Loss of a Child
How to Talk to a Grieving Parent

Death is hardest for the living. Culturally, Americans are ill-prepared to think about, talk about, or comfort others around death. This is an unfortunate fact given that death is a definitive and inevitable part of life. People tend to be (relatively) more comfortable offering support when the death involves a family member that has reached old age in the immediate days and weeks after the loss occurred.

There are many lists and articles about what to say to a grieving parent or more popularly, what not to say to a grieving parent. However, there doesn’t seem to be an instruction manual for when you’ve said the wrong thing to a grieving parent and want to make amends. While this might not be something that Emily Post has written explicitly about, we can glean how we might undo or repair our missteps similarly to other situations.

Step 1. Recognize the faux pas. It’s really hard to correct actions when you are oblivious that corrections need to be made. You can recognize that you’ve said the wrong thing in a number of ways: you have a Homer Simpson “doh" moment; you look at the face of the person that has received your message and it’s blank, angry or even sadder. The person that you said the wrong thing to is backing away/stopping the conversation abruptly.

Step 2: Don’t wait. This is an occasion when things don’t just pass with time. Someone you care about is hurting, and you have inadvertently increased their hurt.  Reach out. Now. It might need to start with an email or text (depending on the amount of pain that the other is feeling) where you just say something simple like, “I’d love a moment to talk. I know this is a hard time."

Step 3: Keep it simple. Ideally, we make amends in person or in real-time (like on the phone). Amends can be made over email or text, but those overtures don’t always ring as true as a conversation.

Step 4: Own up. This is not the time to add a “but" after the “I’m sorry for putting my foot in my mouth."  Your context for your comment doesn’t matter: the relationship with the person you accidentally wounded does.  Including a “but" after an apology completely undermines anything said before the “but," which can be seen as making excuses.  Express how the relationship matters and acknowledge how insensitive your comment was. For some, it can be helpful then to ask, how might you be supportive to their needs in the future.

In the age of the Internet, we are quick to say what we think and not think through what we say, which can carry on into real-time interactions. Online opinions can float into a vacuum or ether where they are unheard, unnoticed, or forgotten. The same cannot always be said of hurtful comments to people we care about, as often times, they are carried. It is hard and painful to sit with someone who is in pain and is feeling the rawness and full spectrum of emotion that grief provides.

Leaving them alone will not heal their loss. Not talking about it won’t help them to forget. Being excited about your pregnancy or baby doesn’t erase the baby that they hoped to raise and now won’t. Not everyone can be a safe space or a container when someone they love is grieving. But anyone can apologize and work harder to do better by a friend of loved one that has lost.

Give InKind is proud to feature Dr. Julie Bindeman, Psy-D.

Give InKind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We have an affiliate relationship with many of the advertisers on our site, and may receive a commission from any products purchased from links in this article. See Terms & Conditions.

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