10 Things Not to Say to a Grieving Parent

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When my 1-month-old daughter Eloise passed away unexpectedly last September, the comments and questions started rolling in. Everyone means well, hoping to say something that will bring some level of comfort and peace. But not all comments bring the comfort intended.

I’ve heard all of these statements at some point in the past six months. Some might make you cringe, and some of these statements you may have said before (and that’s OK). The point is not to make you feel bad or shame you for things you’ve said in the past, but perhaps help you better navigate interacting with a grieving parent in the future.

I'm not a grief expert by any means, but here are some phrases/questions said to me and my husband that have stung:

1. "At least she’s in heaven."

There is no at least in losing your child. There is no bright side. I’ve heard variations of this comment several times:

  • "It must feel bittersweet…"
  • "At least she’s with Jesus..."
  • "At least she’s in a better place..."

Am I grateful that Eloise lives in heaven and is rejoicing in her Savior? Definitely. Am I grateful that someday I will be reunited with my daughter in heaven and spend eternity together? Absolutely. But this hope I have doesn’t lessen the sting of losing her much too soon. I’m always going to wish she could be in my arms.

2. "At least you still have each other."

I agree. I am blessed to have my husband in my life during this time, and I think he’d say the same about me. Having someone to grieve with who completely understands and identifies with what I’m feeling is a comfort. I know this journey of grief would feel unwalkable without him. But we still lost the biggest love of our lives. We loved being a family of three, and we both hate that we’re back to a family of just two. We’re incomplete, broken.

3. "God has a plan."

We will always wish Eloise’s journey included living a long and happy life on earth with us. I don’t like this turn of events, and I’d like to request a different plan (pretty please?). I know God doesn't necessarily cause evil to happen, and that he is always working for our good and his glory through our tragic experiences. I pray that someday we’ll be able to see the hand of God working in our lives during this time. But I’ll be wrestling with God on this giant “why” question for a long time.

4. "You’re still young. You can have more kids."

We do plan on having more kids, and that’s something to look forward to. I know that future children will bring us joy, but I will always look at my family knowing it’s not complete on this earth. The hole she left can never be filled. Future babies we have aren’t replacement babies. Keep in mind, also, that the statement “you can have more children” is not true for everyone.

5. "God doesn’t give you more than you can handle."

Does this statement really bring comfort? When it was said to me, it made me question how well I was coping with losing my child. Should I be handling this better? Why do I break down so often? Losing my daughter is way more than I can handle, but I know God doesn't deserve my blame for her death. God stands beside us, even through our darkest moments. And thankfully, he is a God of grace, and his new mercies every day ensure that I can continue walking through life.

6. "I know how you feel."

I hear this comment often, usually followed by a lengthy story of their loss ("I had a miscarriage..." or "My friend died last year...") Instead of sharing stories of your losses, make the moment about the grieving parent in front of you, not yourself. It can be hurtful when someone tries to compare their loss to yours. It can feel like they’re trying to change the conversation or take the focus off your loss.

It’s also important to note that losing a child is a unique experience. It’s different than losing a friend, a grandparent, a parent, etc. Not that those losses are any less significant—they’re just different. Unless you’ve also lost a child, it’s impossible to fully identify with a parent who has lost a child.

7. "You’ll be a much stronger, more compassionate person because of your loss."

I certainly have more compassion for others, especially those who are grieving. I’ve also developed a great deal of strength out of necessity. But I also lost a big part of myself. I’m more anxious, less carefree, less optimistic, and more emotional. I don’t always love the person I’ve become since losing my daughter.

8. "At least it happened early on."

Losing your child is devastating no matter how old they are.

9. "What can I do for you?"

Too general. Try instead: “Can I bring you dinner Tuesday night?” or “I’m planning to mow your lawn this weekend.” The more specific, the better. Especially in the first couple months after my daughter’s death, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even know what kind of help to ask for. It’s best to make a specific offer, and keep making those offers well into the future too. The meals and favors tend to stop after the first couple months, but grieving parents could use favors long after that.

