How not to talk to Kate if Joshua died

  • Written September 27, 2012 12:35am by Kate Parker

I am writing this with some trepidation.  I don’t want to offend people, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is a post I am supposed to write.  Hopefully, prayerfully, I will be able to express my heart in a way that others “get” what it is I am trying to say and won’t misunderstand.

I have read many blogs and caringbridge pages of mothers who have lost a child. The cause of the children’s deaths have been varied – cancer, mitochondrial disease, accidents or other diseases/conditions – but one thing that each journal has in common is a post, typically written about 2 to 5 months after the child has died, expressing anger and frustration and raw pain over the insensitive, albeit well-intentioned, things people have been saying to them.  It stunned me to realize how universal this is — people not knowing what to say to a grieving mother or wanting to say something to fix her sadness, so they say all the wrong things.  To be honest, it really scared me.  I know that probably sounds strange, so let me try to explain.

Imagine that you are going to be forced to join a club that you have absolutely no desire to be a part of.  It is a club made up of members who hurt every single day with an open wound created when their child died.   Imagine knowing that even though time will go by, the pain you feel will never go away and the wound will never really heal because you can never “get over” the loss of your child, even though you can (and will) learn to function again.  THEN imagine that while your wound is fresh and raw,  friends and strangers will come up and poke it, thinking that they are being helpful.  Over and over, they will hurt you and you will be expected to thank them for caring or to respond graciously or to smile and understand that they mean well even though your wound is now throbbing, thanks to their unintentional insensitivity.

Does that sound like something you would look forward to experiencing? No way!  I know it is coming, though, and there is nothing I can do to escape having to join the club no one wants to be a member of.  But MAYBE there is something I can do to preempt some of the pain that comes from insensitive (no matter how well-intentioned) comments.  I am writing about this topic before Joshua dies with the hope that what I say won’t be disregarded as a grieving mother’s ranting.  I don’t want anyone thinking I am speaking about them specifically (I promise, I’m not).  I am hoping that writing this journal entry will help not only me (by making people more aware of what they say to me after Joshua dies), but also other grieving parents.  Maybe writing this will open people’s eyes and then they will pass on what they’ve learned to other people, who will then respond more appropriately to the next grieving mother or father they meet. Education has to start somewhere, right?

I understand that most people don’t know what to say to a parent whose child has died. I had no idea for a long time, either, and I’ve said insensitive things & tossed out my share of well-meaning platitudes, as well.  I read on another grieving woman’s blog (she’d lost her husband) something that really resonated with me as truth: “I have to remind myself that they are not trying to hurt me. They are not trying to make my life miserable or minimize my feelings. It’s quite the opposite, I think. They are trying to help! Really! Unless a person was mean and nasty and callous before your loss, in which case nothing they have to say should matter, anyway, a friend or family member or coworker doesn’t suddenly become mean and nasty and callous overnight. There’s some selfishness, of course, a sort of “I don’t want to see you in pain so stop it already, you’re making me feel bad.” There’s clumsiness and awkwardness. Many of them are dealing with their own pain over your recent loss. There are no words to help a grieving person magically feel better, but we are wired as social creatures to find words for all situations.”  I think that is the crux of the matter. People want to fix a situation, especially one where pain is involved, so they try to find words that will help.  What I’ve learned is, you can’t fix it.  There is nothing you can say that will make it all better, nothing you can do that will make things go back to the way they were, so don’t try. As such, any comment beginning with the words “at least” is the WRONG thing to say.

At least he isn’t hurting anymore.

At least you have other children.

At least you have some wonderful memories.

At least you had him for X many years… longer than anyone expected.

At least he’ll never have to go through anything bad on earth again.

At least he died peacefully.

At least you got your chance to say goodbye.

