When a child dies

Most of you will not, thankfully, lose a child. But you’ll have friends, neighbors, acquaintances who do.

What do you say? In the previous post, I encouraged grieving parents to receive everything as a gift.

But that’s not easy for them to do—especially at a time when they are confused, sad, and uncertain about their own future. (Who envisions their own future without their kids in the picture somewhere?)

Let me start with what not to say:

1. Do not — repeat! — do not pretend to speak for God. Keep your theology to yourself. If you think God needed another little flower in his garden, please don’t share that saccharine image with the parents. Trust me: it won’t help. (“God ought to get his OWN flower” would be a likely unspoken response.) Don’t say:

“Everything happens for a reason” (I heard this a lot)
“God is in this”
“We just have to trust that God’s doing something”

Please—this particular blog post isn’t the place for me to try to respond to these theologically questionable statements. From a merely practical side: these comments won’t help! When a child dies, everything is delicate. Don’t take a chance on tying God to the loss in ways that God hasn’t specifically told you to. The Christian conviction is that God is with us in our loss. He grieves, too. But the parents will have to come to know that through the dark valley of experience. It’s also true that God will “use” (that needs to be unpacked, I know) even this loss for his purposes. But again, this is something the ones in grief will have to recognize in the rearview mirror someday.

2. Do not attempt to diminish the pain.

“At least you have other kids.”
“At least it wasn’t like losing an older child.”
“At least she isn’t suffering any more.”

Rule of thumb: Don’t say anything that begins with “at least.”

3. Do not tell them you understand. Ok, if you’ve lost a child perhaps something like, “Our stories are so different, but they overlap. And as one who understands the pain, I’m so very sorry.” But other than that, don’t do it! The parent may come back and point out that you understand something about suffering. Great. But let the person in fresh grief make that connection.

4. Do not oversell the future. God will one day make things right. But this is not that day. As the writer of Ecclesiastes knew, there is a time to weep. This is that time.

So . . . what do you say? Here are some ideas:

- Nothing. Seriously, you don’t have to say anything. A nod, a hug, a tear—these are tomes of love. I remember an older woman putting her hand around my neck, kissing my check, and nodding. Her eyes were leaking. She spoke not one word, but all these years later she’s still comforting me through that moment.

- “I’m so sorry.” Less is more. This is enough: you’re sorry, you hate this for them, you’re with them.

- “I will be with you.” The fear is that everyone will rally around the funeral and bring chicken spaghetti for a week and then return to their lives and forget that your grief has just barely, BARELY begun.

- “I will never forget her (him).” Saying something about the child means that you will miss them but you will NOT forget them. We need that. (Just last week, a man who’s in his mid-40′s told me a Megan story from his college days—a story I either had forgotten or never knew. I felt like a little bit of her came back to me.) Eventually, this is something the parents may want you to explore more. What do you remember? What did you love about the child? What stories will stay with you?

- “I’m praying for you.” Good! You can work out all your theology in prayer. But the parents just need to know that others will be praying for them when they feel prayer less.

I’m guessing some will look back and wish you could take back some words you’ve offered from the past. It’s ok. We all learn as we go. I offer these suggestions not as a person mad at the insensitive things people say (although, trust me, I haven’t even begun to share the worst ones I’ve heard!) but as a friend who knows you mean well and want to help.

Remember this rule: if you don’t know what to say, nothing is just fine. Being present is the gift of gifts.
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