Friday, August 19, 2011

What TO Say to a grieving parent

My last post (read:  rant) was on the topic of what NOT to say to grieving parents.  Today I've decided to be a bit more helpful and instead give some ideas of what TO say to parents who are grieving the loss of a child.

1.  Acknowledge the depth of the loss 
There are so many ways of doing this, the important thing is to be authentic you can say something like "This is so heartbreaking" or "I'm so, so sorry for your loss" or "I can't even begin to imagine how terrible this loss must be for your family."

Don't think you are exempt from this point if you haven't seen the griever in question for a while!! Many grievers (myself included) can barely even remember who attended the funeral, we feel so dazed, disoriented.  I'm just emerging out of the fog that was the first few months after our son Vincent's death.  So make sure you do this when you see the griever, even if you sent a sympathy card and/or attended the funeral.

This is also an important point not to forget when you're meeting people for the first time and hear a bit of their story.  Since Vincent's death we've met several different couples at various birthday parties, and the inevitable "How many kids do you have" question came up.  Our answer these days is, "Two, we have a four year old named Theo and another son, Vincent, in heaven."  Believe me, it can be quite the conversation killer.  People often look confused, flustered, some have even said "Oh" and walked away.  I'm pretty ruthless, and for those that haven't yet walked away I usually follow up with, "Yes, he passed away last year from liver cancer."

This is a sort of test for me - if you pass it, we can be friends.  If not, well, then, perhaps not.  Fortunately, most people have the presence of mind to say something conciliatory.  So if you find out upon meeting someone that they have lost a child, please, meaningfully acknowledge the depth of the loss.  "That's so incredibly sad.  I can't even imagine how that must feel."  That can start a decent conversation.  And if you've been that person who walked away without saying anything, well, it's not too late to go back and tell the griever, "I'm so sorry I walked away, I had no idea how to respond, but I just want to say I'm sorry you've had to go through all this."  Grieving parents are happy for any support they can getI don't think many of us hold grudges, so it's not too late to start over!

2.  Feel free to talk and ask questions about the deceased child.
"How did your child die?  What was his/her name? What was their personality like?" Please note, this is NOT to satisfy morbid curiosity (a parent can always tell) but to let the griever tell the story of their child.  I've heard it said that to most parents, their dead child's name is like music to their ears.  We WANT to talk about our child.  Heaven knows we talked about them while they were alive.  And suddenly, after they died, talk about them stopped as if they had ceased to exist (which they haven't.)

Don't worry that you will accidentally offend the griever in question by speaking about their child.  If you ask questions in a respectful, sensitive way, you can do a great deal of good.  If you knew their kid and have a nice story to share (emphasis on NICE, I've heard horror stories of bereaved parents being told of naughty things their kids did) then by all means, please share it.  If you cry or get teary-eyed when hearing the story of their child's passing, or by sharing a story about the child yourself, you get bonus points.  And if a grieving parent doesn't feel like talking about their bereavement at that moment, believe me, they'll let you know.  
3.  Ask how the grieving parents are doing.
Some people have told me that it's a little scary to ask a grieving person how they're doing as they don't want to bring up bad memories and make it worse for the person in question.  This is my answer to that— I have yet to be offended and/or hurt by someone who asked me how I was doing and sincerely wanted to know.  I always carry the wounds of losing Vincent in my heart, they are such a huge part of who I am that you don't need to be afraid that somehow asking that question will be a trigger for me to remember something bad and then feel worse.  I already remember all the bad things that happened. If you ask me these questions I'll then have someone with which to share the darkness.

And don't be afraid if the grieving parent cries while speaking about their child.  They're already crying on the inside.  Sometimes it's a big relief to have the permission to manifest it on the outside.

4.  Be a good listener.  
Part of being a good listener means engaging your heart and mind with the person speaking.  I mean, just think about it.  It's totally rude to ask a very deep personal question like "How are you doing?" if you only have a few minutes of talk time, or if you're in a large impersonal group of people.  Instead, say something like, "I really want to hear how you're doing.  Can we go out for coffee/cupcakes/a drink?"  (And you have to MEAN it!) Or you can call ahead and show up at their house with a meal. You could do this anytime from a few days after the death to a few years later.  You can also send online messages or little gifts in the mail.

Oh, and if you don't have time to adequately hear how the parent is doing, then don't ask. I'd rather you not ask me how I'm doing than be looking at your watch every minute as I attempt to explain.  That's really not cool.

5.  Keep the focus on the bereaved parent  
This is not the time to start talking about your dead aunt, grandma, cousin or pet. Nothing, that's right, nothing is the same as losing a child.  Psychologists put losing a child as the most stressful life event ever, right over losing a spouse.

