Sunday, February 8, 2009

10 things not to say to a bereaved parent

When your child dies, people are often at a loss of what to say. I know that people don't mean to be cruel or thoughtless but many times, their comments just add to your pain. Remarkably, there is no statute of limitations on 'stupid' comments and 6 years later, we still hear them, although not as frequently. So to help the well meaning, here are 10 things not to say to a bereaved parent:
  1. "He's with God now/he's in a better place." Maybe. But we want our children here with us. Call us selfish.
  2. "You're young - you can have more kids." Well, maybe yes maybe no. But one child does not replace another. We want the child we just lost, not a different one.
  3. "I know how you feel." (often followed by "I lost my mother/uncle/dog") Unless you lost a child you don't know how we feel. Losing a parent (or pet) is NOT like losing a child.
  4. "I wanted to come by/call but it was too hard." I'm sure it was. But it was hard for us too.
  5. "It will get better with time." Not really. As time goes by you realize more and more that death is forever and you will NEVER see/hug/kiss/talk to your child again. That doesn't make it better.
  6. "Aren't you over it yet?" You NEVER get over the loss of your child. NEVER. Full stop.
  7. "This must be so hard for your wife." Men are often shafted in the grief department. Guess what? Men love their children too. I've seen fathers fall to pieces while their wives "seemed" to be handling it.
  8. "You're so strong/I could never go through what you're going through." Well, nobody gave us a choice and there aren't any other options.
  9. "At least you have other kids." See #2. One child is not a substitute for another. We are thankful for the children we still have but it doesn't diminish the loss.
  10. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." First of all, this is not necessarily true. Many people collapse under the weight of a tragedy. Secondly, we are not more special than anyone else, didn't sign up for this, didn't ask for it.
So what should you do? Listen. Mention our children by name. Just because they're gone doesn't mean we don't think about them or want to talk about them. Understand that grief is a lifelong journey with ups and downs - today we might be fine; tomorrow getting out of bed is a chore. There is no rhyme or reason to this. Understand when something is too hard for us. It's not that we're not happy that your child is celebrating, it just reminds us that our child never will. Call. But don't be angry if we can't answer the phone and talk.
And if you do say something that might be insensitive (we all do it, including bereaved parents themselves), apologize. It goes a long way.


Gila said...

Seeing that I have never even had a child, much less lost one, I can only imagine what you are going through. That being said--I have gotten my fair share of stupid comments ("you're so strong" and "God does not give you more than you can handle" appear to be multi-purpose).

I am going to add a link on my blog. The more people who read this, the better.

Fern Chasida said...

Thanks Gila. Yes I can imagine that stupid comments aren't reserved for the bereaved. How many times have you heard "God doesn't give you more than you can handle"? Makes you want to throttle people.

Baila said...

Oh, Fern.

I have learned through very experience that just being silent is better than being stupid. Or a "I wish it didn't have to be this way".

I have also gotten some of these comments--when people told me I have a child who is sick or the whole "you can handle it" thing, I sometimes in my head wished it was their kid. Evil, I know, but I think that's chutzpah.

In my better moments I chalk it up to inexperience and naivete. They just don't know.

But I still can't believe someone asked if you weren't over it yet.

Shira Salamone said...

Here are some thoughts by Glen Holman, who, sadly, has been there.

Fern Chasida said...

Baila - it seems that nobody is really immune to stupid comments. Actually the person asking if I was over it yet asked in Hebrew not that long after Liam died and said "Hitoshasht?" You know, like when someone asks you if you're over the flu. I was shocked speechless.
Shira - thanks for visiting and thank you for the link.

RivkA with a capital A said...

First of all, thanks for sharing.

I meant to write a similar post about what to say when you find out a friend has a serious illness.

I still intend to write that post, but it won't be quite as harsh as I originally might have written it.

After hearing so many stupid (there is no other words) platitudes from people, I could not believe it when I heard myself saying some of the same inane things!

I heard the words emerging from my mouth and could not stop them. Afterwards, I felt like kicking myself.

There are things we cannot fix and times we just have to shut up and say "I'm so sorry."

Fern Chasida said...

Rivka - thanks for visiting and your comment. I agree that none of us are immune. I too found myself saying something incredibly stupid to a newly bereaved friend and could not believe the words were coming out of my mouth. And I'm sure I'm worse in other situations so I'll wait for your post.

Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman said...

I am horrified that people have asked you "Aren't you over it?" I have been asked the same about the seventeen years I was tortured by my mother. While I can always strive and be functional, I cannot change that I spent more than half my life suffering. Are people over the Holocaust? How could anyone ever imagine that one ever gets over a death of someone close to them.