Don’t say things like that.  It is okay to say you are glad a child is no longer in pain, but temper it with an addendum like “but I wish he didn’t have to die for that to happen.” And as for the whole “be glad you have other kids,” type of comment, what the heck?!?!  Like other kids are a backup for the child who died?  Like having other children somehow eases the pain of losing one?  No.  Just…no.  Don’t say it.  To any parent.  It is an awful thing to say.  Do you realize that having other children means not only does a parent have to manage their own grief, they have to help their other child/ren learn how to manage theirs!  That doesn’t make the pain less… it adds another dimension of pain as the parents watch their other kids hurt and are helpless to fix it.  I understand the comment is made because people think that when a parent who loses a child has other kids, they still have something to live for and it is believed that will help pull them out of their grief.  The truth is, it doesn’t.  It just means there are more people hurting from the death of the child/brother/sister.

Another horrible, no-good, don’t EVER say it to any parent comment is, “S/he is in a better place.” I know what you are thinking — as a Christ-believing person, surely I agree that heaven is a better place for everyone!  It is perfect and there is no suffering and no evil and ohmygosh, why would it NOT bring a mother or father comfort to be reminded that her precious child is in Paradise?  The simple answer is this:  while it is true that heaven is a better place than earth, no one wants to live without their child.  It could be argued that Hawaii is a better PLACE to live than Oregon, but I wouldn’t want to send my kids to go live there without me.  Heaven is a place, a location, and as parents, we don’t happily send our kids to locations without us on a permanent basis, so while heaven may technically be a better place, would you be happy to send your child there today and live the rest of your life without ever seeing them again?  If not, ask yourself why… after all, it is a better place, right?  Another aspect of the “he’s in a better place” comment that is upsetting is that it leaves parents asking, “What was wrong with him being here with us?” Telling someone that their kid is in a better place implies that where they were living prior to death was not good enough.  Who among us, as parents, wants to be told that we weren’t good enough for our child?  Again, I realize the comment is not said with that intention, but I am telling you that that is exactly how it is received by a grieving parent.  So just don’t say it if you are trying to be comforting (or don’t want your head ripped off).

Other comments to avoid:

“I know how you feel.”  Unless you have also lost a child, then no, you don’t.  You know how you think you’d feel and that is not the same. Grief is the most personal and individual experience any of us go through. It is different for every person because we all have a unique relationship with the person who died; therefore, no one else can ever know how you feel about losing that person.

“When my mom/dad/grandparent/dog died…”  Don’t try to compare the loss of a parent, grandparent or, worst of all, a pet, with the loss of someone’s child.  It isn’t the same and there is no comparison.  Especially in the immediate aftermath of a child’s death, don’t go on about your experience when talking to the newly-grieving parents. Yes, you understand what they are going through, but they don’t want to hear about your child right now. Not that your child isn’t important or your experience would not be valuable for them to hear, but when their child has just died, what they want is comfort for THEIR loss, not to comfort you in yours.

“Everything happens for a reason.”  This is true, but there is a time for everything, as well, and just because something is true does not mean it is comforting.  The Bible says to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), not toss out platitudes or pithy sayings.

“S/he is an angel now!”

“God needed another angel.”

“Now you have your own angel to watch over you!”

“S/he will be your guardian angel now.”

I realize this one may be really sensitive for a lot of people because many people refer to their children who have died as angels, but from what I have read, the vast majority of parents who have lost children do not feel comforted by having someone tell them any of the above-listed statements.  Parents don’t want guardian angels; they want their flesh-and-blood child in their arms.  Also, some parents don’t believe that children get transformed into angels when they die and therefore any comment alluding to their child being an angel after death is upsetting on multiple levels. Unless you know for certain how a parent feels about this sensitive subject, it’s best to avoid “angel” comments altogether.