If conversation with the grieving parent naturally evolves into talking about past losses and they show an interest in your story, then please share tastefully.  But don't use the occasion of the bereaved parent's loss to talk about your own, unless it is really similar or unless you and the grieving parent are connecting well.  You might have felt devastated when your pet mouse died, but really, it's not the same as losing a child.  Not to the grieving parent, at least.  (Quick side note:  I've received e-mail messages from people who've lost loved ones or encountered deep loss and none of these offended me in the slightest!  I'm talking about people who come up to you out of nowhere and start talking about their loss as soon as they've heard of yours.  I know I've done this before.  But it's not a good idea.)

6.  Resist the urge to "solve" their pain  
It can be easy at the end of the conversation with the grieving parent to want to "put a bow on it" basically wanting to neatly tie up the conversation.  People do this by using hurtful "solving" statements like "Well, God can make all things good in the end" or "At least he/she didn't suffer" or "Well, hopefully everything works out."

I think this happens because after delving into the world of the griever, acknowledging and conversing about their loss, asking good questions and being a mindful listener, you're emotionally exhausted.   As a comforter, you've shouldered a bit of the pain from the grieving parent, and now you want to give it back or dump it somewhere.  From my experience, this is where all the abominable dismissive one-liners are usually used.  People are now feeling a bit overwhelmed.  They want to make their life manageable again, and they do this by neatly "fixing" your pain for you.  "Well, at least they're in a better place" or "Maybe God was keeping you from something worse."

We grievers understand the need to find a quick exit from the painful world of child loss.  As much as we long for it, we know the only solution to our pain will be when we reunite with our children at the end of our lives.  For most of us, that's still a long time away.  Bereaved parents aren't on a day-trip pass into the chaotic world of grief.  We live there, all the time.  So believe me, we understand the need to distance yourself, to "solve" our pain, "fix" our anger and confusion.

Resist this urge and instead exit gracefully from the conversation.  Say something like "Thanks for sharing with me how you guys are doing, I'll be holding you and _____ (name of the child) in my heart"  or "I'm feeling overwhelmed by the amount of pain you deal with every day, I'll be praying for (or thinking of) you" or "I appreciate the trust you showed by sharing some of your grief with me." These are just a few ideas to wrap up the conversation while showing consideration for the griever. (You could also cry and give us a hug.  That works too.)

7.  Be honest
If you have not had the occasion to grieve deeply, or if you have no idea what to say, please feel free to say just that.  Be honest.  Most grievers don't know what to say or do either.  We're heartbroken, devastated, shocked, angry. We're in uncharted territory, and because of it we respond well to honesty, to people who say, "I want to help but I don't know what to do."  That's a wonderful, beautiful, and very constructive place to start. One of the best things our pastor did when Vincent was dying was to tell us that he felt helpless, unsure of how to help best, and wishing he could do more.  He is now one of my favorite pastors of all time because of that beautifully heartfelt message.

These are just a few ideas of what to say to a grieving parent, there are so many more. Fellow-bereaved-readers, what are your suggestions?  


Jessica said...

You really should/could write a book. You are amazing.. I love that vincent has such a great mommy who can educate so many people..your pointers are so on target..i am so blessed to know you, and hope that i can always bring comfort and laughter to your life...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Rebecca....I've been looking for this post...waiting for this information, because I have not had to experience the pain of loss...and I truly want to be a blessing to those who grieve, as opposed to the opposite.

I appreciate hearing that it's okay to feel helpless as a comforter...that is how I feel a lot. I know I can sympathize with what you're going through...I can imagine myself in your shoes...but to really feel, know, experience...I have not had to experience the pain of the loss of a beautiful treasure, so I cannot truly empathize with you.

We do continue to pray for yourself, Dan and Theo. Your lives are forever changed and while time continues, there is forever a loss in the Stringer hearts and home. We only knew Vincent because of the beautiful photos you posted online...and the stories you shared...but he has forever made an impact in my life...the lives of my children. He was a beautiful little boy that we prayed for and still think we think about you. Love you all!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the needed and very helpful suggestions of what to say to a grieving parent. After experiencing the grief of Vincent leaving us, I now just cry with those who've suffered the loss of a loved one. It's an instant response. I am crying for them, I am crying for me, I am crying for you. Maybe one of these days I'll be able to put words to my response, and your suggestions will help a lot. Thanks always for your posts.

Queenie said...

Oh Rebecca, I am hugging you from across cyberspace with tears in my eyes. We were away this week without good access to the internet and I thought of you often, wondering how you were doing. I read a historical novel in which the main character's young children died and couldn't help but grieve for you all over again. Thank you for sharing so faithfully with us (I appreciate your helpful and specific advice regarding what to say to grieving people). Thank you even more for example of clinging so tenaciously to God. I sure wish you and your family did not have to suffer this loss.

Rebecca said...

Thank you everyone for your comments!

@ Queenie: Thank you for your love and prayers, I wish neither of us had our particular crosses.... Wishing you joy and peace in spite of it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your posts with me. We don't really know each other but I am so moved by all you've written. Your posts will be so helpful to many people. I am very sorry about the loss of your Vincent. It is unimaginable.