by Angelyn Kuiper
When my one-month-old daughter Eloise passed away unexpectedly last September, the comments and questions started rolling in. Everyone means well, hoping to say something that will bring some level of comfort and peace. But not all comments bring the comfort intended.
I’ve heard all of these statements at some point in the past six months. Some might make you cringe, and some of these statements you may have said before (and that’s okay). The point is not to make you feel bad or shame you for things you’ve said in the past, but perhaps help you better navigate interacting with a grieving parent in the future.
I’m not a grief expert by any means, but here are some phrases/questions said to me and my husband that have stung:
“At least she’s in heaven.”
There is no at least in losing your child. There is no bright side. I’ve heard variations of this comment several times:
“It must feel bittersweet…”
“At least she’s with Jesus…”
“At least she’s in a better place…”
Am I grateful that Eloise lives in heaven and is rejoicing in her Saviour? Definitely. Am I grateful that someday I will be reunited with my daughter in heaven and spend eternity together? Absolutely. But this hope I have doesn’t lessen the sting of losing her much too soon. I’m always going to wish she could be in my arms.
“At least you still have each other.”
I agree. I am blessed to have my husband in my life during this time, and I think he’d say the same about me. Having someone to grieve with who completely understands and identifies with what I’m feeling is a comfort. I know this journey of grief would feel unwalkable without him. But we still lost the biggest love of our lives. We loved being a family of three, and we both hate that we’re back to a family of just two. We’re incomplete, broken.
“God has a plan.”
We will always wish Eloise’s journey included living a long and happy life on earth with us. I don’t like this turn of events, and I’d like to request a different plan (pretty please?). I know God doesn’t necessarily cause evil to happen, and that he is always working for our good and his glory through our tragic experiences. I pray that someday we’ll be able to see the hand of God working in our lives during this time. But I’ll be wrestling with God on this giant “why” question for a long time.
“You’re still young. You can have more kids.”
We do plan on having more kids, and that’s something to look forward to. I know that future children will bring us joy, but I will always look at my family knowing it’s not complete on this earth. The hole she left can never be filled. Future babies we have aren’t replacement babies. Keep in mind, also, that the statement “you can have more children” is not true for everyone.
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
Does this statement really bring comfort? When it was said to me, it made me question how well I was coping with losing my child. Should I be handling this better? Why do I break down so often? Losing my daughter is way more than I can handle, but I know God doesn’t deserve my blame for her death. God stands beside us, even through our darkest moments. And thankfully, he is a God of grace, and his new mercies every day ensure that I can continue walking through life.
“I know how you feel.”
I hear this comment often, usually followed by a lengthy story of their loss: “I had a miscarriage…” or “My friend died last year….” Instead of sharing stories of your losses, make the moment about the grieving parent in front of you, not yourself. It can be hurtful when someone tries to compare their loss to yours. It can feel like they’re trying to change the conversation or take the focus off your loss.
It’s also important to note that losing a child is a unique experience. It’s different than losing a friend, a grandparent, a parent, etc. Not that those losses are any less significant—they’re just different. Unless you’ve also lost a child, it’s impossible to fully identify with a parent who has lost a child.
“You’ll be a much stronger, more compassionate person because of your loss.”
I certainly have more compassion for others, especially those who are grieving. I’ve also developed a great deal of strength out of necessity. But I also lost a big part of myself. I’m more anxious, less carefree, less optimistic, and more emotional. I don’t always love the person I’ve become since losing my daughter.
“At least it happened early on.”
Losing your child is devastating no matter how old they are.
“What can I do for you?”
Too general. Try instead: “Can I bring you dinner Tuesday night?” or “I’m planning to mow your lawn this weekend.” The more specific, the better. Especially in the first couple months after my daughter’s death, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even know what kind of help to ask for. It’s best to make a specific offer, and keep making those offers well into the future too. The meals and favours tend to stop after the first couple months, but grieving parents could use favours long after that.
Nothing at all
Don’t avoid a grieving parent just because you don’t know what to say. I’ve had people physically change directions just to avoid me. I would much rather you risk saying the wrong thing than completely avoid me. Even a simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way and lets me know that you care and are acknowledging my daughter’s death.
Take heart! There are some things you can say to a grieving parent. Here are a few suggestions:
I’m so sorry.
I’m praying for you.
No parent should have to go through this.
My favourite memory of your son/daughter is when…
I’d love to hear about your son/daughter.
I think about you and your son/daughter often.
Your son/daughter will be missed.
I’m sure you miss him/her so much.
When in doubt, just listen, be present, express your sympathy, and know you’re not going to have the magic words to make a grieving parent feel better. Your efforts to interact with us and walk beside us are appreciated and noticed. We’ll do our best to give you plenty of grace, and we hope you give us grace, too, as we plod through the rocky
and unpredictable lifelong road of grief.
Angelyn Kuiper is a writer and marketing specialist who works for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She’s passionate about finding ways to love our neighbours in tangible ways and empowering the church to respond to God’s call to let justice flow like a river. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a mom to daughter Eloise in heaven and wife to husband Michael. She attends Faith Community CRC in Wyoming, Michigan. Her article first appeared in the CRC News (March 29, 2017).