Personally, my family does not believe that human beings become angels in heaven.  The Bible is clear on this subject.  God created the angels & heavenly Host and He created humans.  We are different creatures and Joshua has as much chance of becoming an angel when he dies as Molly, our cat, has of becoming a dog.  When we humans die, we get glorified bodies ~ perfect, unmarred, healthy-in-every-way bodies ~ but we don’t become angels.  I will request right now that you please refrain from telling me that Joshua “earned his wings” when he dies or that he’s now an angel (guardian or otherwise).  I know how comments like that make me feel now and Joshua hasn’t died yet.  I don’t know if I will respond graciously at all if someone tells me that he earned his wings or is now an angel after he has gone to be with Jesus.

A few other comments to NOT say to grieving parents include the following:

“It’s time to move on.” Or “You need to get over this.”  How can you ever get over something that fundamentally changes who you are and the path of your life?  It’s not for others to determine how much time a person is allotted to grieve.  Don’t distance yourself from them in the meantime.  Try to not judge them if you think they’re being sad for too long.  It is only by God’s grace that you are not walking the same road and even if you were, everyone should be allowed to process their pain & loss at their own pace.

“Your other kids need you.”  A grieving parent is aware of that.  This comment isn’t going to encourage them to “feel better” and function better.  It’s going to dump guilt on top of their pain.  Don’t do that to someone who is already hurting. They don’t need or deserve it.

“Are you over it now?” or “Are you okay now?”  The death of a child is not something a parent “gets over,” so do not ever ask if they are over it.  They will never be “okay” in the same way they were before their child died, so don’t expect them to be.  Extend grace and understand that losing their child changed them and they will eventually find their new normal, but it won’t necessarily look the same as it did before their child died.  Be a friend who is okay with that.  Accept them the way they are now and don’t compare them to the way they used to be.

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.” or “He would want you to be happy.”  Two more statements that are, at their core, incredibly selfish.  The speaker of such a comment is uncomfortable by the parent’s sadness; as such, the speaker wants the parent to stop being sad, so they try to make the parent cheer up (as though they are deliberately choosing to be unhappy).  It doesn’t work.  It DOES upset the parent to hear such a comment, though.

Saying these kinds of comments can have the same EMOTIONAL effect on a grieving parent as if you had coldly told them to “snap out of it” or “get over it already”.  In an emotionally-charged situation such as the death of a child, even words that seem harmless to you might really hurt the parents. So how do you avoid that pitfall? Honestly, I think that if you speak from your heart, a parent will generally recognize the sincerity you are trying to convey and then, even if the words aren’t perfect, they’ll understand what your intention was and that makes it easier to overlook any “imperfection” in the comment. Please do not avoid mentioning the death of a child out of fear of saying the wrong thing.  I understand you don’t want to hurt the parents, but it won’t hurt them to hear their child’s name on your lips.  It WILL hurt them to have a friend ignore their loss as though it never happened, though.

Possibly the biggest well-intentioned-but-totally-not-helpful comment is “Call me if you need anything!”  I realize that this one is said with the utmost sincerity, but I want everyone to take a minute to really THINK about the situation where this comment is made so they will understand why it is not a helpful thing to say to a grieving parent.  Okay, picture this: your child has died.  There are people to call, funeral plans to make, a funeral to get through, other children to take care of, and life will continue on (even though it feels like it has stopped for the grieving family) ~ meaning, bills still need to be paid, groceries still need to be bought, kids still need to be fed multiple times each day, laundry still needs to be done, etc.  It is hugely overwhelming to a family that has just suffered the death of a loved one.  Then people start saying, “Call me if you need anything!”  Really?  What are you offering?  Do you really mean ANYTHING or are there limits to what you can actually do to help?  By and large, grieving parents don’t take people up on their vague offer.  When you feel overwhelmed, the idea of calling someone for help can be exhausting, especially when you don’t know if the person actually meant what they said or if you’re afraid of putting someone “on the spot” by calling them with a specific request that they may not want or be able to fulfill.  Not knowing the boundaries of what is offered can lead to people feeling awkward, which is something human beings tend to try to avoid.  As such, making the “call if you need anything,” offer isn’t really very helpful.

