What Not to Say to a Grieving Parent

When the unimaginable happens and a friend or family member looses a child, only thoughts of comfort come to mind. Sandy Peckinpah, author of How to Survive the Worst that Can Happen, shares what you should and should not say to grieving parents who have lost a child.

young woman sitting in dark room

No one ever warned me that the unexpected could hold the most devastating loss of all. It descended on me just when I thought I had the perfect life. One day, my vibrant, beautiful, healthy 16-year-old son woke up with fever. The doctor said he had the flu. I found my son dead the next morning. The misdiagnosis turned out to be a silent killer: bacterial meningitis.

People call the death of a child “the worst that can happen,” and it is. It changes every chapter in your book of life. The steps to healing are not easy, and never linear. One day you think you’ll be okay, and the next, someone can say something that spirals you into the depths of despair. 

My message to grieving parents is this: be prepared. You’ll hear people say things that hurt in the early stages of your bereavement. These words can come from well-meaning friends, family, even the grocery store clerk, who suddenly notices you’re not coming in with your child anymore.

They struggle to find the words to make you feel better. Put aside the anger and look instead at their intention. No one wants to see you suffer. They hope their words will magically “fix” you.

Why had no one told me these things before? In my research I came across David Kessler’s website, Grief.com. He had a list of things not to say to those grieving. I stared in disbelief. I was guilty. I’d said them to others thinking I was helping. Now, as a parent who’s lost a child, I see the wounds clearly through my own tears.

If you’ve lost a child, or know someone who has, I created this list for you.

Things people should never to say to a grieving parent:

  • Time heals all wounds
  • I know how you feel
  • He’s in a better place (or) He’s with the angels now
  • At least you’re young enough to have more children (or) At least you have other children
  • Some people are not meant to have a long life
  • God never gives you more than you can handle
  • I know your child struggled with mental illness (pain, cancer etc.) At least he is no longer suffering or in pain
  • I didn’t want to bring it up because I didn’t want to remind you…

Suggested things to say:

  • I’m so very sorry.
  • My heart breaks for you, and I want you to know I’m here for you. I’ll bring dinner next week.
  • Your child was a gift to so many. Then, tell them a story of the impact their child had.
  • I think about you every day and can’t imagine how difficult this must be.
  • You’re in my prayers every day.
  • Keep my phone number handy and call me any time, even if it’s in the middle of the night.
  • Or… say nothing and offer a compassionate look, a gentle touch, an open heart, and the gift of letting them talk freely about their child.

If you’re a grieving parent and someone says something wrong, just breathe and know their intention is to help you. Your best response is to just say “thank you.” Allow feelings of love to fill the awkward space. Now is not the time to struggle with relationships, or tell people how wrong they are. Your task in healing is all you can handle right now.

Remember, there really are no adequate words for losing a child… only the gift of compassion and love.

To bereaved parents… I promise you will resurrect your life from your depths of despair. Compassion from others will help even if they say the wrong thing.

Take it day by day, and one day you’ll realize you’ve lived a day without sadness. That awareness changes you. You see hope for the future. Your resilience has carried you, and it will ultimately help you reclaim joy and feel happiness again.

It’s what your child would have wanted. I know that for sure.

In addition to How to Survive the Worst that Can Happen, Sandy Peckinpah has also written Rosey…the Imperfect Angel and Chester the Imperfect All Star. She won The Reader’s Favorite Silver Award and the New York Book Festival Honorable Mention Award in 2014. Sandy is also a certified grief recovery specialist with the Grief Recovery Institute, and lives in California with her husband and children.