A friend—I’ll call him Gary—has neighbors whose twenty-year-old son recently died in an automobile accident. Because Gary knows I’ve lost a child, he asked me if I had any advice on what he could say to them. Although I shy away from giving anyone advice on grieving (more on that later), I did send him some thoughts about what helped me and also what made things worse in the years immediately after Laurie died. A month or so later, he wrote to thank me, that what I’d written was showing him how to be with his neighbors in ways they seemed to appreciate.
Because it seems to have helped Gary, and because we are entering the holiday season, which for many of us grieving parents is the hardest time of the year, and because this year is especially hard (As I write this, 284,000 people in this country have died from COVID 19, which means, even granting the death rate is higher for older people, possibly that many grieving parents), I’m going to pass on what I emailed Gary for any of you who know someone who is grieving the loss of a child this year..
My experience and reading both say that it’s not what you should say to parents when a child dies but what you shouldn’t say. Even the most well-meant words can ignite anger and shame.
• “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The first time I heard someone say this to me after Laurie died, I thought, Yeah, my life is a mountain of rubble and you want me to think of things for you to do? Well, screw you!
• “How are you doing?” How the hell did I know? My entire world—my values, my belief in God, my image of how the world works—had just been obliterated. Often, I would mumble, “Fine.” Later, I joined a 12-step program and learned that means, “Fucked up, Insecure, Numb, and Empty.” Which was about right.
• “Be grateful for the time you had together.” This is like telling someone who’s just had both of their legs blown off to be thankful they used to be able to walk.
• “Everything happens for a reason.” This is another comment that still has me pounding the walls, along with, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” or “God must have wanted another angel in heaven.” Well, if God is that kind of super sadist, you can send me to Hell.
• “I know exactly how you feel.” Usually followed by, “When my grandfather/Uncle/mother/ dog/ died…” I’m sorry, but if you really knew how I feel, you’d shut the hell up.
• “Grief just takes time.” How is that supposed to help me get through the day, let alone nights that are five years long?
• “You need to get on with your life, get back to normal.” I first heard this a month after Laurie died. The most recent time was about a year ago. My response hasn’t changed: This is my life. There will never be anymore goddamned “normal.”
• “At least she’s no longer suffering.” Or “she’s at peace.” And I’m still grieving like hell, thank you very much.
It’s not that some of these are necessarily bad advice. Thirty years after Laurie’s death, I am happy for the time we had together. The effects of grief do lessen over time. I do think she’s in a better place. I have moved on, and while my life has never returned to “normal,” it is in some ways more joyful.
But when I’m grieving I don’t want advice, even the most well-intentioned. In my shame and my anger, your advice makes me feel that you’re on some kind of pedestal of knowledge looking down on me, and I’m just that much more isolated in my grief.
What I need is to feel is that you’re beside me.
So, is there anything you can say? Not much. Maybe something along the lines of “I’m thinking of you and wish there were words to comfort you.” I did find it helpful to have people ask me what happened, and more helpful if someone asked me about Laurie in ways that I could talk about what a beautiful, compassionate kid she was. I was particularly grateful if someone who had known my daughter had a story to share with me about her. I was grateful for flowers and for donations made in Laurie’s name, not only to the Cancer Society and the Ronald McDonald House, but also to Pilgrim Lodge Summer Camp and Amnesty International, two of Laurie’s favorite activities.
Some writers about grief suggest providing information on grief counselors or helping parents plan some kind of memorial. Although I later sought counseling and bought a memorial stone for my daughter to place in our family cemetery, I didn’t want any of that at first. For over a year after Laurie’s death, I just wanted to be left alone. But at the same time, I wanted to know someone was there when I needed them.
Bottom line: it’s a question of doing, not saying. What can you do for the grieving parent—cards, flowers, meals? Can you give them a call every week or so simply to say, “How about those Red Sox?”
It’s especially important not to disappear after the first month or so. That’s just another way of saying “You need to get on with your life.”
Let them grieve. Listen. Don’t judge. I met with a woman for almost a year after her son died—gave her all kinds of advice, books to read, and so forth. A few years later, I ran into her and she said how much I’d helped her.
“Anything I said in particular?” I said, looking for guidance on what to say to others. “I don’t remember a damn thing you said,” she told me. “All I remember is that you cared enough to have lunch with me once a week.”
So, I never give advice to anyone who’s grieving unless they ask for it. I’m also leery enough about giving advice to people who want to help someone in grief to caution that everyone grieves differently and, as a general rule, men grieve differently than women (which contributes to the higher-than-average divorce rate among grieving parents.)
But if I were to give you any advice, I’d simply say, shut up and show up.