I am ashamed to admit it but I once hid from a grieving parent. The Christmas after Arlynne died, the hairdressers who had been cutting my hair since I was a child lost their son. He was my brother’s age. My whole family knew his family. We knew him. He died suddenly. He had been sick but he was so busy that he hadn’t gotten to the doctor. He went to sleep and never woke up.
I found out at the mall while I was doing some Boxing Day shopping. I had to leave the store. It wasn’t that long since Arlynne had died and my heart broke for those parents.
A couple of months later I saw his father in a store. I didn’t know what to say so I avoided him. I don’t know if he saw me. I hope he didn’t. I think (or hope) that I might have responded better to his mom. A mom I could hug. There isn’t really anything to say. A hug speaks volumes.
You may find yourself in a similar situation. Maybe in a funeral home at a visitation. Perhaps running into a neighbour as you work in your yard. You could see him while you are both at school picking up your kids. You may bump into her at the grocery store. You know that parent is going through something awful. Unthinkable. You need to say something. Anything. Here is a list of what NOT to say to a grieving parent.
1) You have other children.
I was thinking about this statement while I was in the shower the other day and this analogy came to me. My family is like a puzzle and all the people in it are like the pieces. You can’t substitute another piece for one that is missing. It just won’t fit. The picture won’t match. It won’t work. The same goes for my kids. No one child can take another’s place. Arlynne brought her own unique contribution that cannot be duplicated. My other kids have distracted me during my grief but in no way can they ever replace her. She is irreplaceable!
2) I know how you feel.
Most people have experienced loss. It is part of the human condition. Everyone’s experience is different though because everyone is different. The family that came and walked with us for a while after losing Arlynne did have a lot of similarities with us. Both children died in an instant. Both children were teenagers. We all had a similar faith. But there are also differences. Their son was the first-born. Arlynne was the second-oldest. They have 3 boys. We have 6 kids. He was in a home with both his parents. Arlynne was part of a blended family. He died in the area. She had been away for 5 weeks when she was suddenly gone. You may think that your loss compares to someone else’s. It may. Then again, it may not. Losing anyone can be devastating. Comparing losing an elderly grandparent to losing a child, though, is like comparing apples and oranges. All 4 of my grandparents have passed away. 3 of them were elderly. 1, not so much. Parents and grandparents are expected to die before their offspring. They are not supposed to bury their kids. It isn’t the way life is supposed to work. Saying you lost someone close to you can comfort a grieving parent but be very careful about claiming to know a parent’s devastation.
3) You’ll get over this.
“Getting over” something implies that someone will forget someone. Saying that you will get over the loss of the child is like saying that you will get over missing an arm or a leg. You may adapt. You may get by. You will absolutely change. But you will never forget you had an arm or leg that isn’t there anymore. A parent will never, ever forget that she lost a child. It isn’t going to happen. A parent can also choose not to keep moving ahead. He or she could choose just to wallow in grief. Sometimes it feels easier. It is not a healthy approach but it is an option. Assuring someone of how he or she will feel is projecting something you want onto them. It would be easier for you if someone you care about can get over it. It would make you feel better. Then it becomes more about you than about them.
4) God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.
This is a popular saying. We like to say it to parents of special-needs kids also. I have heard it. I don’t believe it for a second. I believe that God gives us what He does to show us that we can’t do it on our own. I know I can’t. I need His constant strength in order to go on. In my weakness His strength becomes perfect (2 Corinthians 12:9).
5) It will get easier.
One of the constants of life is the fact that is always changing. I am not certain, though, that life gets easier. It just gets different. Is different easier? Maybe. But is it better? Good question.
6) He/she is in a better place.
We were told this very early on in our grief journey. This is an example of when something can be true, absolutely true, but it may not be well received by a grieving parent. It might be best to be left unsaid. I am absolutely certain that Arlynne is in Heaven. Her life was committed to God and I believe that He took her home that night. It is more difficult for the parent who might have a different faith. Maybe they aren’t certain about their child’s walk with God. Thinking about Heaven can be painful for them. It also doesn’t dull the pain that the parent is feeling. All I wanted was to hug my daughter again. I wanted her here.
7) God took your son/daughter now because He knew he/she was starting down a rebellious path.
I can’t remember when I heard this but I know I have. It hurt me because she was doing so well. We had had a terrible time when she had rebelled. It was excruciating. I didn’t want to think that out of the 2 options I had that losing her was a better one. It also seems to limit God’s abilities. It almost seems to say that God in His omnipotence and His omniscience and His omnipresence somehow “dropped the ball” and He quickly had to take her before His mistake was exposed. That almost reeks with desperation. I don’t know why He took her when He did. I do know that He had a plan and that was part of it. Does it make it easier? No. But life isn’t easy.
8) It is time to move on.
No one would ever say this at a funeral home (I hope) but it may seem like a natural thing to say if some time has passed. There is no expiration date on grief. There is no grieving period after a switch gets flipped and everything goes on as it was before. First of all, life for a grieving parent will never go back. Second, grief is as unique as the individual. It cycles. I can feel really okay for a while and then something triggers it and I start all over again. The cycling should change, get a little faster, over time but chances are that parent will always have times that are difficult. And that is okay. It is hard to watch. I admit it. But trying to rush the process doesn’t help anyone. It could even make it worse.
I still like what the mom told my husband when she came to the visitation for Arlynne. She simply said “this sucks”. Truer words have never been spoken.
Sometimes you don’t need to say anything. Asking a grieving parent if you could give her a hug might be the balm her wounded heart needs.
Well, written, Cheryl. Carefully thought through, focused on the task at hand, and describing what might be more helpful to those cared about.
Thanks Clare. Life experience is a good teacher. Please pass this on when appropriate!