Lost for Words: Supporting a Parent after the Loss of a Child

distraught womanThe loss of a child—no matter the age—can be traumatic and can leave family, particularly the parents, reeling in the emotional turmoil that comes with great loss. I have noticed a few commonalities among those parents, one being that the people in their lives do not know how to react or help.

This article is for friends and family members of a parent who has lost a child. The goal is to raise awareness of common mistakes made in trying to provide support and to suggest more effective ways to support parents as they work through their grief.

“It’s time to move on! You have to get on with your life!”

This statement, and others like it, is the first common mistake well-meaning loved ones make. The intent is to help the parent to get back to life and to find meaning again. Watching someone we love go through grief and extreme suffering can be very uncomfortable. We have an innate need to want to help the people we love through life, and if one of our loved ones seems stuck, we have the urge to do everything we can to get them unstuck. However, this message unintentionally invalidates the parent, who may start to question whether there is something wrong with them for grieving for the child.

Grief looks different in every person. Some people may need to take a leave of absence from work. They may need to lay on the couch all day and allow themselves to ride the roller coaster that is grief, which usually consists of bouts of crying, depression, anger, numbness, confusion, and inward questioning as to how the person could have prevented the loss, followed by perhaps more anger, depression, and numbness. The parent may feel distant from loved ones, which often makes loved ones concerned and anxious and can lead to statements similar to the one above.

There is no time limit on how long it takes a person to grieve the loss of a child. In fact, it is important to acknowledge that huge losses will make an impact on a person’s life forever. This does not mean there is no life after loss. It just means that it will look different.

Giving the person as much time as they need to grieve, and allowing them to grieve in their own way, is very important. Doing so creates safety for the parent and assurance they can do what is needed to do to work through emotions with support and understanding. Saying something like, “It’s OK that you are feeling the way you are … you have experienced a major loss and I want you to know that I am here to listen … take as long as you need,” is a much better way to communicate to the person that you want to help him or her through the grieving process.

“Why are you having those thoughts? They are completely irrational, and of course you couldn’t have done anything to prevent this!”

When someone becomes a parent, they are forever changed. It is like a switch goes off in the brain. All of a sudden, priorities shift, and keeping one’s child safe and happy is a top priority. So when someone experiences a loss of a child, it is natural to start questioning inwardly and wondering what they could have done to keep the child safe.

Even in situations where it is blatantly obvious there was nothing the parent could have done, there is still that wondering. In my experience, parents are cognitively aware of the fact they could not have done anything to prevent the loss, but emotionally they still feel that they failed. Loved ones often want to jump in and challenge these thoughts in an effort to reassure the parent that this is not true. This may be necessary at some point, but how you do this is extremely important.

When you fail to validate the parent’s feelings by failing to simply listen without trying to fix it, a barrier for communication may be created. Part of healing and moving forward through grief is being able to share what the parent is thinking, no matter how extreme those thoughts may sound. Failing to validate feelings can hinder the healing process.

Instead of jumping right to trying to correct a belief that you feel is irrational, validate that having such thoughts is completely normal for a parent who has lost a child. Listen to the person and practice reflective listening skills (example: “I hear you saying that you feel responsible for this”). Make validating statements such as, “I hear you saying you are hurting. I know this is very painful for you, which is completely understandable.” This can help the person realize that you are trying to understand where they are coming from.

Sometimes even irrational beliefs need to be validated. Sometimes more intensive work has to take place. If the latter is true, it is important to help the person to get to a therapist who can help.

“Everything happens for a reason. They’re in a better place.”

This may be part of your spiritual belief system or even the parent’s belief system, but this statement often backfires. Trying to provide an explanation for the loss of a child can lead to the parent feeling as though their anger (or other intense emotion connected with the loss) is invalid. It is important that the parent is allowed to process the loss and can identify meaning, if any, in their own time.

If the parent wants to have a conversation about meaning and the loss, by all means, have that conversation! But let the person decide if that is a conversation they want and are ready to have. Be aware that people feel a lot of things with such a significant loss, and all feelings and thoughts that come up are valid.

Remember, you shouldn’t try to “fix” the pain that accompanies grieving. Something along these lines is a good place to start: “I can’t imagine what you are going through. This must be so difficult. I am here for you and would like to offer my support during this difficult time. I can offer you a listening ear without judgment or advice.”

A support network is an important part of the healing process after the loss of a child. Knowing how you can be there for the parent can make a huge difference in how that person grieves and begins to work toward healing. Seeking assistance from a professional to help guide you through supporting your loved one can be extremely helpful and can help address the discomfort that often accompanies seeing someone you love suffer.

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  • preston

    March 20th, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Probably the best thing to remember is that there is nothing that can be actually said that will make this better for the parents and their grieving process. Everyone will have to go through their own grieving and in their own time and what you will need to do will simply be there to support that said process. Don’t give up on them or try to push them through it faster than what they may be comfortable with. What could work for one person could actually be horrible for the next. Just being with them? That’s the ebst thing for you to do. Be there to comfort them when they need you to be, a shoulder to lean on and cry on when they need it, and someone who also knows when they need space. But above all, remain a friend and don’t let that grief that they are feeling drive you away for one day they will smile again and they will want to have you around to see that and be a part of that.

