Last week, on our way home from a quiet weekend out of town with our kids, my husband broke the bad news. The child of a good friend had passed away.
The child was barely a toddler, too soon for heaven to take back one of its angels, but who are we to question the Divine plan?
As I gazed at my children— both peacefully sleeping beside me, one on each side, with the youngest nestled in his car seat behind me—I could not even begin to think about what I would do if I lost any one of them.
As any mother knows, one can never imagine life with kids before you have them. But as soon as the first one is born, it’s impossible to consider life without them.
My husband and I made plans to visit and condole with the family of the deceased child. Most of the time, we visit men and women who have lived full and long lives, surrounded in their final moments by their loved ones. These are celebrations of life, as friends and family recall good times and achievements of the deceased.
But I’ve also gone to wakes where the people who died were in the prime of their youth. They leave behind young families who have to carry the burden of going through life without a parent or a spouse.
Whenever I go to such wakes, I am reminded of our mortality and how short life is. It’s sometimes easy to forget, and to assume, that we will all live to a grand old age and do everything we want before our time comes.
Such deaths are like wake-up calls. They remind you to seize the moment and make your life count.
Prior to this week, I had been to only one funeral of a child 12 years ago. He was my first cousin. I loved him dearly and his death was a terrible accident. Technically, the child was a young adult of 21 years, but in the eyes of his parents, he was their beloved son, taken too young and too soon.
Considering that it was the first and only wake of a child that I had been to, I took it as confirmation that, indeed, a parent burying a child is rare and goes against the cycle of life. Perhaps that is what makes it so universally painful. Nobody should ever have to bear the pain of burying their child or grandchild.
Unfortunately, this week, I attended another wake. As I arrived, I thought about what to say. It’s easy to find words for someone who has lived a long and happy life, but what do you say to a parent who has lost a child?
I could not find the words to express what I wanted to say because I felt that nothing I would say could ease the parents’ pain. I wanted to offer comfort, but I did not want to sound like I was trivializing their pain.
Everything I said sounded like a feeble attempt to reach out, and I dared not say that I understood what they were feeling, because nobody has the right to say that—except someone who had been through the same ordeal.
After one particular novena Mass, I found myself seated next to a friend who told me her own child loss experience. I never knew that this friend of mine had lost a child at birth, 35 years ago. She talked about how, just recently, when she had to move her child’s remains from the province to Manila, she broke down and sobbed because the pain was as fresh and raw, as if it had just happened the day before.
As I listened to her, she unburdened her feelings. It was very insightful for someone who had no idea how to properly reach out in such a situation.
When I got home, I did what I should have done and researched on the right things to say and do.
I came across a number of websites dedicated to similar situations. These sites had helpful tips for both grieving parents and friends, while some had a very honest list of things not to say to a bereaved parent.
There were many suggestions, but here are some tips that most of the articles had in common:
Do not be afraid to talk about the child and say his/her name.
Many of us fear that bringing up the subject of the child or mentioning his/her name will open fresh wounds, but according to www.bandbacktogether.com, “Your friend has not forgotten for one second that the child has passed away—not saying the child’s name will only hurt the family because it will make the grieving family feel their child is forgotten.”
However, be sensitive to the parents’ needs. If he/she steers the conversation toward other subjects, do not try to force the issue. Go with what they want to talk about, be it their child or the latest gadgets.
Do not be afraid to be quiet and not say anything.
While nobody appreciates a quiet dinner guest in a social gathering, sometimes, a quiet friend with a closed mouth and an open heart is the best company for a person who does not feel like talking or listening to anyone, but does not want to be alone either.
Offer to help with the ordinary tasks.
When you are grieving, the mundane day-to-day tasks suddenly seem too trivial to bother with. Bring food or ask what you can do to help. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture to help. Sometimes, it’s the small things that matter the most to those who have lost so much in their lives. If your friend says no to your offer, you can simply figure out what they need through other family or friends and do it without being asked.
Do not forget the other children.
When you visit, offer to take the other young children on a play date or the older ones to their appointments, be it medical, academic or social.
“Address the unfairness.”
According to one website, insisting that “everything happens for a reason” somehow implies that their child’s death is justifiable and makes sense, if not now, then in the future. The thing is, it does not, and for a parent, it never will. Acknowledging that what occurred is unfair and should never have happened might be better than insisting on finding a reason for it.
Use your better judgment and refrain from phrases that trivialize their pain.
We all have the best intentions and want only to help but sometimes our words only make things worse. According to www.stillstandinmag.com, here are some phrases that do not help any grieving parent.
“Time heals all wounds…”
Conversely, the website offers the following sentiments or words as you try to offer comfort:
“I am here for you…”
“Tell me about your child…”
Sharing a favorite memory of the child
Expressing how much your friend and his or her family mean to you
Don’t be afraid to cry with your friend.
You are there to be strong for your friend; but you are also there to condole with them and let them know that you, too, are grieving with them and sharing in their loss.
There are many more ways to show our support and be there for a grieving parent. We all have our own way of condoling and expressing our support, but whether you say the right thing or not, it is the sincerity of our words and actions that matter the most.