Do You Know How to Talk to Someone Who Has Lost a Child?

Sad woman feeling hopeless crying alone, girl in despair concept

With all the carnage we have seen recently in the news, we need to consider what we know about talking with someone who has lost a child. Parents who lose children to illness and accidents need and deserve to be supported by their families and friends to help them move through the painful process of grieving. But how do we learn to be that person who comes close to someone in this horrific pain? In some ways, responding with loving messages and actions, expressing compassion, and just being present makes sense and can happen almost naturally. Let’s learn how to be that person who knows how to be there for someone who has lost a child.

According to an article from the NIH National Library of Medicine, “The death of a child of any age is a profound, difficult, and painful experience. While bereavement is stressful whenever it occurs, studies continue to provide evidence that the greatest stress, and often the most enduring one, occurs for parents who experience the death of a child….The few studies that have compared responses to different types of losses have found that the loss of a child is followed by a more intense grief than the death of a spouse or a parent.

From the Center for Loss & Life Transition, consider the following recommended responses and messages you want to transmit to the parent who has lost a child:

  • Allow yourself to mourn. Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death of your child. It is an essential part of healing.
  • Realize your grief is unique: No one, including your spouse, will grieve in exactly the same way you do. Your grief journey will be influenced not only by the relationship you had with your child, but also by the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system, and your cultural and religious background. As a result, you will grieve in your own unique way.
  • Allow yourself to feel numbfeelings of numbness and disbelief help insulate you from the reality of the death until you are better able to tolerate what you don’t want to believe.
  • Know that this death is “out of order:” Because the more natural order is for parents to precede their children in death, you must readapt to a new and seemingly illogical reality. This shocking reality says that even though you are older and have been the protector and provider, you have survived while your child has not. This can be so difficult to comprehend.
  • Expect to feel a multitude of emotions: Confusion, disorganization, fear, guilt, anger and relief are just a few of the emotions you may feel. Sometimes these emotions will follow each other within a short period of time. Or they may occur simultaneously. As strange as some of these emotions may seem, they are normal and healthy. Allow yourself to learn from these feelings.
  • Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and make decisions may be impaired. And your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Don’t expect yourself to be as available to your spouse, surviving children, and friends as you might otherwise be.
  • Talk about your grief: When you share your grief outside yourself, healing occurs. Ignoring your grief won’t make it go away; talking about it often makes you feel better. Allow yourself to speak from your heart, not just your head. Doing so doesn’t mean you are losing control or going “crazy.” It is a normal part of your grief journey.
  • Watch out for cliches, those trite comments some people make in attempts to diminish or minimize your loss or attempt to push you to move on. While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. You have every right to express your grief. No one has the right to take it away.
  • Develop a support system: the most compassionate self-action you can do at this difficult time is to find a support system of caring friends and relatives who will provide the understanding you need. Seek out those people who encourage you to be yourself and acknowledge your feelings, whatever they are. Support comes in different forms for different people — support groups, counseling, friends, faith—find out what combination works best for you.
  • Embrace your treasure of memories: Instead of ignoring these memories, share them with your family and friends. Keep in mind that memories can be tinged with both happiness and sadness. If your memories bring laughter, smile. If your memories bring sadness, then it’s all right to cry. Memories that were made in love — no one can take them away from you.
  • Gather important keepsakes: collect keepsakes that help you treasure your memories. You may want to create a memory book or a memory box to keep special keepsakes in. The reality that your child has died does not diminish your need to have these objects. They are a tangible, lasting part of the special relationship you had with your child.
  • Embrace your spirituality: if faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs.
  • Don’t avoid the pain of loss for too long. The grief will stay imbedded in your deepest thoughts, feelings and sensations if you do. As painful as grieving is, not grieving actually is more painful and does more damage to you and those around you. To restore your capacity to love you must grieve when your child dies. You can’t heal unless you openly express your grief. Denying your grief will only make it become more confusing and overwhelming.
  • Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Never forget that the death of your child changes your life forever. It’s not that you won’t be happy again, it’s simply that you will never be exactly the same as you were before your child died.

Being prepared to be there in meaningful, loving ways is how we can nurture someone who has lost a child. It can strengthen your confidence to be engaged in emotionally healthy ways with that parent. By doing this you can be a part of their healing. What a beautiful gift for all!

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Have you ever been in the company of someone who has lost a child? How did it make you feel? How prepared were you to know how to engage with them?
  2. How do you think it might make them feel to receive some of the messages provided in this blog? How would it make you feel if you were the person who lost a child?
  3. To what extent do you think you can become comfortable engaging in meaningful ways with someone who has lost a child? What might get in your way and how can you address any of these issues?