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.
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.
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