I picked this article from a list because I thought that I knew something about it.
I was wrong.
In preparing to write, I asked any of my friends who bear this burden to answer four questions about going through the death of a child.
- What was something that others did or said that you found helpful after the loss of your child or grandchild?
2. What was something that others did or said that you found unhelpful after the loss of your child?
3. How long has it been since your child passed away?
4. What do you still need to help you cope with the loss of your child?
The response has been intense. Eighteen grieving parents – church members, friends, and friends of friends have used Facebook, phone, email, and personal visits to tell me their stories.
One mother who wrote had lost her child only five days before. Another who came to see me had bottled up her feelings for fifty years, refusing to let her grief become a burden to others. All who responded had a story that they wanted to share. Here are ten consensus insights drawn from their journeys through loss:
- When your child dies, you are changed for as long as you live.
Part of you dies, and some of who you once were never returns.
The time of “moving forward” (most parents don’t like to say “moving on”) comes at different times for different people. Five years was the most common answer among parents whom I have asked. Forward movement can come in stages, but your life will never be the same, no matter how old your child was or the circumstances of his death.
Tom reports that he reached the point of moving forward long before his wife Ruth did. His attempts to “fix” her instead of letting her grief take its own course caused stress in their marriage.
Lauren also mentioned that grandparents are sometimes the last to heal. Don’t forget them when you minister to their children.
- Being there is most important.
Tom wrote, “I found that people that weep with me when I weep and laugh when I laugh were of the most helpful during my time of grief. There were no words that could take away the grief. A hug and a cry were the best things. The cards that meant the most were from others who had been there.”
A smile, a tear, a hug, or a simple meeting of the eyes is better than even the most helpful words. Those who have lost a child long remember those who came, and especially those who stayed to help.
Taking the other kids for the day, bringing a meal, or doing something as simple as cleaning or mowing lessens the burden of loss.
- Listening is the most important communication in time of grief.
Each parent’s pain is unique. The minute you abstract his pain: “Grieving parents usually…” you have lost the opportunity to help.
Take your cues from what each parent tells you, and not from what you think they will tell you. The greatest – and rarest – gift is to be heard.
You have feelings too when a child dies, and it can be helpful to share them – but only if you know that the parents are already there themselves. Trying to lead a parent through hurt will fail. Walk beside them through the path that grief chooses for them, listening every step of the way.
Even Scripture can fall on deaf ears in the hot pain of immediate loss. Avoid anything that forces explanation or acceptance. The time will come, and listening will tell you when that time is.
- Sympathy helps; opinions do not.
Almost any words of sympathy and shared sorrow will help, whether in person or in writing, and especially when backed up with the desire to help.
Opinions are not help. Offering an explanation, or even a true assurance like “at least she is in a better place” runs ahead of the grieving parent and asks them to take a step they are not yet ready to take. For a newly grieving parent, the only better place is in their arms or asleep in their room.
As I heard person after person write or say this, I thought with shame about all of the “fixing” I have tried to do in the aftermath of terrible loss. I’m a man; and that’s what we do, right? Furthermore, I’m a preacher, and we are fountains of truth and the explainers of the mysteries of life!
Annalisa wrote me only 5 days after Casey died, soon after he was born. She pinpointed one helpful truth in a unique way. No situation is “typical.”
[People will say something like] “I know someone who has gone through this before.” Each person that has lost a child has a unique story and/or circumstance…don’t generalize our loss with others. [Don’t say something like] “At least you got to _____________ (hold him, sing to him, see him…)” Let us share what we are thankful for rather than deciding for us.
I have resolved, on the basis of these interviews, to speak only to the questions that the family asks. Other words may be helpful later, but not until they are asking the questions that your wise words will answer.
- A grieving parent needs to be where they are in their grief, without judgment.
It was 51 years ago, and Ann had just learned that her five-year-old son Randy had leukemia. When I first took him to the hospital, a woman saw me crying in front of him and took me aside. “Don’t let him see you cry, it upsets him.”