10. *Nothing at all*

Don’t avoid a grieving parent just because you don’t know what to say. I’ve had people physically change directions just to avoid me. I would much rather you risk saying the wrong thing than completely avoid me. Even a simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way and lets me know that you care and are acknowledging my daughter's death.

Take heart! There are some things you can say to a grieving parent. Here are a few suggestions:

  • I’m so sorry.
  • I’m praying for you.
  • No parent should have to go through this.
  • My favorite memory of your son/daughter is when…
  • I’d love to hear about your son/daughter.
  • I think about you and your son/daughter often.
  • Your son/daughter will be missed.
  • I’m sure you miss him/her so much.

When in doubt, just listen, be present, express your sympathy, and know you’re not going to have the magic words to make a grieving parent feel better. Your efforts to interact with us and walk beside us are appreciated and noticed. We’ll do our best to give you plenty of grace, and we hope you give us grace, too, as we plod through the rocky and unpredictable lifelong road of grief.

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Let's Discuss…

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Community Builder

Thank you for writing this, Angie. 

What a helpful and thoughtful article, Angie.  I hope this helps everyone who is experiencing heartache and who wonders how best to minister meaningfully to those experiencing heartache.  

Admin

Powerful, helpful and honest. Thank you for sharing! 

Thank you for sharing a deeply felt issue.  May God continue to give you help in your sorrow.  Even though it diminishes over the years, it will never go away!  My wife and I lost our son 40 years ago and I still weep when I read articles and stories dealing with the loss of a son or daughter.  I weep for you but I glory in the hope that Jesus has made it possible for all of us and our children to be together for all eternity!  What a Savior!

 

Admin

So true! Grief is a lifelong journey, but I'm so thankful for the hope we have in Jesus...wouldn't be able to get through the day without it, that's for sure!

Admin

Thanks for sharing this, Angie. Such wise and practical advice.

Angie...........just some words from a friend in Illinois. I was ony 1 year old when my 10 year old brother fell from a tree and died a week later. I was only 2, when my 4 day-old brother died because of a mistake that a visiting-nurse made on him. We lost a son who died from esophageal cancer at the age of 35. My daughter-in-law, wrote a very similar article that you just wrote. You are so on the same page ! Because of my young age at the time of my 2 brothers death, I did not realize the impact my parents  had going though this experience of losing 2 sons at an early age, and one son at the age of 40. My mother told me that they were blessed with a very good pastor at the time who knew how to associate sorrow at the time these events happened. He turned out to be my parents best friend ! May God give you His PEACE !             Dean Koldenhoven

Community Builder

Thank you for sharing.  I am so sorry for your loss.  I see that you miss your daughter very much, and I pray God will comfort you and guard your heart in Christ Jesus with His daily, hourly, moment by moment peace.

Community Builder

 In French, we have this proverb or saying that goes,"L'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions," that could probably be translated as, "Hell is paved [over] with good intentions."  People may mean well, but some comments still hurt when you're on the receiving end.

Community Builder

Thank you for sharing your experience in this way, Angie.

You said this so well, Angie! I am so sorry about the loss of your precious baby. No, nothing can ever replace any child you lose. We understand from our own losses - losing a 6-month pregnancy of twins who didn't separate, almost losing a 16-y.o. son, and then losing a 25-y.o. daughter. Your words speak eloquently to each of us. We, too, continue to grieve after all these yrs, but in a different way now than the immediate pain of loss. God bless you and your family as you travel this journey forward together on a path you never expected. With much love and hugs...

Admin

Thanks, Linda! And thank you for sharing your story, too. You're so right in that grief changes as time goes on. I've noticed that throughout the past six months. The rawness and shock of the first couple months has given way to a different kind of grief. Still overwhelming and crushing, but there certainly has been healing too. Blessings to your family!

