What To Say and Do for a Bereaved Loved One
What you can say...
"I'm so sorry and sad for you."
"This must be so unbearable."
"How are you managing all of this? I want to help."
"I'm here, and I want to listen."
"Please take your time. I am here for you."
What you can do...
Be there. Call or visit to say, "I care, and I want to help." A family can always decline your presence or help, but in their grief they are unlikely to reach out for support. Don't be afraid to intrude. It's better to offer too much than to stand back out of politeness.
When you're there, be available emotionally and physically.
On an emotional level you can:
- Let them cry, and cry with them.
- Be patient, and let there be silences.
- Use their baby's name and recognize this baby as unique.
- Treat the grieving couple equally. Both partners need support.
- Give the space for parents to tell you about their child. Ask open ended questions which will allow them to share what they wish, but will not feel invasive or nosy.
- Give them hugs and affection. Their bodies are grieving and touch can help.
- Remember and talk about their baby in the months and years to come. Recognize anniversaries, first holidays, and pumpkins.
- Let them know that you understand that your relationship or friendship may be different following this loss, and that you are patient and understanding.
On a physical level, you can offer to:
- Offer to make phone calls for the family- to bring in more support, arrange services, or find resources.
- Offer to help with siblings or out-of-town visitors
- Offer to organize meals or grocery shopping
- Offer to help with housecleaning
- Find out if the family needs help with the baby's things. Some families prefer to keep a baby's nursery set up, while others want help packing up baby things. This must be the family's choice, and you should ask them.
- Find out if there is paperwork-- medical forms, bills that need paying, etc-- that you can help with
- Find out if there is some way you can help with the memorial or funeral
- Research local support groups and other resources that might help this family
- Try to educate other family members and friends about how to care for this family
- Continue to offer all of the above for many, many months. It may be a long time before this family regains a sense of normal.
Things NOT to say
Unfortunately, all bereaved parents have been faced with well-meaning people who have offered words of "comfort" that just don't feel comforting. Below is a list of those things. It's important to note that it's OK for a bereaved parent to feel these things, and you are welcome to agree with them if they express these sentiments. But these words should not be offered as comfort. Following each phrase, in italics, is our rendition of a bereaved parent's inner dialogue when they hear such words.
- Everything happens for a reason. And what would that reason be?
- It was God's will. Please don't make me lose my faith.
- God needed another angel. But I wanted my child here with me.
- Now you have a guardian angel. I didn't want a guardian angel, I wanted a baby here in my arms.
- Your baby is in a better place. Where could be better than with his family here?
- At least he/she did not suffer. But I want him here!
- You're lucky you didn't get to know him/her better. I would give anything for more time with my baby.
- It could have been worse. I heard a story... Nothing is worse to this family than the death of their own child right now.
- At least you have other children. I wanted to have all my children with me.
- You're young, you can have more. But I loved this baby, and I wanted to take him home.
- At least you know you can get pregnant. Nothing feels certain anymore. That brings little comfort.
- I know how you feel (unless you are a bereaved parent under similar circumstances) Nobody can know how sad I am.
- You will feel better in time. But how will I survive today?
- It's time to get on with your life. This is my life now.
In general, it's best to avoid all phrases that begin with "At least" or "Thank goodness that...". Right now, families who are bereaved don't want to hear platitudes. They are grieving, and they need validation that their loss is recognized and authentic. Supporting them in their grief will help to give them the space to gather the tools they need for their own healing. In time, they will build anew and weave this baby's story into the fabric of their life. Grace them with the time to do this.