As a young mother, she took that advice to heart, and has cried only rarely since. We are the first to hear her story of suppressed grief, but hers is not the only one.
Nancy lost her grown son Randy eighteen years ago. She writes, “The only thing that hurt me was 2 Thanksgivings later, and I just wasn’t ready to be at a family gathering yet. A cousin asked ‘Isn’t she over that yet?’”
“My husband and I experienced the same loss but grieved in different ways. What worked for me didn’t work for him. Have grace. Cut us some slack. We had to cut way back on the work we did with the church. Some days it was all we could do to make our feet cross that threshold. (This is often true for Christians who held the funeral of their loved one at the church building in which they also worship, I’m told.) Please don’t judge us for not being able to carry on with our previous amount of vigor. We are probably doing well to even show up.”
Several have told me that they learned to say “I’m ok, thanks” even though their heart screamed “How can you ask if I’m okay? I’ve lost my baby, and I will never be okay again.” Others may know what we mean when we ask that – we want to know if they are safe to drive home, or if they have enough food, or something like that. But “okay” is not a word that a grieving parent will use of themselves. Let’s strike it from our vocabulary of grief.
- Thoughtlessness may not be a sin, but it is certainly no help.
Sandy lost Tasha in August. As the holidays approached, more than one person thoughtlessly shared their joyful plans with friends and family for holiday meals and other family events. To one she responded “I just want to hold her one more time,” to which she received the (genuinely) cheery reply “You’ll get to hug her in heaven!”
After three years, Sandy and her family still wish that Thanksgiving and Christmas could be wiped off of the calendar. I think that for many families who lost older or adult children, facing the empty chair at a holiday table is the hardest time of all.
After Pat’s only son died, a woman of her acquaintance continually spoke about her grandchildren and her great-grandchild. Pat writes “after Travis died I knew I would never have grandchildren.”
Jo says what hurt her most was one family member who said “Now you know how I feel”. That person had lost a child a few years earlier. Jo writes “In the long run I did understand how she felt but I didn’t need that statement at that time.”
There are plenty of times to rejoice with those who rejoice. It is not too much to ask for the people of God to dim their rejoicing just a bit for the sake of those who cannot stop weeping.
- Grief can challenge your relationship with God
Melodye recalls how important it was for people to let her be angry with God. This was a breach for her; she had to have permission to confront her anger with Him before she could find reconciliation.
Sandy, Ann and Nancy all told me that after many years they still wonder if their child died because of something they had done. This traces back to the same profoundly thoughtless words spoken in an attempt to comfort:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This is a despised platitude for parents who have lost a child. The grieving parent will almost inevitably wonder “Was I the reason?”
David wrote in Psalm 22:1:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”
If the inspired Psalmist could write this, and if the Lord could repeat it on the cross, then a grieving mother can tell God that He should not have let her baby die.
- Loss can be just as intense with a miscarriage or a stillbirth.
This is especially true for the mother, whose physical connection to her child strengthens the bonds much sooner. Mothers who lose their children, whether in utero or at childbirth, tend to go through similar kinds of grief.
I’m going to let Melodye tell you about this:
Our story is a very common story of miscarriage. I think miscarriage is often overlooked because it is so common. For me, it was the single most painful time in my life (and there have been many dark moments along the way)…. I’ll never know his face or the way his eyes light up or hear the sound of his laugh.. Even after our son was born, I would rock him and sob for that baby we lost.
Being comfortable with where I was emotionally was the single most important thing my friends gave me in the aftermath of losing our Macy. Sitting with me while I cried, whether they cried with me or not, was so very important.
Matt mentions that after his daughter Macy was stillborn, the world seemed more prepared to help Lauren than him. He writes:
“[I needed] permission to cry – but it seldom came. This is not because men don’t care…. Instead, I think it’s because the “two-weeks-and-move-along” code of silence under which women suffer is even more stringent when it comes to men. Man up and get over it, ideally before the funeral starts.”
