In the last eleven months, I’ve been asked countless times what to say to parents who have lost a child. I’ve always answered hesitantly. I am no expert even though I’ve been through it. Every situation is different. So when I give advice, it’s based off of what I know we liked and appreciated in our situation.
I was asked by Daphne for this same advice. The child of her friends, Hunter, had his cancer come back for a fourth and final time. Unfortunately, Hunter passed away this past Monday. I’ve also received lots of emails from friends of Layla Grace’s parents. My stomach drops and my heart starts pounding whenever I hear about a child dying. I know the fear and pain and emptiness these parents now feel. It is so unfair.
My response to Daphne was over eight minutes long, and the video below is just a snippet of what I said:
Sorry about the auto play, not sure how to fix that.
Since so much of my advice didn’t make the cut, I wanted to elaborate here.
First, people are afraid of what to say, and often say nothing. This is a mistake. Many people are afraid to bring up the deceased child, fearing it will open wounds and raw feelings. But in my opinion the hardest thing is when people don’t talk about Maddie. It feels like she was never here, and this is what is heartbreaking. It is nice when people say, “I thought of Maddie today,” of “I saw a kid in a dress like the one Maddie wore at whatever today.” Or “I miss Maddie.” These things help, not hurt. Make us feel she is not forgotten. Sending a keepsake with the child’s photo or name, things that help her be tangibly remembered are nice. We have received AMAZING things and we cherish everything.
Six years ago, one of my friends lost her father. I was living across the country from her, and I was terrified. I felt guilty that I had my dad and she didn’t. So I didn’t say anything, and I ruined our friendship for a while. I am very lucky she gave me another chance. She has been there for me since Maddie passed away. I have horrible regret about the whole thing – all I had to do was call her and say, “I’m so sorry.”
Religion is a potentially explosive way to comfort. Unless you absolutely know 100% percent the person will be comforted by mentions of faith, don’t go there. Religion is a very complicated thing in the wake of a child’s death, and they may be angry at God or confused as to how to incorporate the death of a child into the religion that they have known to have their best interests in mind. Even someone you know to be intensely religious may be having a crisis of faith in the wake of a child’s death, and could be angered/saddened by mention of religion. Especially stay away from, “She’s in a better place,” or “God wanted her more than you,” or “God needed her more,” etc. I don’t care if it is the all powerful creator of the universe, you don’t tell any Mama that anyone wants her baby more than she does.
So many people hate seeing their loved one in such pain and want to fix it. Consequentially, they start talking about how you have to move on, that you will see them again, the child is with God, it will get better in time, etc. All things they think will “fix it.” Don’t try to do this. Follow the lead of the parents. Discuss what they want…if they go to those places you can discuss those things, but don’t try to steer it there. Sometimes I want to talk about Maddie and the unfairness of it all, and other times I want to hear funny stories or talk about reality TV.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Many people feel they have to be strong for their friends, that they can’t cry or show emotion. I don’t think that is true. You can be strong AND be emotional. If tears come, don’t fight them. This shows your friends that you, too, are crushed and sad and lost.
Address the horror. People often worry about addressing how awful the situation is, but the parents want to hear that people get the hell they are in. The parents feel alone when they don’t think people understand how awful this is. Saying things like, “This is the worst thing. I am so sorry and sad that it had to happen to you and your child,” helps.
Food is very helpful. The last thing you want to do when mourning is worry about eating. There are always people around after a death, and the last thing you want to think about is feeding them. Mike and I never would have eaten if food hadn’t been sent to us. A gift of food also tells the parents they are loved.
Say or express something you never have before. If you have never told the person that you love them, come right out and tell them that you love them. If you’ve never held their hand, hold their hand. Give hugs. These expressions mean a lot.
Finally, my biggest advice is to not be afraid to take initiative. We often say, “let me know what I can do,” in a situation like this. Well, I can tell you that Mike and I had no idea what we needed. We were so lucky that we had friends and family rally together and just take care of things. A few came to town to help out. One friend organized food, another cleaned my house, two bought the clothes Mike and I wore to the funeral, one put together Maddie’s slide show, a few organized the reception after her service. I could go on and on. I didn’t have to worry about anything because I knew my friends and family would handle it.
Be there for your friends. Call, email, text. Tell them they don’t have to respond. Let them know you are thinking of them, and their child, all the time. Don’t drop away after the funeral – that’s when they’ll need you the most. Be the kind of friend that you would want to have.
If you have any questions or other advice to add, please let me know below.