What to Say to a Grieving Parent

Many of you may have heard the headlines about the NFL player who accidentally killed his three-year-old daughter with his truck. Maybe you felt many of the same feelings I have been experiencing.

So many questions and thoughts run through your mind

How do you live with yourself after something like this happens? How do you contain the grief, the sorrow, the guilt (even if it was a freak accident)?

How do you keep from replaying what happened over and over in your mind’s eye, wishing you could go back in time and change what happened so that she would still be alive?

How many of us also might go down the path of “What if” for ourselves?

How many of us have moved a vehicle in our driveway and could not possibly know if one of our young children was in front of or behind that vehicle?

It doesn’t really matter if someone was supposed to be watching the child or she somehow managed to open a door that typically she would not be able to open. All that matters is that she has been killed and this parent, and the rest of the family, have to live with probably the most profound loss anyone can experience, the loss of a child.

Sometimes it can seem like our children are in danger daily.

We can only do so much to protect them, and yet the truth about life is that we cannot always protect them.
Tonight on the CBS show 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley revisited the story of the Sandy Hook massacre that took place four years ago where 20 children and six adults were murdered by a mentally ill young man entered an elementary school and randomly shot both children and adults. As Scott Pelley spoke with some of the parents a few weeks after the incident, and then now, four years later, the grief was just as palpable. The parents spoke of it being a forever grief, not something one ever gets over.

I think it is important for people to recognize that there are some grief experiences from which we do not recover.

We may be able to go on and live our lives, but the grief is always there.

However, I thought there was some very important information for us to absorb that came out of Scott Pelley’s story about what to say to a grieving parent.

Let’s start with what not to say.

Do not ask a grieving parent if they have moved on and are now okay. While this thought may come from our desire and hope that people are not continuing to hurt, it is unhelpful to ask this. It is as if we almost want their reassurance they are no longer struggling as when the tragedy first happened.

It is hard to know that someone is in a lot of pain and we cannot alleviate that pain. Recognize that it is our issue. For them, we must tolerate their sadness and know we cannot say or do anything that takes that sadness away. That needs to be okay.

So what can we say to a grieving parent?

Scott Pelley shared his observations as a result of speaking with parents who had lost their children to war, and then in speaking with these parents who had lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre.

He shared what to say to the parents: “Tell me about your child.”

Asking a parent to share something about his or her child who has died is in some small way an opportunity for that parent to keep that child’s memory alive.

It provides an opportunity for that parent to tell you a little something about this precious person and somehow that gift of bearing witness eases the pain a bit because it allows the parent the opportunity to relive something joyful and special.

It doesn’t relieve the grief as in the grief no longer exists.

But by being able to share something about the living child, in that moment, the parent revisits a happier time and knows that you are making that visit with him or her.

It is important to know that many times a parent will cry when they share something about their child.

You are not causing them pain. Rather, you are allowing them the opportunity to experience their pain in the context of the care you are extending to them.

We are meant to live in relationships.

We are meant to be able to reach out to each other in love, and with understanding, and a willingness to embrace whatever someone is or has experienced, even excruciating emotional pain.

The bottom line for me is that it can be extremely helpful to know what to say to grieving parent.

To watch the whole Pelley interview go to:


Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you ever had a conversation with a parent who has lost a child? How did it make you feel? Did you almost want to avoid the conversation because the sadness was so great? What can you do to help yourself accept and tolerate another person’s pain and to know that your job is not to take his or her pain away? Rather it is to stand with that person and accept the reality of that person’s pain.
  2. How does it feel to think about asking a parent to tell you about his or her child who has died? Can you see why that might be so helpful?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Image sources: Associated Press: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/nfl-player-driving-truck-ran-killed-daughter-46812857 and http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/sandy-hook-american-kid-has-died-gun-every-other-day-n478746

To watch the whole interview go to: