Another one of those “What Not to Say to Bereaved Parents” posts

I know it’s really hard to know what to say to a bereaved parent. There are some really good books and blog articles out there on what to say or not say, though, and I would like to encourage people to read them should they know someone whose child died. It would be really helpful for you – and, as a result, to the parent whose child has died – to be proactive in finding out what might help and what might hurt. Take the initiative – right away – to do some reading about will really help or what not to say to a bereaved parent.

One author on the Still Standing website writes:

If you’re a bereaved parent, you can probably count on at least five hands the number of phrases you wish people would never, ever say to you.  If only there was a way for the world to learn how to speak compassionately to the brokenhearted.  What many people believe is a comforting statement, most often is not…There seems to be a large gap between intention and what’s actually being communicated to those of us who are hurting. (http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/01/6-things-never-say-bereaved-parent/)

“A large gap between intention and what’s actually being communicated…” I think this is very true.

I know that, when people say things to a bereaved parent, most people usually have really good intentions. It’s just that the same framework that may work in other circumstances doesn’t necessarily work for a parent who has lost a child. The filters are different. The receiving heart is different. The deep, broken rawness of a bereaved parent’s heart accentuates and drives deep both the hurtful comments/actions and the well-intentioned stumbles in trying to communicate. What is intended to give comfort does not and may actually cause much more damage than good.

My precious Mr. JayOn Jason’s birthday last year, my sister shared a picture of Jason and wrote a nice tribute to him:

Let me introduce you to Jason, my nephew. He was fun, so smart, loved people, and had many friends, both his peers and adults. He loved Jesus. He and his friend Alina were killed by a drunk driver. He was 19. We live with two realities: first, our understanding that he is now in our future where we will all be together again one day soon, and then our present ache at his absence. He was loved. He mattered to his family. I wish we could all understand how important we are to someone. So today and always, I will remember Jason with great joy and I will smile.

It was a wonderful tribute, I thought, from the heart of a loving aunt. She also had quite a few nice comments, too, in response to her post.

However, one mutual acquaintance recently saw the photo and wrote, “…the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. Job 1:21…” (capital letters her emphasis). I must say this didn’t particularly comfort me in any way. What it communicated to me was that I was supposed to thank God for letting Jason die.

I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and has been given to us for instruction, inspiration, and edification. I believe hope and comfort can be found in the Bible. For some reason, though, I think Christians feel that, just because what they quote to a fellow Christian parent who has lost a child is a Bible verse, that it should be the ultimate comfort. I would strongly caution this assumption when quote Bible verses to a bereaved parent, though. I don’t think it necessarily comes across as the comfort you think it will.

I also strongly caution the same assumption about giving a book to a bereaved parent. Usually it’s a book about a fellow Christian – one, of course, who has walked through a difficult situation or great loss and has “triumphed” over his or her situation or loss – that is given to “inspire” the bereaved parent to “move on” or triumph over the tragedy. When giving this type of book, though, the message behind the gift that comes across is, “This person suffered a terrible tragedy and got over it. You should be able to do the same.”

Just a side note to books concerning bereaved parents: Most bereaved parents do a lot of reading, anyway, after the death of a child, trying to find resources that will help them. They usually read until they find some that help them, individually, concerning their own loss. For me, I have quite a library of books on grief. I purchased the books I read and marked them up extensively. Most have comments in the margins. Some have a big “NO” written through pages or paragraphs. Obviously, the some books were of more help to me than others. I always look to see if the author is a bereaved parent; next, if it has been been authored by a bereaved parent, I then look at when the book was written relative to the loss. To me, both of these make a difference in the “weight” a book carries when I read it.

I realize it’s usually just a matter of not knowing how to respond to a parent whose child has died. People don’t know what to say and a Bible verse comes to mind, so they say it. They see a book they think will “help,” purchase it, and give it to the bereaved parent. People want to say or do something – anything! – that will bring comfort to a parent whose child has died.

It’s important to realize that saying or doing these types of things may stifle honest communication from a bereaved parent about the grief he or she is experiencing. Let me say that again: These types of things may stifle honest communication from a bereaved parent. Instead of open communication, it comes across as “This is the Word of God and YOU WILL ACCEPT IT.” It puts unnecessary pressure on a bereaved parent to “recover” quickly. It makes the bereaved parent feel like he or she can’t talk honestly about the deep grief felt over the death of a child. It makes us feel, as Christians, that we don’t have the right to fully grieve our loss. It makes us feel that, because we have God “on our side,” everything should be okay. As I said in an earlier post:

In their book The Grief Recovery Handbook, J. James and R. Friedman (in a chapter entitled “Academy Award Recovery”) state, “In a relatively short time, the griever discovers that he or she must indeed ‘act recovered’ in order to be treated in an acceptable manner.” In order to not be left alone and for people to want to be around you, the griever has to take steps to only show an acceptable amount of grief so people are not uncomfortable. In our society, people who appear “strong” or who don’t bring attention to their grief or quickly recover from adversity are admired. Bereaved parents have an expectation put on them that they should recover quickly. If they don’t, there is a tendency to want to “help” a bereaved parent move on down the road. It’s usually not necessarily for their benefit, but rather so that people around will be more comfortable.

https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/check-the-shoulds-and-misconceptions-at-the-door-it-takes-a-long-time-and-its-hard-work/

As Christian parents, we believe a child is a gift from God. We dedicate our children to God. We fervently pray for our children. We pray for their protection. We pray for their friends. We pray for their future spouses. We pray for their future children, our future grandchildren. We take our children to church and try to raise them in a Godly manner. We are thrilled when the day comes when they ask Jesus into their hearts.

I remember praying, as a fellow blogger wrote, for the person who would one day become Jason’s bride. I truly believed God was preparing a life partner for him. I truly believed I have the privilege of attending Jason’s wedding and being a grandparent to his children. I prayed and prayed and prayed for Jason – for all of my kids. I believed my prayers mattered and that God would answer my prayers. I “prayed” Bible verses for my kids.

The child of a Christian parent dies. Now what? How do we reconcile all those prayers for our children’s protection with a God who let our child die? For me, it hasn’t been an easy thing to do.

I believe Jason is in Heaven and that I will see him again one day, and that brings me comfort. I remember the day he prayed with my husband, asking Jesus into his heart. We were thrilled. I know that Jason loved God and wanted to serve him with his whole heart. In my mind, I still picture Jason standing in church the Sunday before he died, eyes closed and hands raised to God in worship.

What I’m trying to get across is that, more than anything, we as bereaved parents we don’t need Bible verses quoted to us or inspirational books given to us. You don’t have to say anything. Nothing you say will take away the deep grief of losing a child. We don’t need the additional pressure of feeling like we should respond a certain way or recover quickly, just because we are Christians. We need you to BE there. Please don’t disappear, just because you feel like you don’t know what to say or do. We need you to step into the messiness of our grief and hold us close as we cry. We need to honestly grieve the death of our child. We need to know you honestly grieve the death of our child. We need you to show God’s love by your actions. We need to know you care.

© 2015 Rebecca R. Carney

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15 thoughts on “Another one of those “What Not to Say to Bereaved Parents” posts

  1. I wish that there could be the perfect book with the perfect things to say. As for the one writing that verse. Sometimes I feel that there are people who really want to comfort and there are ones that just like to hear themselves talk… (or write) whatever the case may be. And their words are just space fillers. And then there are some that really just prick our hearts and say YES! They GET it!!!!
    I remember when I lost my last pregnancy (which by the way, I KNOW in NO WAY compares to your loss!!!) I was far enough along to feel the fluttering. And then it was over. Of course there were the ones that said at least I already had kids…etc… Of course I knew that and I was sooo grateful. But this baby was with my new husband who had no kids of his own. And a friend said to me, “At least he (my husband) will have one waiting for him up in heaven.” For some reason, that was about the ONLY thing anyone said to me that comforted me. Which may have totally sent someone else over the edge and felt that it was not helpful, or have even been offended. But for some reason I loved what she said and always remembered it. But I wish there was a book. Maybe someone should compile a bunch of examples that hurting people could share that helped them. I know it’s been done but maybe even you could do something here. I love your heart. I loved what your sister wrote about your son, I imagined being his mama and reading it, and it made me cry. I am so glad he knew Jesus. You did a wonderful job being his mom. I can tell and now we all will meet someday in heaven and that is our comfort.
    I love that you share here. I am sure through your own pain, you are helping! If even one at a time. May they find this blog!
    xoxo
    Diane

