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What to Say and What Not to Say to a Grieving Parent

Jul 11, 2023
people grieving a child

As a person who works in the world of grief, I am sometimes asked, “what can I say to this grieving person after their child died?” Over the eleven years I have led a pediatric hospice program and 23 years in pediatric medical social work, I have joined countless discussions about grief, specifically grief for the death of a child. I have found that, rather than what to say, it’s often what not to say that matters most.

Here is my list of what not to say when trying to offer support:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.” This can feel dismissive and is not helpful. Most people do not believe their child died for a reason.
  • “Your child is in a better place.” A grieving parent often cannot imagine a better place for their child than in their own arms.
  • “God has a plan.” If the grieving parent has not expressed this first as their belief, it can come across as dismissive, can attach guilt related to anger with God, or misses the mark for those who do not believe in God.
  • “Time heals all wounds.” This is simply not true if you ask a person whose child has died. Time sometimes helps, but nothing heals the wound of your child dying.
  • “God wanted your child sooner than expected because they were so special.” If the parent has not shared this to be their belief, it can be best to leave God out of it as noted for the reasons above.
  • “At least you have other children (or could have other children).” One child can never replace another. This minimizes the loss the parent is experiencing and can come across as dismissive of their experience.
  • “Be grateful you had them for the time you did.” If the parent expresses this, it’s ok to say it back to them. If they have not said this themselves, avoid it.
  • “I know how you feel…” Unless you have had a child die, it will be hard for the parent to accept this. Other losses are very different from losing a child, so it’s best to avoid bringing them up, as it can take away from their experience.
  • Try to avoid making suggestions on what they could or should do. “You need to take a shower every day” or “you need to get out and take a walk!” Not offering advice is hard for those of us who want to help! Living through the grief the parent is experiencing, waking up each day, is sometimes all they can handle. Avoid giving them more responsibility than that, including their own self-care.

There is hope, because although nothing we say will help a parent survive the death of their child faster or better, it’s smart to have an idea of what can be received as supportive. Here are my suggestions on what you can do or say:

  • “I’m so sorry about Jamie. I miss him, too.” Use their child’s name. It is important to grieving parents that their child’s life is acknowledged, soon after the death and for all the years that follow.
  • “I am here with you. Is there something I can do to help you today?”
  • “I’m just so sorry this has happened to you. I’m a text or phone call away if I can support you.”
  • “I know there are no words that will make this any better for you. I’m so sorry.”
  • Parents showing their grief around the living siblings is healthy and should be encouraged.
  • Allow for silence. If the person wants to fill it by sharing, they will. If not, that’s ok.
  • Note important dates and check in! Check in for the long-haul, especially on birthdays, anniversary of death, and during the holidays. Use the child’s name and add a note “I know the holidays are extra hard for you, missing Shawna. Holding you on my heart this holiday season.”
Hospice Services at Nationwide Children's Hospital
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Laura Rozcicha
Hospice Services

Laura Rozcicha is a program manager of Hospice Services at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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