Things Not to Say to a Grieving Parent: What to Say Instead
In my journey as a psychiatric nurse practitioner and more poignantly as a grieving mother, I have encountered many well-meaning but misplaced attempts at consolation. Grieving the loss of a child is a profoundly personal and painful experience, and the words chosen to address it can make a significant difference. Here, I want to share three things you should never say to a grieving parent and what to say instead.
1. Avoid Asking “What Happened?"
The natural curiosity to know “what happened” to the child is often the first question that springs to mind. However, this question can feel invasive and self-serving. It forces the grieving parent to relive the painful details, which might not only be difficult but also unhelpful for their healing process.
Instead, Ask About the Child
A better approach is to ask, “Tell me about your child.” This invitation allows parents to share memories and characteristics of their child’s life, not just their death. It shifts the focus from the tragedy to the joy and love that the child brought into their lives.
2. Don’t Ask “How Are You?”
Asking a grieving parent “How are you?” especially soon after the loss, can feel insincere and even infuriating. In the rawness of grief, this question can seem trivial and dismissive of the magnitude of their loss.
Instead, Inquire About Their Thoughts
A more thoughtful approach is to ask, “What are your thoughts right now?” This question acknowledges that their feelings may vary and provides a space for them to share their true emotions, whether it’s sadness, anger, or a momentary sense of peace.
3. Never Say “I Understand”
Even if you have experienced loss, saying “I understand” to a grieving parent can create a barrier. Each person’s grief is unique, influenced by their individual experiences, relationships, and emotional frameworks.
Instead, Offer Help and Openness
A more supportive response is to ask, “How can I help you?” or “Would you like to talk about it?” This respects the grieving parent’s space and agency, giving them control over the conversation and the type of support they need.
Navigating conversations with a grieving parent requires sensitivity, empathy, and an understanding that their grief is unique. By focusing on their needs and providing a space for them to share their experiences in their own way, we can offer genuine support and understanding. Remember, it’s not about satisfying our curiosity or finding the right words; it’s about being present and compassionate in their journey of grief.