Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ten on the Tenth -- Ten Things NOT to Say to Grieving Parents

At our While We're Waiting support group meeting last month, we spent the evening discussing how we often find ourselves in the position of having to extend grace to people who ... how shall I say this ... misspeak in their attempts to comfort us.  These are well-meaning people, folks who desperately want us to feel better, often friends and family members who just want us to be back to "normal."

As you can imagine, it was a lively discussion.  Every one of us who has a child in Heaven has had an encounter with a clumsy comforter.  But we shouldn't feel alone ... that experience goes all the way back to the time of Job!  Talk about some lousy friends ... Job takes that prize for sure!  In fact, listen to what he had to say to them in his own words, "Then Job answered and said: 'I have heard many such things; Miserable comforters are you all!'"  I guess he told them!

Here are ten things that, in my opinion, should NOT be said to a grieving parent:

1.  "I understand how you feel."  The only time this is ever appropriate is if you are a bereaved parent yourself.  And even then, everybody's experience is different.  I can't even really understand how Brad and Bethany feel, because their relationship with Hannah was different than mine.

2.  "How are you doing?"  This puts the bereaved parent in the awkward position of either forcing a smile and squeezing out an insincere, "Oh, I'm okay," or melting into uncontrollable tears at the thought of how not okay they really are.  One exception here ... If you are a very close friend or family member, it can be acceptable to ask this question, but only if you are prepared to invest the time and emotional support necessary to allow the grieving person to fully and honestly answer it.

3.  "She's gone to a better place."  All of us who have lost children are so glad there is a Heaven, and that our children, if they knew Jesus as their Savior, are there ... but I have yet to meet a bereaved parent who wouldn't rather have their child right here with them.  Heaven is a great comfort, but it does not ease the pain we feel as we miss our children.

4.  "At least you have another child/other children."  Those of us who have other surviving children are unspeakably grateful to have them ... but those children in no way take the place of the one we have lost.  And if we are young enough and choose to have another child, that child is not a replacement for the one we have lost.

5.  "God always picks His best flowers first."  Ummm ... What does that even mean?  (Shaking my head...)

6.  "God must have needed another angel in Heaven."  This one doesn't pass theological muster with me ... I believe that Scripture teaches that angels are a completely separate created order, and that humans who die do not become angels.  If God wants another angel in Heaven, He can create one!

7.  "You're so strong.  I could never survive if I lost my child."  I haven't met a bereaved parent yet who thought they could survive this type of loss either ... yet they have ... and some of them have even survived the loss of multiple children.   And most of them will tell you that they don't feel strong at all ... at times they are nearly too weak to stand.  This kind of statement can also put a lot of pressure on a bereaved parent ... It can make us feel like we have to be strong all the time because that's what people are expecting.  And that can be exhausting (not to mention impossible)!

8.  "God saves his hardest battles for his strongest soldiers."  My friend Ronnie, a bereaved mom herself, wrote a blog post addressing this very comment yesterday ... Click here to read what she has to say about it.  I agree with every word she said.

9.  "Are you over the loss of your child yet?" or "Have you gotten closure yet?"  This is sometimes a not-so-subtle implication that we should be "back to normal" by now.  The truth is that we will never be "back to normal."  What we knew as normal is gone forever.  We will get better, but we will never be the same people we were before we went through the loss of our child.

10.  Nothing.  Some people are what I call "avoiders."  I know them well, because I used to be one.  They are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all, and will go to extreme measures to keep from even being in the same room with us.

So what should you say to a grieving parent?  The list is short.  "I'm praying for you."  "I love you."  If you really have no idea what to say, just say, "I don't know what to say."  That's right ... honesty is always good.

And those of us who are bereaved parents would do well to remember Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 ... "Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you.  For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others."

Two take-aways from that verse ... "Do not take to heart everything people say" and "your own heart has known that even you have cursed others."   We can't take everything people say to heart ... they are people, after all!  And how many times have we ourselves been "miserable comforters" before we received our unfortunate education?

When people inadvertently say things that add to our pain, we can choose to be touchy and hypersensitive, forcing them to leap impossibly high hurdles as they tiptoe around us ... or we can choose to extend grace to these generally sincere folks who really just want to help us.  Which of these choices is most conducive to our healing?  Which choice honors our child, and more importantly, our Lord?

Extending grace frees us from the twin burdens of resentment and bitterness.  Bad as they may be, anyone's offenses against me are far less than my offenses against God.  "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."  Colossians 3:13


Missi said...

I never know what to say to anyone that has lost a loved one. I usually just say, "I'm so sorry" while giving them a big hug.

Thank you so much for this post. For sure I know what NOT to say now.

Jill Sullivan said...

A big hug and an "I'm so sorry" is just right! It shows that you love them and are sensitive to their loss. :)

Robin DiLeo said...

Dearest Jill, first of all, i'm truly sorry for your loss. As a bereaved parent myself, I still find myself at a loss for words when I meet other grieving parents. There really are none. Sometimes, I find it harder to comfort other parents because I do understand that none of my words or actions will take their pain away. I continue to try to be a good comforter because even if I can help them have a small amount of happiness in a moment I have succeeded. I wanted to say, that of all the bereaved parents' "lists," yours is probably the best. Giving that grace is oh so difficult. I teach a grief Bible study for other grieving parents and this week we're going to try to switch gears from our grief and create our own list. However, I want to create a positive list of things people have said and done for us. I want this group, myself included, to really focus on these positives in hopes that it will make it easier for us to extend this grace to those "clumsy comforters." Thank you so much for your words here as I'm sure they will affect others in a positive as way ad they have for me. God Bless!

Jill Sullivan said...

Thank you for your kind words, Robin. Like you, I still find myself at a loss sometimes in what to say to other parents who have lost children. I think the exercise you have planned for your grief group is a great idea. Listing the positive things that people have said not only takes our focus off the negative, but helps us know what to say to others. We may have to try that in our While We're Waiting support group as well! Feel free to share with your grief group about the While We're Waiting ministry. You can find our website at We'd love to have you or some of your folks attend one of our retreats sometime!

Lisa said...

Thank you for this list.
Although I have lived with grief since the loss of my then 39 yr old husband (father to 3 small children), I can honestly say I have no idea what it feels like to lose a child and grieve that loss.

I would rather people just say, " so sorry for your loss"
Jill, I am sorry for your loss and pray that God comforts your heart.

Jill Sullivan said...

Lisa ... So sorry to hear about the loss of your young husband. Thank you for your prayers for me and my family ... I will lift you up in prayer as well as you raise your children. Praying that God will mend your broken heart and give you wisdom as a Mom.