Instead of tossing out a general offer for help and relying on the grieving parents to call you, make concrete, specific offers and be willing to reach out rather than waiting for a phone call. Some examples:

“Can I come over on Thursday to help with laundry?”

“We’d like to buy your family dinner on Tuesday.  Would you like Chinese food, pizza or Subway sandwiches?”

“I will call tomorrow to check in on you.  If you don’t feel like talking, let your machine take my message.  It’s okay if you don’t want to talk.”

“Would you like me to take your kids to the park/out for ice cream/to a movie?  I could take them out on Monday after school.”

“Can I come by on Wednesday afternoon around 2?  If you have anything that needs to be done around the house, like dishes or laundry or vacuuming, I’d like to help.”

“I am going grocery shopping on Saturday.  If you give me a list, I will shop for your family, too.”

Offer what service you are willing to do and then take the initiative to follow up with your friend.  THAT is helpful and it takes the burden of remembering which friend is willing to do what out of the grief-stricken person’s hands.

Proverbs 25:20 says “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”  Words that minimize a person’s pain are hurtful, especially to the heart of a grieving parent.  Instead, come alongside a grieving parent (literally or figuratively)… offer a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and your time. Be willing to hurt with them, to be silent if needed, to fight against the urge to throw out words just to fill the void, to cry with them or to be okay with hearing them cry.  Let the parent be silent if they need to. Let the parent talk if they want to.  Listen and respond in a way that validates their feelings.  Find tangible ways to help them in the months that follow the death of their child.  Share your memories of their child. Talk about their child ~ as Elizabeth Edwards said, “If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.”

The best thing you can do is recognize the loss (“I’m sorry,” “My heart is broken with yours,” “I will miss __(name of child)___ so much!”).  If you don’t know what to say, be honest and say that!  It’s okay to tell a grieving parent something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care and I hurt with you.” Speaking honestly from your heart in a way that affirms the loss and recognizes the family’s pain is a good approach since it is unlikely that you use platitudes as a regular part of your daily speech, so you’re less likely to resort to such comments that will come across as insensitive.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I fully recognize that most people do not intend to hurt a grieving parent with their comments.  I know that it’s important for the grieving parent to not be oversensitive to things said to them and to not hold a grudge against people just because they didn’t say the perfect thing.  I know that the most important thing is recognizing that when people reach out after a death, they are doing so because they care.  And at the end of the day, I would rather have someone say something “stupid” to me than not say anything at all.

After all of the research I did on this topic in preparation of writing this today, I came here to Joshua’s CB page & read the guestbook comments and was filled with gratitude that God has surrounded me with so many people who inherently seem to know the right things to say when I share the ache in my heart.  As such, this journal entry may seem pointless to a lot of you who think, “Well, duh!  This goes without saying!”  Unfortunately, though it should be common knowledge (after all, millions of children die every year & leave grieving parents behind), it isn’t.  If you google “stupid things people say after the death of a child,” you’ll see what I mean.  I believe it is valuable to help people realize how their words can impact a family that has suffered a loss AND to help educate people about appropriate “etiquette” in the aftermath of a death.  Maybe it will result in fewer parents being unintentionally hurt by the people who care about them and in grieving families getting more of the support that they need in ways that are truly helpful, which would be a win-win situation all around.

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2 thoughts on “How not to talk to Kate if Joshua died

  1. I always wanted to suggest that Kate add multiple choice options at the end of her posts to prevent her kind readers from mistakenly stepping on her land mine topics (unapproved nicknames, angels, questions, suggestions, etc) and falling victim to the inevitable spanking relay of Kate, Megan and Adam. With this option, people could choose from a few approved options and hold their heads up proudly knowing they had supported Kate in exactly the way she needed and God wouldn’t be so confused about how to process prayers for Josh Parker in Grants Pass, OR when there was only a Joshua. 😉

  2. Sounds like a warning from Kate here…I can also see her point in regards to not wanting Joshua to get sick, but this should have been a private matter between her and her children, and not broadcast to the whole world…just my opinion.

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