What NOT to Say…Comforting Those Who Are Grieving

When our son, Ryan was born, I noticed something almost immediately. I got extremely impatient with people who made insensitive comments in their efforts to comfort me. One that was especially hard was, “they can do so much for babies these days thanks to technology.”

Of course, I recognized that medical technology was critical to his survival. Indeed, he would not have lived past the first few moments without significant medical intervention, and yet, I was never comforted by the comment. I was the one who sat and watched as technicians worked for two hours trying to start an IV on my screaming baby. I was the one who held him after his surgery and heard his pitiful little cry–he was hoarse from the irritation of the respirator tubes. Grateful for the technology that healed his “broken” heart, I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t also spare him the pain of a poke in the arm. And so I felt bitter when I heard the comment, and then felt guilty for feeling bitter. I could process the concept that I was supposed to be grateful for technology. I was grateful. It just didn’t comfort me to hear others say it, because it was as if to them, my baby’s suffering was swept away by the wonders of technology. I knew better.

This week’s horrific events in Connecticut has reminded me again of how difficult it can be to cope with and respond to grief, particularly a parent’s grief at the loss of a child. All of us have fallen asleep wishing there were something we could do to help. I have to confess that I have given away more than one Ryan’s Lion to a grieving parent, simply because I knew I had to do something, and I had no idea what to say or do to provide comfort. I have found that a grieving individual can attach their own “meaning” to a Ryan’s Lion, so it can simply serve as a tangible reminder that I care. I often wish I could do more, but at least I can do that.

The Reverend Emily C. Heath has published a thoughful list of things NOT to say to a parent who is grieving. It has reminded me again of the importance of being patient with myself while I think of something appropriate to say or do. It has reminded me to avoid the cliches and platitudes that spring so quickly to mind when you are trying to ease someone’s pain. For example, Reverend Heath warns us that one thing NOT to say is, ‘God just needed another angel.’ “Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills kids to fill celestial openings is neither faithful to God, nor helpful to grieving parents,” she writes. 

Earlier today, one of my sons returned from a funeral for a classmate of his who had taken his own life. He recounted thinking about how great this young man was, and how much he had admired him. “I liked the funeral,” he said. “He was an amazing, amazing kid.” He had not realized how much this young man, one of his most admired peers, had struggled with depression and anxiety during his short lifetime. There was something touching to him about attending a funeral and being reminded of how blessed he was to have known this friend. I like to think that my son is a better person for having associated with this boy, and he is definitely a better person as a result of a thoughtful funeral that portrayed the death in a way that made others less afraid to discuss and feel and hope.

Bleeding Heart Blossoms

One parent was given a Bleeding Heart plant as a sympathy gift. It is a living reminder of the child this parent lost, and brings new comfort every spring.

Just last week I was at a church dinner with a neighbor and we began discussing our children. As she talked, I realized I had not met one of the sons she was referring to, and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met him. He must have left home before we moved in.” Her answer was a simple, “Oh, you haven’t met him because he died when he was six weeks old.” At that point, I had to make a tough decision to weigh out: Does this mother want to talk about her son, or is talking about him painful for her?” I have learned that most parents who have lost a child find that others avoid the subject, but that they actually enjoy discussing their children. It is counter-intuitive, and always a little risky to embark on a conversation with a parent who has lost a child. What to say?  I plunged ahead and since I didn’t know how else to proceed, I asked the question bluntly: “How did he pass away?”

She was gracious, and told me about their struggle against the odds of not one but two congenital birth defects. At one point, she mentioned how old he would have been and I remember thinking it was strange that she would know his age before realizing, “of course she knows exactly how old he would have been the same way I know exactly how old my sons are.” He is still her son, even though she only got to enjoy his physical presence for six weeks. She seemed delighted to tell me about him, and remembered minute details about the events surrounding his birth and care, even though he died almost 25 years ago. I remembered again that while there are some things you should not say, there are just as many that you can and should say, if the moment is right.

For every insensitive comment others made to me when my son was ill, there were three or four more who said just the right thing:

  • I noticed you haven’t had time to prune your roses yet. Would it be OK if I came over and did that for you?
  • Can I come and hold the baby so you can get some housework done? (Notice she did not ask if she could come and clean my house–that would have been mortifying!)
  • I’m stopping by the grocery store on the way home to grab you some dinner. Is there anything anyone at your house is allergic to?
  • We are praying for you.
  • We have asked our congregation to pray for you.
  • I am so sorry.
  • We took our baby to the same cardiologist and you are in very good hands.
  • I know you are not able to take the baby out in public. I have cleared my schedule all Sunday morning and would be happy to come and stay with him so you can go to church if you would like.

The lesson is simply to pause for a moment before you speak, and consider. If you have nothing to say, a simple “I am so sorry for your loss,” is almost always appropriate.

If you are a parent who has lost a child, and would be willing to comment, please let us know: What would you like people to say to you?

-Lynnae (mother of Ryan, Ryan’s Lion Organization Founder)



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