especially in this situation. Here are just a few things you can do to support and assist a grieving parent.
- Show up. Come to the funeral, show up to the memorial service, sit shiva with them, attend the wake. Even if you don’t think you are good in these situations, just showing up helps the parents just a little bit. Some people tend to fade away right during the most desperate times, and that is when those grieving need it the most. If you can’t be there for some reason or another, make your presence known with a note or letter.
- Keep calling and inviting them to things. Don’t just assume the parent doesn’t want to come out or go to lunch or have a spa day because their child died. It might take awhile for them to feel like they want to socialize but it’s nice to know that their presence is still desired even if they don’t show up. Sometime in the future, they will say yes to your invitation, so don’t forget them.
- Just do the task. Many friends and relatives often say just let me know if you need anything and leave it at that. The grieving parent might never tell you they need anything even if they still do. Rather than wait for them to ask, just do the thing. Bring over dinner one night, offer to take their other children to school or on a fun activity. Wash their laundry. Walk their dog. Get them gift cards to their favorite store or give them a spa day. Your kindness will be appreciated even if they never asked for it.
- Hugs. A hug can go a long way. While some people don’t like physical affection, a hug at the right moment can really help. Don’t try to force your embrace on anyone that doesn’t want it but if they do, that little bit of affection can do more heal than you might imagine.
What You Shouldn’t Do or Say to Someone Who Lost a Child
Just like there are things you should do or say to a grieving parent there are definitely things you should not do or say. These things might seem harmless, but they do nothing to help ease the pain or show support.
- They’re in a better place. It sounds nice, but it just reinforces the fact that their child is not here with them. Religious or not, most parents want their kid right there beside them instead of in a better place.
- Maybe this is for the best. People tend to say this if the child suffered a prolonged illness. They mean well but this doesn’t help a parent at all. As you try to make sense of the loss of a child, these phrases can make a parent feel like it wasn’t that big of a deal and their grief isn’t either.
- At least you have other children. This phrase is particularly painful for parents of multiple children. Of course, they realize they have other children, but it doesn’t change the fact that one of them is now gone. Instead of making them feel better, you just reminded them of the fact that one of their children is gone and they still have others that need their love and attention. That can be difficult while you grieve.
- Pretend it never happened. Some people are just not good with death and try to pretend that it never happened. They gloss over the death and carry on with life as usual. For a parent that lost a child, life will never be the same again. Pretending that the loss never happened minimizes their grief and pushes away their genuine grief.
- Force them to move on. Maybe it’s been awhile since the child has passed away and it feels like it’s time to move on, to be happier. You don’t get to dictate what a parent thinks or feels or how long they grieve their child. The truth is, they will probably always grieve and feel pain for their child. They will still think of their kid and remember them, and that won’t go away, even if you think it’s time to move on. Let them deal with this on their own timeframe and just offer as much support as possible, no matter how long it takes.