What Not To Say To A Grieving Parent

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Emily Rapp lost her son last week. She shares what she would and would not want to hear from people trying to comfort her.

My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, “Death and dying are very different.” Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.

Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.

What do you say to a grieving parent? What does it mean to offer condolences? Here is a short list of what grieving parents do NOT want to hear, followed by stand-in statements that might feel awkward, but are actually helpful. Mind you, this is my personal list, but I know from my communication with other parents that many would agree with me.

I would die if I were you. In addition to being obviously rude, this statement is also a lie. You would not die. Human beings are built to withstand all manner of chaos and calamity and survive it, be transformed and changed by it, yet live on. When a grieving parent hears this, it feels like a judgment, or a prediction—you will never be happy again and if you are you should feel guilty—or, at its worst, a suggestion. We already feel cursed; please don’t make it worse.

Say this instead: That sounds like the hardest thing in the world. I’ll be thinking about you.

I can’t imagine. This is also a lie, because the idea of losing a child wouldn’t be so horrible unless you could imagine it. It’s also a distancing maneuver, as if by refusing to imagine the worst you can somehow avoid it. Grief is already deeply isolating, and by offering pity instead of empathy (which requires the use of one’s imagination), the griever feels more alone than ever.

Say this instead: I am so sad for you. What would be helpful to you?

I have no idea what your feeling. You do. You’re sad. The death of a child from a devastating neurological illness is one of the saddest things in the world, even if you never met the child.

Say this instead: I feel so sad.

We are taught “what to say” when people die, but most of what we learn to say is shallow and lacks any move toward emotional engagement, something grieving people long for in those early days of raw grief, and for all the years after that. I think if people thought deeply about what they would most like to hear, they would avoid the phrases that make grieving parents cringe at a time when being out in the world in general makes us cringe. We’re experts at avoiding death in this culture but remember: You will someday die. You will labor as your body unravels, your ego, your being. And then, like so many before you, you will be gone.

Last night my boyfriend made me some tea, and this morning I found the teabag in the kitchen. Here’s a little tea wisdom that encapsulates, in some ways, the above advice: “By listening, you comfort another person.” It’s not about you. Let the person talk. Let them say how they feel, or tell the story of the death, or say nothing at all. Be a witness.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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