What to write to someone whose child has died

Have you ever said or written something, trying to be helpful when someone’s child has died, only to realise that was probably the worst thing you could have done?

what to write to bereaved parents

Nothing can possibly replace or compensate for the child they lost.

Some years ago my next-door neighbours got married. As we lived in adjacent terrace/town houses, were good friends, and it was summer, we opened up both homes for a circular party which went on until well into the next day and on arising that next morning I found various sleeping bodies in my house with no idea who the hell they were.

No worries: all were wedding guests and the bride, groom, my partner and I managed to make a hangover-curing breakfast for all before booting them out and returning to bed to catch up on sleep. The wife was pregnant at the time. At full term she went into labour, and delivered their son, Jack. He died a few hours later.

They came to see me, to tell me. And after expressing my condolences, I said, “but you’re young: you can have more children.”

And it was only much later that I realised what a cruel, careless, frivolous and revolting thing that was to say.

Shortly afterwards they moved out of their house and disappeared. I never heard from them again and I know I deserve that for my despicableness.

Let’s just hope you can learn from this, should such a bereavement happen to people in your circle of family and friends – in case you don’t know the reality of what child bereavement involves.

Out of sheer guilt, and also the desire to pass on some potentially useful information to you, here are some notes you may find helpful if – Heavens forbid – you find yourself in a position to be writing to people who have lost a child.

And that means anything from a miscarriage (even an early one) right through to an adult child. Your child is your child, right from conception onwards. 

Never mind what you want to write. It could be wrong. What might help a little?

Here’s a video that includes the views of a good friend of mine – Dawn Allen, who lost her beloved Henry to cancer when he was just 4 years old. She starts the video off. Watch it.

What to write to bereaved parents: key tips on what may help, and what won’t

Nothing can possibly replace or compensate for the child they lost. As pointed out about, never talk about how “another child” might replace the child they lost.

Bereaved parents may well keep up with the lost child’s birthdays and other special days. OK, it may not be appropriate to wish Happy Birthday to the child, but a comment like “thinking of you today” may well help the parents.

Reminder: whatever you do, don’t say you know how they feel unless you genuinely do – and only from personal experience. 

Don’t use platitudes when writing about the parents’ loss: avoid vague euphemisms like “event,” “what happened,” etc. to help minimise their pain. It won’t. Talk about the child by name.

Don’t be tempted to hide and not contact these people. They will benefit from hearing from you and what you feel in your heart.

Equally, don’t be afraid to say what’s in your heart. If you love them, say so. If your heart is breaking for them, say so.

If you don’t know what to say, don’t just say nothing. If you care about the parents/family, just say how much you love them. That’s worth a lot.

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FURTHER READING: 
Child Bereavement UK
Bereaved Parents of the USA
The Compassionate Friends of Canada
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
KidsHealth New Zealand
Patch South Africa
Bereavement Support India

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Understand that families who have lost a child (whether pre-natal or otherwise) still consider themselves a family of XX – the amount including the lost child.

When special dates come up (e.g. Christmas / Holidays, Easter, civic holidays etc.) bereaved parents may share these in relation to their lost child. Share those with them if you can.

Equally when the lost child’s birthday or other special anniversary comes up, parents may want to celebrate that. If the parents share it, share it with them.

What about babies lost through miscarriage?

Especially when a miscarriage has occurred in the first trimester (first three months of pregnancy) it can be easy to assume that it’s not the same as “losing a child.” Some parents, indeed, might regard it that way. But not many.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an early miscarriage is going to be taken more lightly than the loss of a baby further on in a pregnancy. ANY loss of a baby is a heartbreak that will never quite go away in parents’ lives.

And what can you do to help, in writing or otherwise?

Be there for the parents

Don’t try to rationalise or explain their loss

Just accept their loss

support for bereaved parnet

Just be there for them. Often that’s all they need.

In the first instance, offer practical help

But later on, don’t forget how they’re still hurting

Accept that and incorporate it into your relationship with them: do not try to brush it under the carpet

When you’re writing about a lost child much later on

As Mary Berry suggests in that video (above), just because someone lost a child a good few years ago doesn’t mean they have recovered

In Mary’s case she wants to remember all the good things about her lost son, and it’s important that we should

Understand that a lost child in a family – even one who would have been a grown-up by now – still has a role to play in that family

What advice can you share about what to write to someone whose child has died?

Please share.

In the meantime, I still cringe with guilt at my terrible stupidity. Never make that mistake or you’ll have to live with the guilt for the rest of your life, too.

 

 

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