    • I agree that there are some comments people say and books that are given that really DO comfort. I don’t mean to communicate an absolute that saying something or doing something NEVER helps. What may not help one person may help another, that’s true.

      I think it’s important, though, to examine one’s heart and motivation before saying something to a bereaved parent or giving a bereaved parent a “helpful” book. A bit of introspection such as this may be in order: Is that the only thing you are doing? Are you sending a card with a Bible verse or book and then disappearing? Are you trying to provide comfort for the bereaved parent or trying to make yourself more comfortable that you “did something”? Are you trying to provide comfort or are you trying guilt the bereaved parent into “moving on”? The last thing a bereaved parent needs on top of everything else is to feel guilty of not having an “Academy Award Recovery.” For me, the difference between those with good intentions who stayed around were easier to accept than those who sent a card with a Bible verse or who told us they were praying for us and then disappeared. It makes a huge difference!

      Thank you so much, Diane, for visiting my blog and for your comments and encouragement.

      Becky

  2. I just clicked on your links and see that there ARE books out there! And you linked to them! Visiting your blog before, it triggered a memory that I’d thought I’d seen your lists! Duhhhh! I knew that! But I still think that you could really write something great! Because I love your blog!

  3. Reblogged this on The Infinite Fountain and commented:
    The title says it all. I have been facing many of the same issues Rebecca writes about, as all bereaved parents. Her conclusion is one I have come to as well. We don’t really need you to say anything, there are no words. What we need is for you to be there for us whether we need it or not. Not to “help us recover”, there is no recovery for this. Don’t disappear just because you think enough time has elapsed for the grieving parent to have ‘moved on’. There is no moving on. Just moving forward. Everyone moves at their own pace, and the best thing you can do is walk with us, however long it takes.

  4. Rebecca, thank you for another cogent and honest essay. I have shared it on my own blog if you don’t mind. So much of what you write holds true for all of us who have lost children. I think it is mostly that people have no idea whatsoever what to say or do. As a society we don’t “do” grief very well, neither the grievers nor the comforters. I read many of those books, and found little true comfort there. Mostly it is the presence of our closest friends who are on this journey with us, who knew our son, loved him, and miss him nearly as much as we do. For them we are eternally grateful. The posts and pictures we see from his friends reassure us that his memory will never fade, that there are people in this world who will keep him alive in their hearts along with us. And that is some true comfort we can take.

  5. One of the hardest things was when a church leader told me a year after my son’s death he didn’t want me to get “stuck in grief”. That’s because I was not the same person I suppose. Not involved in church the way I was. But my son committed suicide. This individual didn’t understand anything about grief and his counseling made it worse. But I was gracious. The paragraph you cited in the Grief Recovery Handbook fit me precisely. Until this last year, I cared more about the feelings of others than I did for myself.

    This might turn people away from church and believe me, I understand. But I don’t want it to turn them away from God because I know he has and is helping me through my heartache.

  6. When people said some of these things to me, I tried to remember that I once had no clue. I did not understand until I understood. I knew there had to be grace for them, too, just as there is grace for me.

    Thank you for sharing

    • I agree. People sometimes say things because they have never been in the position of losing a child…and I would never wish anyone to walk the path of losing a child. I would rather have people innocently say some of these things than have to experience the death of a child in order to understand.

