Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Aside from saying “sorry for your loss” what else could you say to parents whose premature baby died three weeks old in the hospital? I don’t want to say the wrong thing.
The way you phrase your question is helpful, because although there are few clear rules about what one should say to acknowledge the death of any child, there are some rules about what should not say, at least in most settings. Combining these with a few general principles for offering positive support, you might consider the following ideas, most of which come from bereaved parents themselves who were interviewed by staff at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading cancer treatment center, about what does–and doesn’t–feel supportive to them. I think you’ll agree with me that their wisdom has relevance to parents who lose a child of any age, under a great range of circumstances.
What NOT to say or do:
- “If there is anything you need, just ask.” They don’t know what they need. Figure it out yourself by observing and listening. Then just do it.
- “It was God’s will. Your child went home to be with Him.” It’s not your place to tell them what to believe. Their child’s death violates the natural order of things.
- “At least your child was just an infant” or “At least you had your child X years.” It doesn’t matter if the child was a newborn, 10 years old, or 25; the time they had with the child was never enough.
- “Be grateful you still have other children.” Saying this does nothing to assuage their grief for this unique child. It simply piles guilt on top of it.
- “It will get better with time” or “Time heals all wounds.” Bereaved parents say that the hole in their hearts never goes away. They just learn to live with it.
- “You just need to ______” [fill in the blank]. The truth is, there is no script to follow in bereavement, and the parents don’t need for you to write one.
What to say or do:
- Offer sympathy for their loss. This is likely the worst possible thing that could happen to them.
- Express honest sentiments. Don’t make something up or exaggerate. This would ring hollow, and parents will recognize if your expression isn’t real.
- If you knew the child, let them know how you loved or valued him or her too for the child’s unique characteristics or personality.
- Share a fond memory of the child that affirms who she or he really was.
- If you can’t think of anything to say, just sit quietly and listen. Just be there; your presence is a gift.
- Don’t be afraid to shed a tear or show emotion. Most of the time, the parents will feel affirmed by seeing that you share some of their pain.