What do you say to someone who’s lost a child? I’ve thought about this from both sides, and I get asked often enough that I might as well write down my thoughts in case they’re useful. This might be a bit specific towards parents who have lost an infant, but I’d guess that a lot of this translates pretty well across all sorts of grief. So, my standard advice goes something like this:
1. Say something. So many people don’t say anything because they’re afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing, but there’s really no *right* thing. Nothing is going to make things *right*. So say something.
2. If you don’t know what to say, try “that sucks.” Really. You don’t have to have something deeply insightful to say, and everyone else is trying to fix the unfixable. Recognition that it sucks is meaningful.
3. Make food for the person. This seems to be universal around tragedies… somehow, it’s just hard to handle the day-to-day. Make food and drop it off. My suggestion is not to ask, because people will often say no out of some sort of guilt. But some people might get upset if they said no and then you did it anyway, so just don’t ask.
4. If it’s someone you’re not super close to, feel free to go above and beyond. When my son died, someone I’d never met on a poker site mailed me tasty BBQ from his hometown because it was his comfort food. I still tear up thinking about that.
5. Also feel free to go above and beyond if you are super close. Unprompted, two of my friends came out to stay with me for a week each. I never thought I’d have to ask for help, and they never made me ask. They just split up the time between themselves, told their bosses and families they’d be gone for a while, and came.
6. Sitting shiva is such a deeply wise tradition.
7. Don’t expect the person to “get over it.” That’s not what happens. At first, the whole world is a deep, dark, awful place. Eventually, the world gets bigger, and you can step away from that place. But the place is still there, and it’s always as deep and it’s always as dark. It’s not that you get over it; it’s that your world grows again so that there are more parts to it.
8. Don’t say “I don’t know how you manage keep it together.” What do you expect the person to do? It’s not like there’s another option, and poking too hard at this is almost like giving a tacit “It’s OK to stop keeping it together.” This is a well-meaning comment, but I think it basically never helps and often makes the person angry.
10. If you go to temple or church with the person every week, and you’ve had deep and meaningful religious conversations with the person for several years, and the person would consider you a soul-mate, feel free to say something religious like, “If that child was only going to be here for a short time, maybe God wanted it to be with you.” If ANY of those things are not true, DON’T SAY ANYTHING RELIGIOUS. Nothing made me want to punch people in the neck more than someone who didn’t know me saying, “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
11. Do something normal with the person. Go on a walk, go out to dinner, something. And just be normal, even if it’s awkward. If they turn you down, try again in a few weeks. If they turn you down again, try again in another few weeks. Rinse, repeat. It may take a looooong time. Don’t give up.
12. Similarly, find an excuse to smile. The person likely isn’t smiling much, and ditto for everyone around them. They’ll remember the smiles, just because it’s nice to know that such things still exist nearby.
13. It’s not uncommon to be essentially paralyzed by fear, in ways that seem very surprising on the outside. Maybe going to the grocery store is terrifying because they’ve lost a child and they’re sure that the store is going to be full of pregnant women, and they just can’t take it if they see pregnant women right now. I don’t know what to say about this one except to recognize it.
14. For women especially, there are sites that have jewelry (e.g. necklaces with the birth stone on a flower, etc.). Those can be really meaningful without being super obvious.
15. “At least” is not usually helpful. “At least you’re still young;” “At least you can still have more kids;” “At least you didn’t lose an older child,”… those are the things people said to me, and none of them helped. Once things get to a certain level of bad, knowing that they could be worse doesn’t help, and often carries an implied statement that the person shouldn’t feel so torn up since things could be worse.
16. Don’t be alarmed if they’re using humor, especially dark humor. But probably don’t make those jokes yourself.
17. Don’t try to force everything to be better. Don’t tell the the person to stop being sad or to get over it. Seriously think about this one. The temptation to do this while pretending you’re not doing this is strong, probably because you just don’t want the person to hurt so much, but don’t do it.