One of the things that always breaks my heart when speaking to other bereaved parents is the way in which they tell me that their experience of losing a child was made ten times worse by the ignorance of others. So many bereaved parents explain how at some point in their grieving process they have been left devastated and hurt by the words of those they considered close family or friends. And that is just so sad to hear. For, whilst I am sure that the majority of times this was un-intentional, the fact still remains that at the worst time of their lives they could not rely on others to offer them the support that they needed.
When Joseph died, although we were inundated with cards, flowers and words of sympathy, we were also shocked and saddened by the ignorance of so many. Whilst I understand that for many baby loss is still such a huge taboo, and there are no instruction manuals on how to react to a family member or friend undergoing such a loss, I had no idea that put in that situation, so many would say the wrong thing. And perhaps before Joseph I may have done the same, you just never know, but now with hind sight I would like to share with you eight things that you should never say to a bereaved parent.
1. I know exactly how you feel.
Let me tell you something, you don’t. Even those unfortunate enough to have lost a child, perhaps even in near identical circumstances, you don’t know exactly how I feel. It’s something that many people say quite often, usually offered as words of condolence, and yet far from offering comfort it can make us feel as though you are intruding on our grief. I had a friend tell me that she knew exactly how I was feeling as she had miscarried her own baby six weeks into her pregnancy. Another told me that she could completely understand my loss as she had lost her Grandma, well into her eighties, and that it was “just the same”. And, whilst I have never claimed to be an expert on grief, believe me when I tell you that those losses are incomparable.
In the same way, when friends have lost their parents, their siblings or friends, I have never once claimed to understand what they are going through simply because I too have experienced grief. I am always very careful to express my sympathies, to tell them that, whilst I have been through my own loss, I can only begin to imagine how devastating this must be for them. I am the first to assure others that grief is so personal, each loss so different from one person to the next, that we can never understand exactly how that feels. And likewise, there isn’t a person on this planet who knows exactly how it feels for me to have lost my son. He was mine, I carried him, I gave birth to him and I felt that loss in my own body, my own mind and my own heart.
2. You can always try again.
We heard this a lot in the early stages after losing Joseph, even in the hospital in the days that followed his death. “You’re still young, you can always try again!”. And to us, as grieving parents, that simply implied that our baby was replaceable, that we could simply try again and forget all about this one. It was suggested to us by so many, as thoughtlessly as re-sitting an exam or applying for a new job, Oh this one didn’t work out for you? Hey, better look next time! And when you have just buried your child, trying for another baby is the last thing on your mind. We didn’t want another baby, we wanted this one.
3. At least you have another one.
Shockingly, we heard this from at least 90% of people that we knew, “At least you have Lewis, some people aren’t that lucky”. And admittedly, we were very lucky that we were already parents, that we had a healthy two year old son to give us something to focus on and, ultimately, something to live for. But that did not lessen our grief in any way. Yes I still had one, but there should always have been two, and telling us that we should be happy to have just the one was so insulting, as though we were somehow ungrateful for wanting the child that we had lost.
4. Everything happens for a reason.
This may be the one that I hate the most, said so often in all aspects of life, quoted across social media, photos of an Amaro filtered sunset, titled #inspirational. And, admittedly, some things do happen for a reason, there are explanations for things that we cannot possibly understand, but a baby dying? My baby dying? Give me one good reason why that would happen and I will sit down and listen all the day long. Because there are no reasons, there are no explanations, and, in a decade of “whys” and “what ifs”, not one person has been able to give me one good reason why my son died. And that speaks volumes.
5. Time is a healer
This is something that we heard, and still hear, repeatedly. A phrase used by so many in times of grief or heartache, written in cards or said with a warm embrace. And yet honestly? Time is not a healer. My heart will never heal, not ever. For me, it hurts just as much as it did ten years previously, I have simply found ways to deal with that pain a little better. I have learned to live with that constant ache in my heart in a way so that I can get out of bed each morning, enjoy my family, share happy moments, making memories, living a life that my son never got the chance to live. But I wont ever get over it. I don’t want to get over it.
6. This was all part of Gods plans.
Unless you know for sure that the parent is a devout Christian, whos faith is all believing, nobody should ever utter these words. For us, it was a huge insult to listen to those spouting talk of God and religion at a time when our last iota of faith had been shattered. People would tell me, “God only takes the best ones”, “He’s in a better place” or “He is safe now in the arms of God.” And it offended, insulted and most of all saddened me that anyone could believe in that nonsense , that any human being with half an ounce of intelligence could ever believe that my baby was better off anywhere other than safe in my arms.
7. It could have been worse.
It was shocking just how many people said this to us, perhaps in their own way trying to lessen our pain and yet failing each time. “At least he didn’t suffer”, “At least he didn’t die later on, after you had got to know him”. We would listen to long, heartbreaking tales of friends of friends who had lost their child to cot death or agonising accounts of a neighbours grandchild, losing their battle against cancer. “It could have been worse”, we were told, “If they had to go, this was the best way”. And honestly, there were times when I don’t know how we didn’t resort to violence, such was the frustration and the anger at what we were hearing. Our baby died. How could that possibly have been worse??
8. It’s time to move on.
Initially people allowed us our grief, albeit for some, just a short time, but eventually everybody came to the same conclusion, that it was time to move on. Whilst those around us continued to live their lives, announcing pregnancies, marriages, celebrating special occasions, we were still very much consumed in grief, in sadness, in anger for all that we had lost. And I felt an enormous amount of pressure to move on, constantly hearing that we needed to move forward for Lewis’s sake and for our own sanity, and ultimately I ended up pushing myself to do things that I simply wasn’t ready for. Folding away the tiny babygros, clearing the nursery, packing away a lifetime of memories into a cardboard box, hidden away in the attic. And I resented that people had pushed me to move forward so quickly when, for me, time was still very much frozen on that fateful day when my world had ended.
So if there are so many things not to say to a bereaved parent, what should you say?
I always advise others that the best place to start is with, “I’m sorry”. That is all that needs to be said. Place your arms around us, hold us close, let us cry, let us rant, let us fall to pieces, let us be. Never question our grief, nor offer us clichéd condolences or comparisons, be there for us long after the rest of the world has expected us to move forward. And in the weeks, months, and years that follow, say his name. And don’t ever stop.