The death of a child is one of those times when the idea of any consolation or relief from the searing grief can seem ludicrous -- and when well-intended but clumsy attempts at comfort can sometimes add to a parent's pain.
Yet family and friends who are also affected by the death feel a strong need to reach out to the parents. After all, they are VTC grieving too.
What to say? How do you reach out to bereaved parents in a way that doesn't add to the pain?
Just as every child is different and distinctive, each death is unique, and the emotional needs of parents can vary. But there are some general rules for offering comfort that can help us all avoid the kinds of remarks that can carry unintended meanings.
A recent letter from a mother whose teen-aged daughter died in a car accident three years ago contains some words of advice that echo the experiences reported by many other bereaved parents. Her suggestions are worth passing along.
Things NOT to say:
1. "I know how you feel." You don't know how another person feels.
2. "God wants children in heaven." The parents are thinking, "Let God get someone else's child."
3. "How are you doing?" The parents don't know how they are doing.
4. "What can I do for you?" The parents are in no condition to think clearly enough to answer.
5. "She was so special." The parents don't want her special, they want her alive.
Things to say:
1. "You are in our prayers." The parents can use prayers.
2. "If you want to talk, call me." It is good to know that someone is there for you.
3. "I'm sorry." This is OK, provided you really are sorry, and actually know the person.
"One thing you should never, never do," she adds, "is to bring up the subject of death or of the person's child when you see the parent in public. If the parent brings it up, let him.
"And never give that pitiful look and say in public, 'How are you REALLY doing?' This is cruel; it gives the parent a sick feeling in the stomach."
The death of a child can be an inconsolable loss. Sympathy can't make everything all right, but family and friends will be a big part of the process of learning to live with such a loss.
So it's important for friends to reach out to grieving parents in ways that respect their situation. That can mean not presuming to "know how they feel." It can mean respecting their emotional vulnerability in public. Or it can simply mean that offers of help should be specific, rather than the kind of open-ended suggestions that make parents wonder whether you're sincere or, if they know you are, then just how big a task they could ask you to do.
Sympathy or support can be as much a matter of how you express it as the words you choose or the friendship they represent. Notice that a parent can even take offense from the seemingly harmless phrase "I'm sorry" if the parent suspects the feelings aren't genuine.
When horrible things happen -- and when is the death of a child not horrible? -- we tend to shy away from the survivors. We know how vulnerable they are and, I think, we sense we could say the wrong thing.
It's true, we can. It's also true that with a little forethought -- and, most of all, with a willingness simply to be with that person and listen -- friends can offer bereaved parents comfort and support. It won't take away their pain, but it can help them begin the long journey toward coming to terms with their loss.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.