When a Child Dies: What Not to Say to a Parent

Today is my son’s birthday. He’s eight.

I wish I could throw him a party, or give him a gift, or even hold him in my arms and say “Happy birthday, little guy.”

But for the last seven years, we’ve celebrated his birthday without him, as he died in his sleep at eleven months old.

That experience was earth-shattering for us. Even to describe it in that way is inadequate, as it still understates the potency of grief and loss and longing in a parent when a child dies.

Over the last seven years, along with learning some hard lessons about life and death and family, I’ve also come to realize how often it happens that a parent does loses a child. And I’ve also seen that our modern culture does not deal well with death – we don’t like to think about it, we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t care to imagine that it could happen to someone close to us, and we don’t know how to respond to people who are experiencing deep grief.

So today, instead of writing about the story of losing my son (which I still haven’t been able to do yet), I thought it would be useful to share some of what I’ve learned in that journey, so that you can be there in a good way for people in your community of friends when it happens.

When a Child Dies:

While it may be difficult or feel awkward to say something to a father or mother after the loss of a child, it’s even more awkward to not say anything at all to them – to skirt around the issue because it’s uncomfortable for you to talk about. We don’t need you to rehash the experience with us, but we do need you to internally acknowledge that we have lost the most precious thing in our world – our baby. And that in doing so, we’ve experienced a parent’s worst nightmare.

Having been one half of many best-intentioned-yet-clueless conversations after our son died, I know what feels shitty to hear, and also what was most helpful or compassionate or healing to hear.

What not to say to a parent who has lost a child:

It will be OK: It will never be ‘OK’. We will learn to accept it and to work through our grief and loss, and even though we will look the same from the outside, we’ll never be the same again.

It was meant to be: Please, don’t even go there. Don’t talk to us about how it’s our karma or how God works in mysterious ways, or anything along those lines. If we come to this place within ourselves at some point, that will be our understanding of it, but we don’t need to hear it from you.

You will get over this: We won’t ‘get over it’, but we will eventually heal. It could be a long time before we’re feeling somewhat ‘normal’ again. And even many years afterward, a picture or a memory or a birthday anniversary can still bring the grief and loss and tears right to the surface again.

You can have another baby: Yes, we can. But that is no kind of consolation. It hurts to hear this, as if our child that we have lost can simply be replaced.

I know how you feel: Unless you have lost someone that close to you before, then no, you don’t know how we feel.

Look for the silver lining: If or when we come to a place of peace about the death of our child, and reconcile it through seeing the ways in which that experience enriched our life and taught us valuable lessons, then yes, we might see some form of a silver lining. But we won’t be ready to hear this from anyone at any point before then.

There are actually quite a few other sentiments from well-meaning people which play off of the above examples (One of the worst, only heard once: “He was so young – it’s not like losing an adult whom you’ve known all their life”), but I think you get my drift.

My plea to you is to steer widely away from any of these, and instead attempt to really deepen your connection to the parents and empathize the best you can with their experience.

What can be helpful when a child dies:

I’m sorry about your loss: Sometimes it feels like a hollow sentiment, but any variation on this theme helps to directly acknowledge the hard place that we’re in. As long as it’s from your heart, we can feel that, and it does count.

What can we do for you?: Or, can we bring you a meal, or clean your house, or run your errands, or deal with your day-to-day details for a while? Do you need help talking with funeral homes during such a tough time in your life? So much of our lives seem pointless in the aftermath of the death of our child, that having someone, anyone, take some of the load off of us is helpful.

We care about you: Or, We love you and want to support you as you go through this. Community is so incredibly important in times like these. It’s so significant that it bears repeating: Community is incredibly important. Offering a kind word or a helping hand or a healing practice to those in our circle of humanity is how community works: We take care of our own.

What were his favorite things to do?: Asking them to talk about their child, to describe them and to name them, can be healing, and it doesn’t usually happen too often. Don’t ask about the details of the death itself unless it’s offered freely, but don’t shy away from talking to them as if it’s taboo to say the child’s name.

Remember birthdays and death anniversaries: After some time has passed, the world around us goes back to its usual routines, and the parents are only ones who remember their child’s birthday or the date that they passed. If you make an effort to honor those dates in some way (a phone call, a card or letter, a hug and a smile) it can have a big impact on us.

Continue to honor that child as a part of the family: Fathers Day and Mothers Day can also be hard for us to go through. And it’s awkward when people ask how many children we have – do we count our little guy and explain that he died, or do we not even go there? Just because the child is no longer physically alive doesn’t mean that they aren’t still alive in a parent’s heart.

[In memory of Topaz Nejaya Markham, June 24th, 2003 – May 31st, 2004]

Image: Mykl Roventine at Flickr

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  1. Derek, beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing so that we might better understand. My heart is with you and your family today as you honor, celebrate and remember your precious son, Topaz.

  2. Your article touched me. I often feel at a loss for what to say to a grieving person. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a child. The thought is a dagger to my heart. Thank you for writing things that we can say. My hope is that your heart is full of the wonderful memories of your son, and that God will grant you peace.

  3. I am sorry for your loss and glad you are able to celebrate him. My little brother passed from SIDS when he was 9 months and it was a dark cloud that my family never emerged from. This conversation of death is necessary and I wish not so taboo in our society because unfortunately it happens, and people do not always know how to appropriately react. I am sending love to you and your family. Thank you for inspiring again.

  4. Oh, Derek, I’m so sorry. I had no idea you’d been through this.

    Those are definitely horrid things to say to a parent. I shuddered reading them. I appreciate your suggestions. They are so compassionate.

    Happy birthday, Topaz! I am sure you are doing good things wherever you are, and you gave your parents some wonderful, loving memories.


