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Holding Space: How to Stand Beside a Grieving Parent

When a child dies, it is heartbreaking for their parents and family and complicated for those around them who want to be supportive.

Comforting Parents Who Lost a Child

When a child dies, it is heartbreaking for their parents and family and complicated for those around them who want to be supportive but may not have the words, tools, or confidence to offer help and support them without saying or doing the wrong thing.

We gathered some guidance from experts who will offer you assistance on how to better support grieving parents, the acts of kindness you might bestow, and the words you could use to express your love and support. Keep reading to learn how to support parents who experience this unimaginable loss.

We accept the natural order of life: we are born, grow old, and pass away. But losing a child — no matter their age — is a cruel twist on this accepted order of events. We mark this tragic circumstance in July with Bereaved Parents Awareness Month. But unfortunately, the need is here all year long.

Finding the Right Words

The Sanskrit language has a word — “vilomah” — for events against the natural order, like when parents outlive their children. But what words can you say to a bereaved parent that are comforting and real?

“You can begin with ‘I love you’ or ‘I care about you,’” advises Brad Price, a licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer at Carter-Trent Funeral Homes in Tennessee. Price has served many bereaved parents in his nearly two decades in the funeral profession. While every death is tragic, losing a child sparks deep anger, guilt, and remorse. It is a complex, profound type of grief that lasts a lifetime.

Price suggests that simple sentiments, delivered with genuine empathy and love, are often better than longer, embellished statements. 

“You can say, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m here, and ready to listen with an open ear’,” Price says. “Making statements about heaven and angels doesn’t change what happened. Even if someone has good intentions, these remarks can be painful.”

Here are other appropriate and compassionate ways to express your support.  

Acknowledge Their Loss

The nonprofit group Bereaved Parents of the USA recommends that well-meaning family members and friends acknowledge the parent’s loss. Make a point of using the child’s name and recognizing their passing. This includes a stillborn or baby that the parents named posthumously. The Dougy Center is another nonprofit that helps families and children cope with loss and offers additional online information and help.

What to Say

Sometimes, knowing what to say to a grieving parent is difficult, but a statement like the examples below will respectfully acknowledge the child.

  • “I am so sorry to hear of (the child's name) passing. I am here for you and holding you and your family close to my heart.”
  • “(the child's name) was such a wonderful and talented child. I was lucky to have known her. I am beyond sorry to hear of her passing.”

Share Your Stories and Memories

Well-meaning friends and family often avoid talking about a child who passed away. They fear that any discussion about them will cause more tears. While that may be the case, acting as if their child didn’t exist is probably more painful than helpful. Mourning often feels surreal, and talking about your memories and stories is part of the healing process.

Be Specific with Offers of Assistance

People often make generic offers to help grieving parents. However, while these might be well-intentioned, general or vague statements burden the bereaved. Grief experts recommend that you specify how you would like to help. 

Examples of How to Offer Specific Help

Here are some ways to offer specific help rather than giving them a vague “let me know if I can help.”

  • “May I bring over a meal or some groceries later? Would you like me to pick up prescriptions, dry cleaning, or anything else while I’m out?”
  • “If taking care of your pet is too much for you right now, I’m happy to swing by and pick up Fido.”

Provide a Safe Emotional Space

Sometimes, the best support is making a cup of tea (or whatever their preferred beverage), putting a box of tissues within reach, and listening. Allowing a devastated parent to share their feelings and listen without judgment or interruption is often a most appreciated gesture.  

Examples of How to Create a Safe Space

Giving grieving parents the room to find companionship with you without guilt, judgment, or expectations is a tremendous gift. Consider a sentence like the examples below.

  • “I am here to listen and support you. I care about you and want you to feel comfortable.”
  • “If you’d rather just watch TV or go for a walk together without getting into any deep conversation right now, I’m fine with that, too.”

Sticking Around for the Long Haul

Anyone who has suffered a loss knows that many people are around during the first hours, days, and weeks. When family members fly or drive home, and neighbors cease stopping by with casseroles and flowers, grief often feels insurmountable. Parents who lose a child may have difficulty adjusting to the new normal. 

Helping Navigate the New Normal

Looking for ways to support parents months later? Consider these suggestions:

  • Consistently check in by phone, text, email, mail, or in person, depending on where you live. 
  • Invite them to join you for a weekly lunch, a cup of coffee, a worship service, or dinner.

Encourage Professional or Spiritual Help

Losing a child can create a permanent rift between spouses, surviving children, and other family members. Many organizations and agencies help bereaved parents. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek professional or outside assistance for life’s most heart-wrenching loss. Supporting this choice can help a parent feel good about getting additional help.

Remember the Siblings

Surviving sisters and brothers are grieving, too. While they might not be old enough to understand the specifics if they’re young, they know that mom and dad are sad. You could offer to babysit, either in the home, your home, or at a nearby park. Encourage them to talk or draw about what they’re feeling. 

Remember Dads and Grandparents

Sometimes, we focus on a mother’s loss; a grieving father might be an afterthought. While there are no particular things to say to a father, be sure that your condolences and offers to help extend to a grieving dad. Grandparents, particularly those active in the child’s life, also need comfort. The passing of a child affects the entire family. 

Things Better Left Unsaid

As a Funeral Director, Price has had to intervene or redirect a speaker at a memorial tactfully. He suggests that family members, friends, and guests avoid specific topics, including those below.

Don’t Compare Loss

Every death is tragic, but comparing your situation to a grieving parent may invalidate their feelings. Unless you have lost a child, you cannot know what that mother or father is feeling. Even if you have had a child pass away, each person’s mourning is uniquely and deeply personal. 

Don’t Ask for Specifics 

Does it matter if a child passed from an accident, drugs, or suicide? The result is the same. Do not ask for specifics about their death. Probing questions about the cause of death or circumstances is unnecessarily cruel. 

Don’t Try to Comfort with Talk of Surviving Children

Because losing a child is outside our usual perceptions of the life-and-death cycle can make people feel awkward. Not knowing what to say causes some people to say something absurd, such as “Thank goodness you still have (name of surviving children).” It is also hurtful to lessen a parent’s grief if they lost a baby in utero, shortly after birth, or within the first year of life. 

Don’t Offer Unsolicited Advice

How do you know you’re crossing the line from helpful to bossy? Any sentence with “You should,” or similar is usually unsolicited advice. If a parent asks you for guidance based on your experience or profession, that’s different. Otherwise, remain supportive but silent on issues you’re not invited to speculate on. 

Your Help Matters

When a child dies, parents suffer intensely. Offering sincere and personal comfort, hope, and support is essential to help bereaved parents through isolation and pain. 

For more advice on comforting those who are grieving, read our article Beyond Condolences: How to Truly Be There for Someone After a Loss.