  • Timothy S

    March 20th, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Could you suggest any materials in writing that may culod help someone dealing with a loss like this? My words may not could help but those of a writer skilled at helping others in a time like this could make a profound impact

  • Brenda Harmer

    March 20th, 2014 at 8:05 PM

    The daughter I lost was a 47 year old Mother of two, the youngest was 9. In our faith based culture in Utah, a comment often made is “the Lord must have need her”, to which I wanted to scream “the Lord could not need her anywhere near as much as her sons”!! Please don’t inflict your religious beliefs on the grieving unless you are sure they too have the same beliefs.

  • Dorthy

    January 28th, 2019 at 10:00 AM

    That is bunk. The context is not about YOU. Their belief is about THEIR relationship with that person, not you. Your inability to wrap your mind around your daughter’s belief system is your own personal indictment, not that of the person speaking THEIR truth. It’s not all about you………… Others are grieving, not just you and you alone.

  • Delia

    March 21st, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    I can even say that the situation was the same when we lost my brother to cancer a few years ago.
    My siblings and I were sad, of course, but my parents were inconsolable, and this made it even harder for all of us.
    I guess as a parent you never expect to bury a child before you and they were just grieved beyond words. I wanted to be able to amke everything okay and I didn’t have the words to comfort them like I thought that I should. This was a very trying time for us all.

  • Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC

    March 21st, 2014 at 9:49 AM

    Thank you all for your comments. Even though each situation is unique, there is a common theme that unconditional love and support is needed at times of loss. It is also a time to acknowledge that you may need extra support as it can be an extremely difficult and confusing time for all parties involved. I have two resources that I often recommend to clients who have experienced loss. They are “Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief” by Martha Whitmore Hickman and “Tear Soup” by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. Thank you all for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  • Arden

    March 21st, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    I actually have a friend going through this loss right now. Her little boy has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and while he is still here with us today we know that it is just a matter of time. I know that there are probably times when she has wondered why her child and not that of someone else and why this has happened to her family, and we have all wondered the same thing. And what can you say to make any of this pain go away? You try to do the best you can but there are just days when it hits all of you so hard that the only thing that you can do is cry and wonder why this is happeneing. There is simply no answer for the grief that they are feeling.

  • simeon

    March 22nd, 2014 at 6:04 AM

    Before I was born my own parents lost a baby and the had me and then I was it. You know, I never actually felt like I was good enough for them and that made me feel horrible and they never addressed how that possibly made me feel like growing up. There were always things that affected them but they never looked at it from my viewpoint either and that teally hurt. Any time I did something wrong I felt as if they thought that the dead baby wouldn’t have done that or h would have done something better or more perfect. I suppose that this was my own insecurities creeping in but with that said they never di anything that would make me believe anything any differently.

  • Bryland

    March 22nd, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    Words will never replace the loss of a child but kind actions can help with the pain and emotional grief that one will feel. Rmember that and express that when at the same time being a good friend. A meal can help, anything to let someone know that they are not in this alone.

  • Paige

    March 23rd, 2014 at 4:34 AM

    There are many, many online support groups for those families who have encountered losses such as this as well. This could be a wonderful suggestion for someone, especially if you feel close enough to them so that they would not take offense.

  • della

    March 24th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    The insensitivity of others is beyond words especially when it comes to a loss like this. If you have never gone through a loss like this then you have no idea the amount of pain that someone is feeling. Most grieving parents are never looking for that one speech or word to comfort them, time is going to be the best healer. But just knowing that you care will be what is important to them once they are able to somewhat come through this. I am not sure that one ever fully heals from such a tragic loss, and words and statements like ths ones cited above will never do one thing to help anyone other than make them feel even worse and on the defensive about their grief.

  • james

    March 25th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    i don’t wnat to hear from others that my child is in a better place

    i want that child back home with me

  • Bob

    March 25th, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    I feel terrible admitting that many years ago I lost a good friend because of this, because I was so uncomfortable when his son died that I just went away because I didn’t know what I should do for him or say. Looking back now I know that this was a horrible thing to do, to leave him in what I now know was a time of grave need for him and his family but we were young and it felt so alien for me to be in this situation so I did, I bailed on them and I have never talked to him since then. I went to the funeral and then I never called or wrote or anything. I would like to be able to take it all back but he and his wife have both moved away from our town now and I would be so embarrassed, how to even try to touch base with them again. I know now or hope that I would do things differently if given the chance but that still kind of haunts me because I know that it must have pained them that someone so close to them could have been so callous and scared when they were the ones who were hurting.

  • Debbie

    March 21st, 2016 at 5:09 PM

    I agree with james.my daughter died in a car accident a few months ago .i know she is in heaven but i want her home with me .and i get tired of people expecting me to ” get over it ” its not like im ” getting over ” the flu or something .its the death of my child .

  • Doe

    October 9th, 2016 at 9:03 PM

    My boyfriend and I have only been together for 3 months but it was an instant comfortable, loving and fulfilling relationship for both us. We had both had lost our spouses and both felt this was a new beginning for us. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago his adult son was killed in a motorcycle accident. My friend was not able to get to the hospital in time to see his son before he died. For the first couple of days he was himself then he immediately shut me out of his life and said he would call when he wanted to talk. While I know he is devasted I do not understand why he has pushed the one he loves away. I do know he has talked to two other women who have had similar losses and I am a little jealous that he feels that connection to them rather than me. I feel like I have been thrown under the bus and not allowed to be with him during this time but it’s okay for him to talk to others about his loss. I just need some reassurance from him that this is not the end of our relationship (as I see it is), but by him pushing me away he will not communicate with me. In a way I am grieving also – the loss of a loving and caring relationship. Any thoughts ?

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