Thank you, Angie. One other thought that came to mind this morning was when our daughter was dying, I had asked God, "Why? I don't understand." Not out of anger, but simply at a loss, at a place you've been I'm sure. Later that morning, as we waited in the Rochester NY airport for our other dau to fly in, a plaque above where we sat had the words to Ps.139:13-16 written out. I literally felt a wave of peace come over me as I read them and clung to those verses in my own days of grief, tears and turmoil, with an eventual peace I can only say is from our Lord. My heart goes out to you and your family. It's a long journey, and just know that you will be in my prayers. Blessings to you also!

Community Builder

Angelyn,

Thank you so much for sharing your story and the wisdom you gained from your ongoing experience.  I’m so sorry for your loss.  These are really good thoughts and things to think about for those with good intentions to consider beforehand. It was a gracious reminder of the need for the body of Christ to “weep with those who weep.” Rom 12:15 Because trials will continue until Christ’s return, its helpful to learn how the church can properly come alongside the grieving. Our church recently had a group full of people grieving for a variety of different reasons who went through a study called “GriefShare” (I think its called). While it was primarily geared for people who were currently in the midst of grieving, it would be awesome for everyone to learn how to better provide comfort for the afflicted… to point toward the gospel.  

I can certainly identify with many of the comments you mentioned, but I fall in the category of NOT “knowing how you feel” exactly. Not that it is required in order to come alongside of someone, but I think those in my situation of not having gone through difficult loss are more in need of good advice to help those who grieve. So thank you for providing some good insight.

While I greatly appreciate the majority of what you said, I wonder if you’ll allow the freedom to question a couple of things. I almost feel that this is inappropriate… and if you find it to be so, then please feel free to delete my comments. I mean everything I’m about to say with “gentleness and respect.”  What I would want to challenge is not so much what should or should not be said to someone, but rather what should or should not be believed about God and his sovereignty.

These may not be things that are initially discussed immediately following a tragedy like the one you experienced, (for that is the time to care for, provide comfort, come alongside and weep with, etc.) but these should be things that will provide long-term comfort, hope and confidence in God’s goodness. So while initially comfort it needed, after some time, for some, there may be need for godly confrontation and challenge concerning the false beliefs some have. You see, big questions arise concerning God’s nature and character whenever people experience tragedy. The problem of evil (whether natural in the case of disaster or disease, or in moral evil) raises questions about God’s love, justice, omniscience, omnipotence and so forth. The big “why did this happen” questions come. And as far as the specifics go, we have no definite answer for specifically why. But that does not necessarily mean there is no reason or that our pain is arbitrary and insignificant to God.

To this point, there may be a chance that you have some inaccurate or unbiblical assumptions about God that many do. (If this is not the case, and I am misunderstanding you and I’ve gone on and on needlessly, then I’m truly sorry and this can be deleted) 

Specifically under statement #3 you said  “I know that God did not cause this evil to happen, and I know God can make good come out of tragic experiences.”… and also in a similar way under #5 “…but I know God didn’t cause her death. He didn’t give us this tragedy.” I guess I just wanted to ask, if I may, how do you know this for sure about God?  I totally understand the feeling of not wanting to think that God could be in control of these things, because “why?”  Does he not love?  However, our feelings in submission for the moment, based on God’s Word and how He describes himself, he has revealed the contrary. The two greatest examples we have are in the lives of Joseph and Jesus. (One could also argue for Job as being the greatest example) At the end of Genesis we read of a beautiful testimony of confidence in the sovereignty and providence of God, when Joseph declares “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Gen 50:20  That is, God did not merely react and turn a bad situation into a good result, but rather, God intentionally had a purpose to ordain that evil would be done to Joseph that would ultimately serve a greater purpose. All the while we would also affirm the biblical truth that God does not sin nor does he tempt anyone to sin. However, we have to affirm the biblical truth that God ordains that sin be, and for a purpose that serves his greater glory. These are really big things that people have wrestled with for centuries and I in no way am trying to explain them away in a quick post. I do however want to show how the truth of God’s sovereignty (as affirmed by our Reformed confessions) is a beautiful comfort for the afflicted. So often we think that our pain is arbitrary and serves no purpose, its hard to find any hope.