The church was different, he writes, but the societal expectation of the silent man in the face of grief was powerfully inhibiting.
Stacy experienced a barrage of comments that people would never have made had they understood:
“No matter what stage you lose a child, in utero or after birth, the statements that hurt the worst are: it was meant to be, there must have been something wrong with it, at least you can still have other children, or the worst one… some people just aren’t meant to be parents.”
Theresa notes that because she said hello and goodbye to Jacob on the same day, some assumed that this wouldn’t be as big of a deal for her as for others who lost children whom they “knew.” But when someone suggested that she should be OK because she could have other children, etc., she felt this:
“…those were the most hurtful comments. They all make you feel like your child whom you loved, and held on your arms shouldn’t have existed. Also, now that we have two wonderful daughters, don’t think that they fill his void.”
Again, the unintentional hurts were almost all delivered by people who were trying to give explanations or shorten the pain of loss.
One of the most helpful things reported by parents of miscarried or stillborn chidren comes from Melodye’s OB-GYN:
“She told us that life begins at conception and so when you find out you’re pregnant, you’re already a mommy & a daddy. That gave permission for us to feel the depth of our pain and loss.”
Bonnie, after 23 years, still recalls the pain of insensitive words from other Christian women: “It’s ok, you can have another one.” She responds, “This was my child. I didn’t spill grape juice on my favorite rug, I lost my child.”
Parents who lose their children in utero can never forget them or cancel the grief of their loss.
As Theresa wrote, “No foot is too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”
- Ministers, take your cues for the funeral from what the family tells you.
A funeral for a child whose parents are still living – even if the child is grown – must take account of the fragile, flowing state of fresh, hot grief in the hearts of her parents.
A family interview, filled with questions and listening, allowing each parent to tell you where they are in their journey, is essential. Careful listening will prepare you to voice their pain, their longing, and their gratitude at that moment before the Lord.
When you must speak a word from the Lord that you know some are not ready to hear, acknowledge that. It is your job to speak for God from his word, but sometimes you must soften the confident declarations of Scripture so as not to force a grieving parent farther down the path of grief than he is ready to go.
Remember the words of Jeremiah 31:15 (ESV):
Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
We must recognize that a child’s funeral is usually far too soon for any words to be of much help, even if they are God’s words. Giving voice (when possible) to the child’s words and to the thoughts and feelings of the parents will be the most helpful thing you can do.
- The memories of others become an enduring blessing.
Cindy wrote, “When people tell stories about Sarah, it means she still matters. That she is still with us.”
Lauren offered, “The thing I need most of all is to talk about her. This makes lots of people very uncomfortable. Macy is my daughter, and I talk about my kids. Talking about her, remembering her, saying her name, makes her real, keeps her alive in my memory
Charlotte mentioned how much comfort that she and Farrell received from their son’s friends. He was in his early 20’s, and his friends held a ceremony to plant a tree in his memory. They still hear from his friends on birthdays and other occasions. This has been the greatest comfort over the 30 years since.
Sharon and Martin lost Grant David when he was three. She says “he will always be a baby to us. We always include Grant in the listing of family. Don’t not talk about him or be scared to mention his name. Remember, I am the mother of 4 boys. If I need to talk, share a memory, cry, laugh, or just be still during a melancholy moment…sit with me.
Ministers, collect your stories and the stories of others about the child. Put them in writing. Don’t be afraid to say that you miss her, and why. The tears that well when a bereaved parent (or sibling, or grandparent) hear that others remember are signs of gratitude that their child is not forgotten.
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
– Old Irish Proverb
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I plan to follow up on this work with a service for the parents of children who have died, and for those who want to know how better to bless them. Many who have helped me by sharing their experiences have asked for that.
Right now I have “penciled in” the morning of December 17. As a parent who has never been faced with such a soul-crushing loss, I ask your prayers to follow the counsel of those who walk this difficult path.