By Chris & Gene
In April of 2011, our family lost our son to cancer. He was twenty-two years old. The loss of our beloved son and brother was heartbreaking beyond measure. To a parent there is no deeper sorrow than the death of a child. It has been nine years since his passing. It hardly seems possible that it has been that long. We have lived two lives, one before the other after.
The grieving process is long and arduous, it never really ends. I do not believe that a full recovery is possible. Most of us reach the point when life becomes routine again, and some sense of joy returns but there are many dark days as well. One strategy to get through those difficult times is to talk. Sharing memories, hearing from someone else what your lost child meant to them. Maybe even sharing how difficult this all is. Such conversations, though they will never fill the void, bring us just a bit closer to all that is lost.
We would never have been able to get where we are today without community. Our families, our churches and dear friends who have walked with us to get to where we are today. Please beware, the process can have its pitfalls. During the interaction with a grieving parent mistakes are going to be made, misunderstandings can lead to resentment. Things will be said that seem innocuous but can be a dagger to a mournful heart.
It is understood that dealing with death is difficult. We do not claim a high ground on the subject. This is simply an attempt to point out the areas that can be painful to a parent who has lost a child and should be avoided as well as positive interactions which can bring comfort. With aid of others with a similar history and through personal experiences here is a short list of practices that can be helpful.
- Do not tell a grieving parent that their loss “is Gods will.” This statement does not bring comfort when we are struggling with why God decided to take our child. Some of us are wrestling with our faith. Our thoughts at that point are more like “God WHY?” It is best to leave that type of discussion to clergy, or another person of who we seek for spiritual advice. Other statements along a similar vein which are discouraged “God will not give you more than you can handle” or “He is in a better place.”
- If your own child is off at school or away for an extended time it is best not to go on at length or speak on an emotional level about how much you are missing them. Do not tell a grieving parent of how difficult life is without them. Your child happily will be home at Thanksgiving ours will not. This one gets me every time. We know your life has changed since your daughter left for school but there is no comparison.
- Do not compare the death of a child to the loss of a pet. No explanation required.
- Something that parents who have lost a child hear often is something like this; “You are doing so well, if it were me, I would lay in my bed and cry all day.” Believe me, that is all some of us want to do is lay in bed all day and cry. A statement like that sounds almost critical, that we surprisingly bounced back so well. That the loss would have affected someone else at a much deeper level.
- Do not tell a parent “It is time to move on.” That time will never come. We will hopefully learn to live with our pain, but we will never move on.
- “Do you have other children?” This is a question that is asked frequently. Would it somehow be not so bad if there are other kids? Also, imagine how painful that question might be to someone who lost their only child.
- “You are young, you can have others.” There is no replacing a dear child. A newborn will be a joy unto themselves.
- Lastly, and this is so important, if a parent wants to talk about the child she lost, PLEASE do so. Do not evade or change the subject. Talk share a story that you remember but most of all be there as a friendly ear. Remember that memories of a child that has died are all we have left.
This list may seem like a lot to ask of kind people who are only trying to help. It probably is. I ask that you understand the emotional trauma the folks you are trying to help, or just encounter, have gone through. When our child dies our whole world is turned on end. The depth of our despair can seem bottomless. We are damaged and emotionally frail. I offer these suggestions as a guide. There are certainly exceptions based on relationships and circumstances.
When tragedy strikes, some people just walk away never to be heard from them again. Those are not who this is aimed at. I would guess that you have read this because you care. I hope that it has been received in a spirit of compassion that it was intended. We know the people who stood by us in our most difficult time. I hope that I am equal to the task if ever needed.
Please, if you have any comments concerning this article, I would very much appreciate hearing from you. I will reply.