what to say (or not say) to a bereaved parent

I was able to have a heart-to-heart discussion with one of my friends lately where I finally found the courage to admit that I am really frustrated by how most people have been treating me since my son’s death.

When Brock passed, the initial outpouring of support that we got was nothing short of amazing.  I received flowers, cards, hugs, money, keepsakes and condolences from more people than I can count, many of whom I barely knew, or didn’t know at all.  A big handful of friends and family (and again, even a few perfect strangers) made the long journey to his visitation to show their support… there were way more people than I expected, and it was truly heartwarming.  I was really surprised by the turnout.  I think I had assumed people wouldn’t take our loss seriously, since he’d passed before birth, and there had never been a baby to ‘know’, but they proved me otherwise.  I found a restored faith in humanity when I was reminded how kind, caring, and sensitive people could be when they wanted to (or needed to be).

Unfortunately, 2 and a half months later, I need to admit that I feel a bit neglected.  For the first couple of weeks, people would check in on my husband and I pretty often, and every time someone said that they were thinking of us or asked if we needed anything, I felt a little bit better knowing that others cared so much about our well-being.  Since then, there’s been radio silence from most everyone; it’s pretty much only been close friends and family that have continued to make an effort to help us through things.  And, to be honest, I feel like I need the support now more than ever.  The first month whipped by me in a shell-shocked blur, and now that things are really setting in and my life deviates further and further away from what I thought it would be, now is when I could really use the comfort and reassurances of friends and family.

I don’t blame people for being a bit awkward around me; after all, before this happened, I would have had no idea how to deal with a bereaved parent, either.  Two days before I found out Brock had passed (the day I had my bad NST), another woman I knew lost her newborn to an illness, and I remember sitting there, crying for her and her family and her little girl, thinking about what a horrible tragedy they had suffered and wondering what I could possibly do to help her.  It’s such unfamiliar territory that you just freeze up, and I felt so helpless, like I could never possibly fathom what she was going through (which, in retrospect, is terribly ironic).  I had no idea what to do, and, therefore, probably did far less than I should have… but I was so petrified of saying or doing the wrong thing and making things worse.

With that said, here’s what I’ve realized in the last few weeks:

In most cases, if you mean well, that’s more than enough for a bereaved parent to appreciate.  As long as you are showing an appropriate emotional reaction to our situation and not making light of things, even if you say or do something that I don’t agree with, I’m not going to inexplicably fly off the handle and lose my mind.  We are still sane, rational people most of the time, and I appreciate pretty much any effort to help.  My great-grandmother-in-law – 93, and with fairly advanced dementia – took one of my hands in hers, and said, with tears in her eyes and grief on her face, “I’m so sorry.  But, you know, at least you’re young and healthy.  You can have another.”  Was it a horrible thing to say?  Yes.  Was she legitimately upset for us?  Absolutely.  (It’s also worth noting that, in her youth, prenatal and perinatal loss were things that nobody acknowledged or talked about.)  Even though she said the wrong thing, knowing she cared enough to make the effort to console us was something, at any rate.

Let me reiterate: it’s far better to say/do the wrong thing than it is to say/do nothing at all.  I learned a lot about who I could and couldn’t rely on based on who reached out to us after our loss and who didn’t.  Some people offered more than others, and some people were less awkward than others – that doesn’t make their compassion worth any more or less.  I know a few people who I am certain know what happened and have not said a word to me, and I no longer consider them to be my friends, because I find it so insulting that they couldn’t find thirty seconds to tell me that they lament this horrible tragedy that we’ve suffered.  Putting in the effort is more than enough.  How hard is it to briefly call with your condolences?  Heck, even if you just send a text of sympathy, at least it’s something.

Additionally, don’t feel bad about not knowing how to react.  A lot of people came up to us, clearly distressed, and simply said they had no idea what to say.  Of course you don’t – it’s such a messed up scenario that it would be kind of strange if you had all the right words for it, wouldn’t it?  Saying “I don’t know what to say” tells me that you understand the gravity of our loss, but you also wish you knew the right things to say to console us.  It shows acknowledgment, sympathy, and caring all on its own.  That’s more than enough.  Thank you! 

The last thing I’ll say on the matter, and the subject of my discussion with my friend, is that I really wish that more people would continue to reach out to me.  Just because I am bereaved doesn’t mean I want to sit at home all day and stew in my grief.  On the contrary, I am more than open to the idea of getting out and spending time with people.  Someone eloquently mentioned in an article I read recently that ‘sad people need parties too’.  I promise, if you invite me out for a cup of coffee or we go and see a movie together, not only will I be infinitely grateful for the company and the distraction, you will find that I’m still the same person I was before in a lot of ways.  I still like the same things I did before, including spending time with you.  If we hang out together, that doesn’t immediately mean I’m going to force you to talk about my dead son (but, if you are comfortable with discussing him, don’t be afraid to let me know that you are open to talking about it – that’s also a very grand gesture).  I don’t spend every second of every day in mourning, and I’m happy just for the companionship.  The best thing you can do is be there for your grieving friend(s), in any capacity that you are comfortable with.  I guess I can summarize this concept by suggesting that you carry on as usual: don’t treat us like we are lepers or assume we are too busy being sad to enjoy company.  If in doubt, just ask.  If we do want time to ourselves, we will let you know, but we’ll also recognize and appreciate you reaching out.  It never hurts to try.

And there’s my rant for the week.  I apologize that this got a tad wordy, but it’s a difficult concept to summarize.  Other bereaved parents may disagree with my opinions, but I truly feel that it is better to make the effort, and potentially make a mistake when doing so, than it is to avoid bereaved parents simply because you feel awkward.

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