What to write when someone’s child has died

I will never, never forgive myself for once writing an email to a couple whose premature baby died just a few hours after he was born. In it I wrote, “never mind, you’re young. You can have another one.”  Stupid, ignorant, idiotic cow that I was.

what to write when a child dies

“We need your support, patience, understanding, love and friendship…” Dawn Allen, bereaved parent

At the time, I hadn’t become a parent. And unless you are a parent, it’s hard to understand just what agony the loss of a baby can cause – whether via a miscarriage (even an early one), via an actual birth, and of course later on through childhood and beyond.

It was only once I had a child of my own that it dawned on me what a vile, thoughtless and cruel thing that was to say. Here’s what I have learned that may stop you making similar mistakes…

death of a childThis truth was brought home vividly – once again – to me just recently when reading my good friend Caroline Strawson’s new book, “Divorce Became My Superpower,” in which she tells of the sheer agony and emotional (never mind physical) pain experienced as a result of four early miscarriages on the trot.

Her book records in very detailed and conversational style, just what it felt like. Not funny. And that was all about miscarriages in the first trimester.

A miscarriage is not just a bleed: it’s a bereavement

Many people don’t understand that even a very early miscarriage which the medics probably would disregard, to a parent, is actually a bereavement.

That’s particularly poignant when you think that many people around those bereaved parents – ignorant idiots like I was, but also health professionals who deal with D&Cs, abortions and other grotesque but common procedures – tend to speak about it without the respect and reverence it deserves.

A fetus’s heartbeat starts being audible at a mere 5-6 weeks of gestation. Some parents, when given the opportunity to see a scan, will be able to recognise this joyful manifestation of their baby’s existence even this early.

So when that ends with the light going out, and sometimes the need for a D&C to remove a dead baby … writing words of sympathy becomes alarmingly difficult.

There are no easy answers here, but one relatively safe pathway is to write to the sufferer of any miscarriage in the way that you would to any other parent whose young child has died.

After all, that’s what has happened. Yet it can be hard to get it right.

And when a very young child has died?

Frankly, when a child of any age has died, writing to one or other, or both, of their parents is a very delicate challenge – even when the “child” concerned is an adult.

Harking back once again to my own experience with a young child, however, one of the terrible fears of early childhood diseases like meningitis are issues I’m sure I shared with millions of other parents when my own son was very young.

Having known families who experienced the loss of a small child to that terrible disease, my heart goes out to them. Then, there are other tragically cruel diseases that inexplicably take young children, like pædiatric cancers. And many, many more.

When you multiply these tragedies into what kills babies (and probably curtails pregnancies) in developing countries, the monstrosities multiply exponentially. It’s all very well for politicians to say that the reasons why families in developing nations produce as many children as possible is that a significant few will die. To me that seems cynically cruel, but it’s not what we’re talking about here in this article.

Writing about dead children to bereaved parents and families, is probably the most challenging writing mission you will ever experience

How can you write something that helps?

Bottom line? You can’t. Nothing helps when a baby dies. Nothing could have helped me if my baby had died. Nothing helps when any child dies, no matter how old they are.

But you can write words that will make the bereaved parent or parents feel that you’re there for them.

Also, you can write words that help the bereaved parents to feel comforted, respected, celebrated, wanted.

Here are some tips I have learned, that may help you write appropriately:

**Never, never try to brighten up someone who has miscarried, been bereaved at an early birth, lost a baby or toddler, etc. – especially by writing that there is always the chance of having another one. Each loss, no matter how early, is a bereavement to parents, and they never forget the human being that a fœtus or even an embryo was.

**Respect the fact that bereaved parents need space. They don’t necessarily need your sympathy, but they may well need support in other ways: anything from invitations out for a meal or a coffee, to a casserole dish for their freezer to pull out and eat when they’re feeling especially bad.

**Don’t assume what they need: ASK them what they need, and then provide it if you can.  (See Dawn Allen’s points below.)

**Above all else, try not to generalise, and – if you’re someone who has never had a baby – understand that however weird these things may seem to you, they are all part of nature’s complex pathway. So please, please respect that and avoid making that awful mistake I made, and still have nightmares about.

Now, here are some thoughts from a beautiful friend whose child died from cancer

There is no-one better to share what bereaved parents need, than a bereaved parent.

writing to bereaved parent Dawn Allen‘s gorgeous little son Henry contracted a neuroblastoma – sadly, a relatively common form of pædiatric cancer – aged just two. Despite vigorous and lengthy treatment, Henry lost his fight when he was just four years old, in 2013.

As you can imagine, Dawn is in a very strong position to know how you feel when you lose a child, no matter what the reason.

Let these points Dawn shares, help inspire you to write the right words to someone whose child has died

**We need you to let us speak our child’s name without seeing the fear in your eyes…
**We need you to sometimes just listen and not judge…
**We need you to still include our child in the number count, of grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends…
**We need you to be extra kind and understanding around special dates, their birthdays, holiday dates, date of diagnosis but especially on the Angel anniversary and celebration of life dates…
**We need you to say it’s OK to stay in bed all day and remember… But some days help us get out of bed and breathe…
**We need you to give that extra hug and space when needed…
**We need you to not take it personally when we cancel last minute as we don’t feel strong enough to attend an event, birthday or just a coffee…
**We need you to ask how we are doing, wait and listen to the answer, the truth as it’s told and not be afraid of the answers…
**We need you to understand sometimes we will talk for hours and hours but sometimes we don’t answer the phone…
**We need you to understand that sometimes we get angry at the littlest of things because we care and are a little bit extra sensitive…
**We need you to imagine a little sign around us saying ‘fragile’ just a little crack can trigger a memory slide of a lifetime of whys, what ifs, if you’ve heard these before act like its the first time you’ve heard them…
**We need you to keep the invitations coming and to not exclude us… Let us make the decision of if we can face the world and socialise but don’t leave us out…
**We need you to forgive us for not being the mum, dad, wife, husband, daughter, son, brother, sister, auntie, uncle and friend we used to be… Loosing a child changes you, forever changed and forever missing our child… Sorry for not being who we used to be…
Most of all:
**We need your support, patience, understanding, love and friendship…
**We NEED you! Don’t give up on us as we will give up!
**Hope, dream, believe xxx

Please help us support Dawn’s wonderful charity

Since Henry left us, Dawn and her family have set up The Henry Allen Trust based in Milton Keynes, England. Please check out this amazing charity that raises funds to help other families with childhood cancer patients as follows:
What to write to bereaved parnet

1. To relieve sickness and to preserve health by providing or assisting in the provision of the equipment and facilities, recreation and services and ancillary to those provided by the doctors for individuals and groups.

2. To promote and protect their physical and mental health through the provision of financial assistance, support, education, practical advice and counselling.

3. To relieve the sickness of child oncology patients by offering respite through the provision of short breaks and holidays.

4. To advance the education of the general public relating to life threatening diseases and terminal illness in children, including the hope and encouragement that can be found though better understanding and through survivors success stories…

What experience do you have of writing to bereaved parents – at any stage of parenthood?

Please share.