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? 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