      I have always been a person who sees both sides of the coin in a situation, but I can honestly say that it took me a while to extend grace, not only to other people who I felt failed us so badly after Jason died, but also to myself. I found that it’s hard to be the “bigger person” when you are in so much grief. I am a very independent person who tends to handle everything on my own and who puts others before myself, sometimes more than healthy for my own well-being, but it was hard to be the “needy” one, needing support more than I ever had in my life and seeing a distinct lack thereof when it was so desperately needed. I have learned to extend grace to people who we knew at the time, as I said in one of my earlier posts (https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/a-few-things-ive-learned-in-the-10-years-since-jason-died/).

      Kathleen, thank you so much for your input. I really appreciate it.

      Becky

      • There are days when i hide from the world because I know I have no grace for the stupid things they say. Today is one of those days. I am staying home, not answering the phone. I just don’t have it today.

        I completely understand not wanting to always be the bigger person, especially when we have been through so much loss! I try to turn to Christ, by fail miserably way too ofter.

        Blessings on you today.

  7. So many kinds of grief. So many things to not say.

    Trite saying will not help those who are grieving and often hurt. Even scripture will not “fix” those who are grieving. Our grief will only be “fixed” when we arrive in Heaven and see our Savior face-to-face.

  8. From your post, “I always look to see if the author is a bereaved parent; next, if it has been been authored by a bereaved parent, I then look at when the book was written relative to the loss. To me, both of these make a difference in the “weight” a book carries when I read it.”

    This is so absolutely true to measure whether or not the book/resource will be helpful to you as a bereaved parent. I also think the manner of death makes a tremendous difference and also how much loss the person has had previously.

    I had not thought of notetaking in the book itself, but that is a good idea as well …

    The worst book we were given was a book on forgiveness (our family is still currently in trial for as the person who ran over our son on his motorcycle is being charged with vehicular manslaughter)…the author’s examples were so trivial and shallow it was just ridiculous, not to mention, the passive judgment that is indicated by this on us, the victims….

    I think of the verses from Ecclesiates, of how there is a proper time for things…this is the time for justice and it is the way it should be.

    Thank you Rebecca for writing this blog, it is always so insightful. Your love for your son, Jason shines through. Blessings.

    • We, too, had the additional stress and trauma of dealing with vehicular homicide charges against the guy who killed Jason and his best friend. It was so stressful on top of everything else. I think one of the times I felt most incredulous was when a chaplain came up to me and asked if I knew which prison the guy was going to. He wanted to make sure someone was going to be able to be there to support him. I still shake my head at that one, especially considering how unsupported we were.

      I am sending hugs to you…with great empathy…

      Becky

      • That chaplain was in about the same zone as when I was approached by a deaconess who thought this was a “witnessing opportunity” for the girl who ran my son over and killed him. The girl is not remorseful at all — after she ran away last April (2014) and never showed at the hearing, we found her by someone noticing her trying to pick up guys on Facebook. I literally had to print out my own wanted posters with a reward and hand deliver them to the sheriff departments of the neighboring counties since my son’s case had become such a low priority in the county he was killed. It was the neighboring county that arrested her. In the beginning of the court sessions some people were with us but now we are sitting in the courtroom by ourselves. It is over two years into this.

        I also noticed in your case with your son Jason and his friend, that the person only served 2 and 2/3 years for killing two people while drunk. Wow…this seems to be a very sad trend with law and justice — that if the person(s) on the road gets killed , pedestrian or otherwise, that often the deceased bears the blame and/or sentencing is minimum. Our society give longer sentences to much lighter crimes. I am on another grief forum and this has happened a lot to many other bereaved parents. Law is very soft on vehicular homicide crime. Too often drivers who kill are known carelessness, habitual bad driving, and lack of concern for anyone else’s wellbeing, and an innocent person gets their life taken away. But tonight I just hurt, through and through…we poured so much into our children. Like you, we homeschooled and family life was what we were contented with. I think that is why your blog resonated with me because I saw that in your own family situation with Jason. For us, we are now visiting two grave sites, both of our sons.

        Again, thank you for the blog, you write from the heart.

  9. Thanks for sharing. You are right about there being so many resources out there and that sometimes it is best to let us parents who have lost children to simply find what is best for us. Rather than books, I personally appreciated appreciated the simple cards that people sent which were a nice reminder that people were thinking about us.

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