Other than sincerity, there are few absolute rules about
offering consolation to a bereaved friend or acquaintance. What works for some people may not be right for others.
A case in point was a recent column featuring a letter with advice for expressing sympathy to parents after the death of a child. In the letter, a bereaved mother suggested that well-meaning friends not put emotionally vulnerable parents on the spot by bringing up the subject of their child in public. Several bereaved parents have written with differing views:
"My grandson died of cancer almost four years ago, and I took care of him day and night for two years, because his mother had to work. His father had left home just a couple of weeks before he was diagnosed. After his death his mother said that when she saw people she wanted them to mention him, no matter where she was. I feel the same way. He was uppermost in our minds and talking about him helped.
"We still want people to talk about him, just to say something about what he used to do or say. His mother says it is like they have forgotten him if they don't talk about him. We don't mind if it brings tears to our eyes even now. Even if they talk about the pain he went through and how brave he was, it all helps. We are trying to keep the memories of him, and anything anyone says might be something we didn't know or have forgotten. It is a comfort.
"Don't be afraid of mentioning him; we love the thought of him. I intentionally bring up a subject about him in the company of others in front of my daughter. She loves to talk about him. She still cries, and so do I, but we don't want people to try to forget him because of that." -- P.C., Franklin, Mich.
"While there may be a few parents who feel that bringing up the subject of death or the child's name should not be done in public, I feel that it is an act of caring and concern if someone
does that when they see me. There are very few people in this world who are not afraid of death, but memories are all I have and death is very much a part of life." -- K.J., Detroit
"My son died in March of 1989. He was 18. There isn't a place on this earth that I wouldn't want to talk about him to anyone who was truly interested. (Even in the middle of a mall!) I think that the one thing bereaved parents need most is to talk about their dead child. The biggest fear we have is that our child will be forgotten and it will seem like he never lived. Even my best friend finds it almost impossible to talk about him.
"The Compassionate Friends is one place where bereaved parents have a chance to talk about their child and remember him. I would recommend this group to anyone who has lost a child, regardless of the circumstances." -- J.T., Livonia, Mich.
For further information about The Compassionate Friends, contact the organization's national offices at P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, Ill. 60522-3696; (708) 990-0010.
Clearly, bereaved parents don't want their children forgotten. The issue is how you let them know you do remember. There is no one approach that will work for every person in every situation. If there is any "rule," it is summed up in this letter:
"I have found it rewarding in confronting a person who is in the first week of loss of a loved one just to hold her hand and not say anything; just listen attentively. If the person seems afraid of crying, I simply say, 'It's OK to cry.' The important thing is to listen. A further comment I have found useful is to state my memories of a few happy moments I have had with the deceased. Usually the newly bereaved wants to talk about the deceased if she can find an uncritical ear. My task is to say very little; just listen." -- G.S., Royal Oak, Mich.