The experience of watching a family live through the last few days of their child’s life will never leave you. The loss of a child is perhaps the most painful thing one can experience. Regardless if it’s a miscarriage, a toddler, a teenager or a 50 year old, parents are not meant to outlive their children.
I have no idea what it’s like to live through it, and I hope and pray that I never will.
Through my training as a general pediatrician in a busy pediatric hospital, I watched a child slowly die. I observed her family experience her decline over the week leading up to her death. I saw people come and provide support. I overheard conversations that were immensely helpful and some that undoubtedly caused more hurt. From that experience, I’d like to help you know what to say to a family walking through this horrible loss.
Things you should not say
1. “Everything will be OK.”
Everything will most certainly never be OK. Something simple like seeing another child that is the age their child should be or a toy that belonged to their child will bring back all the hurt. Even though life may start to look more normal in time, everything will not be OK.
By trying to move a parent through their grief toward resolution, you are ignoring the fact that many of our spiritual forefathers mourned openly before God. You see examples of this throughout the Psalms (see chapters 31, 35, 55 and many more). In Job 30, he says, “I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me (v 20). Therefore my harp is turned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of those who weep (v 31).”
2. “I understand (or I know how you feel).”
You don’t, and you never will.
Even if you lost a child in the same way, there will be something unique to their situation that makes this statement false.
If after some time, the parents realize that you might have an experience similar to theirs, they may come to you with questions. At this point, you may share your experience but not until you have been invited to do so.
3. “God works in mysterious ways.”
God does work in ways that we do not understand, but no one wants God to work in this “mysterious way” in their life. So, this statement is not helpful. Many people are tempted to want to find that little phrase that will be the groundbreaking spiritual moment for the heartbroken parents. Resist doing this. You could easily end up causing them more harm than good.
The best case scenario is that you become a clanging cymbal. You might be speaking truth, but you can do so in such a manner that you cannot be heard (I Cor. 13:1). By saying these things at the wrong time, you are not loving the parents well. At the worst, you are actually being selfish. Honestly evaluate if you’re trying to say the magic words for the parents or for your own selfish ambition and vain conceit (Phil. 2:3)?
Superficial, trite statements have no place in a situation like this. “She’ll be an angel now,” “You can always have more children,” and “It must have been God’s will,” are three other statements that are best left unsaid.
Things you can say and do
1. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
It may seem like it’s not enough to say—and it really isn’t—but, if said with sincerity, it is probably the best way to express exactly what you are feeling. The most helpful way to live in God’s community and to serve those in that community is to mourn with those who mourn. It may actually be your only role in this situation (Rom. 12). Don’t place expectations on the parents to react in any way; if they have a negative reaction, that’s OK.
2. “We care about you and will pray for you.”
Community is incredibly important in these situations. You should care about the parents and, when appropriate, find a way to tangibly care for them. This might mean fixing a meal or cleaning their house. Tasks like these are overwhelming to someone who has experienced such a tragic loss. Like Aaron and Hur holding Moses’ arms, we should come alongside them and help in any way we can. Even if it seems small or insignificant, it could be helping on a larger scale (Exod. 17).
In addition, you should offer to pray for them. Then, actually pray—don’t say it just for show (Heb. 4:6, Matt. 6).
3. Remember birthdays and death anniversaries.
A quick note on a birthday or on the anniversary of the child’s death can mean so much. It’s a chance to say, “We know you will be thinking about him/her today, and so are we.”
4. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day still apply.
Mother’s and Father’s Day are some of the most painful days in the lives of parents who have lost a child. Remembering to tell them Happy Mother’s Day or Happy Father’s Day let’s them know that you are thinking of them and reminds them that you know the life of their child matters.
In the end, you’ll find yourself to be the most helpful to a family who has experienced the loss of a child, not by doing or saying anything, but by being there for them. Don’t try to do too much. Don’t try to say the magic spiritual words.
Just be present and available—and trust the Lord to do what’s best for the family.