  5. This made me tear up. My brother died when i was 4, my parents never talked about him to us other kids. And they certainly never got over it…

  6. My son is 2 years old and the biggest fear I have is losing him. He is my world and the thought of life without him saddens and terrifies me. I am truly sorry for your loss and I wish that no parent would ever have to suffer through such immeasurable pain. You’ve offered good advice, though I do wish that no one should ever have to remember it.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this information. I too lost my son, though he was 21, he is still my baby, my best friend. People dont know what to say so they say nothing, or all the wrong things. You should consider publishing this and getting it out possibly to funeral homes where it will be of great use to those who go to visit. Thank you again for your words, and i truely do understand and i am so very very sorry.

  8. I also lost my son when he was 3 mos old very suddenly. A while ago when a close friend was talking about losing her fater years back, she recognized that I understand loss but that my loss was “only a baby.” She doesn’t have children and I have given up trying to get her to understand the magnitude of grief involved. I compare it to falling off of a building. There is no going back and no way to undo, you can’t breathe, it’s happened and it’s devastating. My mother-in-law told me to stop crying because at least I still have 2 other kids. Love her but obviously a mother who has neve experienced a loss. “A dagger through the heart at the idea of losing a child” is how one poster described it. May you never know.

  9. Im sorry 4 your loss. Recently a friend of mines 13yr old son died. I felt so horrible for her loss and though i want to be there for her i couldnt even begin to imagine what shes going threw. I didnt want to say something wrong… i really didnt even know what to say. Your page has really helped me and i just wanted to say thank you.

  10. My son and his fiance just lost a baby to SIDS, Eli was two weeks old. Its been two weeks and I still cry about this, although I am the grandmother, My heart bleeds for my son, his fiance and family console her but he is shutting down. Fathers are in grief too and do it in a different way, I wish I could take this pain away and carry it myself. all those things that you listed not to say is what has been said. my son is coming over by himself and that helped me with a new prospective on how to speak with him. thanks so much,…. I am so truly sorry for the loss of your child, may God bless you and your family. This must give you some healing process even if its a little, to know you are helping others……

  11. I’m revisiting this blogpost because I have a clients who recently lost their baby. I’ve never forgotten your loss and your generous spirit in writing about it. Peace to you, Derek.

  12. Derek-
    Thank you for the article. I think however you looked at this the wrong way. I don’t think anyone intentionally says something hurtful. In fact, I believe everyone that tries, does it because they care. Instead of being critical, recognize how difficult it is for someone to say….anything. Everyone is uncomfortable, even those who have lost. In all my years dealing with loss, no one has said “the right words” and yet I’ve realized that they said something because they want to help or be there.
    My daughter passed away 23 years ago as an infant too. There are no right words but in that tragedy I came to realize that people are inherently good, it unfortunately often takes a tragedy for us to see it.
    I hope you find comfort somewhere.

    • Bret –

      I hear what you’re saying, but in my opinion, I don’t think I looked at it “the wrong way”. I wrote it as I intended, because I don’t want to tell people what they *should* say – that would be meaningless. I don’t want to imply that people intentionally say hurtful things, but that sometimes it’s best for us to think before speaking about something that they can’t even imagine. Which is why I wrote the second half of the piece – “What can be helpful when a child dies”.

      Yes, the title is more provocative this way, but I wanted to point out that even with the best of intentions, people can still be insensitive to someone else’s feelings. In my experience, yes, it can be difficult for some people to say anything, but more often than not, people had no problem saying things to us – but they didn’t think before speaking.

      One gal told us, “Well, you can always have another.” and another said as much as, “He was young, you didn’t have that much time to get attached to him.”

      You are right in that many people say things because they cared, but many others said things because they thought they needed to say *something*. I’d have preferred their simple acknowledgement that they didn’t know what to say, but like I said in this piece, “our modern culture does not deal well with death – we don’t like to think about it, we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t care to imagine that it could happen to someone close to us, and we don’t know how to respond to people who are experiencing deep grief.”

      Thanks for reading, and best to you.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I have had no idea what to say to a friend with confidence and am very careful what I say therefore I don’t talk to her as much as I would like. I also did now know if I should talk about David her son or not. I also did not know if I should contact her on his birthday or not. It has been over a year so thank you so much for what you have shared. David is a beautiful, amazing, and kind person, I miss him and hope it won’t hurt her. My thoughts are with you and your family, thanks for your bravery.

  14. my poor friend lost her 2 year old son .. and someone close to her said every single one of these “what not to say” sentences… And she would not even speak to the special person in her life on this painful day just because of these terrible things that you should never ever say to a grieving survivor.

  15. I just lost my 29 year old daughter last month. I’m starting to miss her now because all the craziness has calmed down. What I don’t understand is that some of my close relatives haven’t even acknowledged her passing. Not an I’m sorry or how are you…nothing. I have learned that it is important to go to the funeral and to say comforting words to the grieving for someday you will loose a loved one and need the same thing. She is out of pain and in her Lords arms.

  16. I would add another. Don’t compare your loss to the grieving parents’ loss. I lost my 42 year old son, but I can’t feel what a mother of a one year old feels. Every loss is individual. This is the time that you concentrate on the person who has the loss, not on yourself. It did me no good to hear of other peoples’ losses, and is not comforting at the worst moment in your life. It just compounded my anguish and made me feel they were diminishing my loss as compared to theirs. Do like my friend who lost her 34 year old son. She stood by me, brought me food, allowed me to talk about my loss without imposing hers, told me that grieving was individual and there were no parameters on it, and that she would be there for me. We have since talked about our sons freely and openly, but she is the only one with whom I can have those conversations.