The other example and the greater of the two would be Jesus. In the book of Acts, the disciples pray a beautiful prayer that praises God for his sovereignty. Acts 4:24-30 (beautiful prayer) Within that prayer they also pray these words “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” This is huge! All the evil that was done to Christ was part of God’s plan and that he “predestined to take place.”  Now, we shouldn’t assume that this was just one of a few things that God ordained, but that he works “all things for good.” We move from the greater to the lesser in that if God did not spare his OWN son, and it was for our good, how much more can we trust him as a good father who provides for his children! He has already given us his very best in Jesus! And at great cost to himself, and by the means of evil men, carrying out their evil desires and yet not knowing it was all part of God’s plan.

Now this does not answer the specific “why” to the tragedies we experience, but we can be confident in God’s love. While I don’t know why a tragedy happened, I DO know that its NOT because God doesn’t love me, because he came and entered our human pain in the person of Jesus and died to demonstrate that love. So while God does not commit any evil, he does have a purpose for it and we have to affirm, based on what we know of him in Scripture, that he does “give us this tragedy” and that he does not merely turn something into good (as if he is responding or adjusting to new knowledge) but that he has reasons (ones we may never know of – we aren’t promised an answer) for ordaining that trials occur to us.

That is why, while I love and agree with most of your suggested list of things we could say, I don’t think we can rightfully say “this shouldn’t have happened.” We can’t put ourselves in God’s place or have him answer to us. He could rightfully say to me so often what he said to Job, “who are you oh man?”  When we say this or that shouldn’t have happened, whether we mean it or not, we are really saying God has no right… or, he did something wrong in allowing or ordaining this event.  

I pray my words are read with as much grace as you gave when you wrote this article! You were incredibly patient with those who said some of those hurtful things. Again, I don’t mean by all of this that one should casually say “just trust God, he has a plan.” Sometimes truth can be said at wrong times and in the wrong way. But over time, as some of those big questions start to surface, we should both allow others to speak truth to us with gentleness and respect and also seek ways that we can comfort others with such truths from God’s Word.

I trust I did not offend in any way. Sorry for the book… and most likely, poor grammar.
Grace and peace to you!

Community Builder

BTW, one of the greatest books I've read that helps with some of these big questions is "Trusting God Even When Life Hurts" by the late Jerry Bridges. Soooo good. Blessings in Christ.

Admin

Hi Eric, 

Thanks for your comment. I should clarify that my sole intent for this post was to openly share my personal experience with grief so far, and maybe provide some practical suggestions for how to interact with parents who have lost a child--more specifically those who have recently lost a child.  My post was more directed to the average person struggling to know what to say to their friend, neighbor, fellow church-goer that has lost a child. And I think this post does achieve that based on the overwhelming amount of positive feedback it has received so far (and I'm so grateful for that!)

I confess that my writing comes out a dark place, as I'm still very much in the midst of the early stages of grieving. I'm not yet ready to talk with others about the deep theological questions that death brings up (though that's not to say I haven't thought about them...I do). I most definitely believe that God is sovereign--I'd feel pretty hopeless if I didn't wholeheartedly believe this! Perhaps my wording in the post didn't express that, although I hope that many will see that. My intent for my post was most definitely not to make sweeping statements on the nature of God and his relationship to suffering and sin. I wrote my post on a much shallower level, I admit. :)

I think most reading this post are simply looking for a few tips for comforting their grieving brothers and sisters. Personally, it will be many years before I'm ready to explore the big questions about grief that have been debated by people of faith for hundreds and hundreds of years. But I think that's OK.

Admin

I should also add that I'd be very interested in attending a GriefShare program. My grandma recently went through the program after my grandpa passed away, and she truly appreciated the program and found it very helpful. I'll have to be on the lookout for these types of programs when we're ready for something like that.

Community Builder

Thanks again for the grace. Your intentions were certainly received and there are some really good tips. Keep up the good writing! I read a couple of your previous articles... well done.  I'll message you something related to a past article but perhaps in January of next year, just prior to Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, I'll share it through the Network. Thanks for the encouragement.

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