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On Mother's Day, what to say to parents who've lost a child

May 11, 2017

There are certain holidays that can feel like tiptoeing over landmines, and Mother’s and Father’s Day can be that way for some of us. For a perfectly intact family it may be nothing but joyful, but for those of us who have endured loss and heartache, that happiness is often tempered by a sense of sadness and grief. I lost my father as a teenager, and even now nearly twenty years later the day set aside to celebrate fathers is always bittersweet for me. I rejoice in the celebration of my husband with my children, but underneath I always feel the loss of my own father. My loss feels even heavier as I scroll through Facebook and see smiling photo after smiling photo posted of other people with their fathers. I’ll never have a picture of my Dad walking me down the aisle to get married; he wasn’t there. I’ll never have a photo of him with his grandchildren; he didn’t live to meet them. The knowledge of these things is a dull ache that has gotten better with time, but never really goes away.

Perhaps this experience of my own makes me keenly aware of the difficulties that bereaved parents must face on this particular holiday. I’ve spent many years now in the world of pediatric healthcare, and I’ve been to the funerals of small children whose light was extinguished far too soon. It is devastating, heartbreaking, beyond our human ability to comprehend.

What I’ve learned from being in relative proximity to these families who have lost children is this: lots and lots of people want to love and care for the surviving family members. It’s just that most of us have no idea how to do that. We talk about it at length with mutual friends and we share our concern with others, but often we don’t know how to best express it with the ones that matter most.

With this in mind, I asked a few parents who have endured this unthinkable loss how they would like to be cared for on this holiday fraught with emotions and sensitivities, or really any other special day that brings their loss to the forefront. 


Listen and learn

Son Comforting FatherIf you were to sit down in a room full of parents who have lost a child and ask each of them how they have processed their loss, you may get a variety of different answers. While there is a commonality to their grief, individuals handle the situation in different ways and thus prefer to address it differently with their friends and family. Don’t assume that this person’s situation or viewpoint is the same as someone else you may have known in a similar situation. In fact, don’t assume anything. Make it a priority to first listen and learn. Do they jump at any chance to talk about their child or do they prefer to keep their feelings private? Do they express gratitude when others address their loss or do they seem uncomfortable? And if you aren’t sure, most people wouldn’t mind if you sincerely ask them what things they find helpful and uplifting and which they find burdensome. 

Keep in mind the context of your relationship

In the age of social media, parents and children with a chronic or terminal illness can sometimes become like pseudo-celebrities. Parents are compelled to share their child’s story because there are often so many concerned family members and friends that it becomes difficult to communicate individually, and they appreciate the thoughts, prayers and sometimes financial gifts that are much needed as they deal with a medical crisis. Likely, though, when they began to share their child’s story, they couldn’t have fathomed what it might be like if their child’s life was lost and they had to deal with it on this semi-public platform. Even without the microscope of social media, the loss of a child is something that people talk about, and it can place the parents at the center stage of a drama they never signed up for.

Some parents handle this with grace, and for others it can be very uncomfortable. This is where you, as a caring friend, family member or acquaintance must use careful judgment in order to know how best to support them. The best barometer I can offer you is to consider the context of your relationship prior to the child’s passing. If you don’t know the family and only know of their story, addressing the loss with them in person will likely be awkward; perhaps in that case a thoughtful card may be appropriate. Don’t use their loss as a way to create a false sense of intimacy or familiarity.

On the flip side, some people don’t know what to say so they say nothing at all. Nearly everyone who has sustained a tragic loss will tell you of some relationship that came to a complete halt after the tragedy. The death happens, and you just never hear from that friend again, even if it was someone previously very close to you. While it is understandable that people will have difficulty managing the situation, simply disappearing from the lives of those who are grieving compounds their losses. If you were a close friend prior to the loss, be there in the aftermath. If you don’t know what to say, just be there, listen and learn until you do. Don’t disappear- even when things get hard.

If you don’t know what to say, just be there, listen and learn until you do.

Remember their child

I’ve shared several things that you shouldn’t do or that you should be careful of, but there is one thing you can do that seems to be appreciated across the wide spectrum of people who have endured tragedy.

Female Friend Consoling AnotherFor parents who’ve lost a child, each special event, milestone or holiday is a reminder of one more thing that they will miss experiencing with their child. Every birthday they wonder what their child would look like at that age which they never reached. Each time their kid’s friends experience something new- middle school orientation, high school prom, graduation- it’s a reminder that their child will never do those things. In short it’s hard, really hard. Bereaved parents really do want to share in the joys with other parents, but it is often difficult and bittersweet. Life continues to move on, and it is moving on without their beloved one.

One of the ways to help ease that pain is to remember their child with them. Don’t pretend their kid was never there. If that child’s friends are all grown up and heading to prom, it’s okay to say to those parents, “I look at these kids, and I really wish ___ was with them. He would have loved going to prom.” If you had a relationship with the child, share a memory of things you loved about them that makes their parent smile. A parent who has lost a child wants to hear their child’s name and wants to know that their child is not forgotten. Remembering the sweet moments is perhaps the only thing that lessens the pain of the difficult ones.

Observing Mother’s and Father’s day can be a delicate situation for bereaved parents. If they have no surviving children, remember that they are still parents. They will always be parents, even if their child is no longer with them. While these holidays may not be a celebration for them, it is certainly a day of remembrance. For parents who do have surviving children, know that the presence of other children can never replace the child that was lost. Over time the pain of the loss may become more manageable, but it never goes away.

Refrain from sharing advice

Perhaps the quickest way to extinguish a relationship with a bereaved parent is by offering unsolicited advice. Don’t tell them about your friend’s uncle’s neighbor who went through the exact same thing and found some simple answer to solve all the problems. Don’t pretend to have any expertise on the topic, because truly there is no right way to handle the grief of losing a child. Sometimes we want to coax a grieving person into behaving certain ways because we are uncomfortable with the hard and ugly parts of the process. If you’re having trouble coping, deal with it outside of the grieving family. Don’t expect them to support you or make your grieving easier; they have enough burden to carry on their own.

Be sensitive in what you share

Family of Women Comforting each other in griefBecause of my experience with grief, I am appreciative of friends who share thoughtfully on social media. Does this mean that you shouldn’t post happy pictures of your family? Absolutely not. However, I truly believe that many times if people knew how the things they shared affected others, they wouldn’t do it. I know that many friends who struggle with infertility have a hard time with all the happy mother/child photos posted on Mother’s Day, so I don’t do it. I know that Christmas is a really hard time of the year for my friends who are single and spending the holiday without a family to call their own so I try to be mindful of it when I share about my family.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to ensure that you never offend anyone, but I think it’s a good practice to at least consider how the message you’re sharing may be received by others who may have a different experience from your own.

While this list cannot address every issue that might arise as you support a grieving family, I hope it will provide a starting place to help you work through the uncomfortable spots in order to provide care and comfort for those that have lost a child. And as you go forward in the relationship whether it’s Mother’s Day or any other holiday, remember that these families still feel their loss even many years down the road. They will never forget; their child will always be a part of their lives.

*A special thank you to Trey and Nicole Flynn, parents of Holden and Parker Flynn, for sharing their insight for this post.