What not to say when someone loses a child

When a loved one loses a child, we all want to know what we can do to help them through this painful time. A mom who experienced just such a tragedy shares her perspective and advice on the subject

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  • This is a difficult topic. It isn't fun to read about like learning the 5 tips for a great family campout or the best ways to communicate love for your spouse. It's not light-hearted or casual, but it is important. We all have met, or will meet, someone who has lost a child. Whether the loss occurred decades ago or days ago, the pain will always be fresh and real, and it's tough to know what to say or how to react when you find out. That's why I spoke to a mom who has gone through this trial to find out what helped her, what hurt her, and what she wishes people would have said to her. Here's what she suggested.

  • Do not give advice

  • Stephanie Ipson's son, Joshua, passed away at 2 1/2 months of age of complications resulting from a congenital heart defect. She said that, at first, they didn't want to talk about it at all. "[When] we had to say the words out loud," she said, "somehow it made it more real." She didn't want to lose the immediacy of his presence by admitting his spirit was no longer there. However, she and her husband received advice on how to cope with the grief from their son's pediatrician. In this moment, this was the only person's whose advice she felt like listening to. Anyone else who might have offered advice would have come across as insensitive and possibly even rude. Unless you've experienced exactly what the parents of that child are going through, don't try to console them with empty words of advice. Instead, validate their pain with phrases like, "I'm sorry" or "This must be really hard for you" or "If you need to talk, I'm here."

  • Share memories

  • The best gift Stephanie got from anyone, she said, was when a "friend came over and delivered the family pictures she took less than 72 hours before. She gave us a miracle gift." Photographs, videos or even written memories of the deceased are all more precious than anything else a concerned friend might offer at that moment. These mementos are proof that the child lived, he mattered and he touched people's lives.

  • Offer your presence

  • Depending on how close you are with the grieving family, another gift you might give is simply your presence and your service. Making a meal, offering to watch the other children or helping to clean the house don't involve words of condolence at all. But your actions speak louder than words. "I was so grateful to have people around in my house," Stephanie recalled. "The idea of being alone was so terrifying. If there was too much quiet, it gave me way too much time to think."

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  • Think about where you are in the kvetching ring

  • In the months following Joshua's death, Stephanie ran across an LA Times article which she said offers the perfect advice for anyone wondering what might be appropriate to say when someone they know experiences the loss of a child. The authors describe the Ring Theory, which says, "Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma ... Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma." Continue that pattern, drawing slightly larger circles each time, moving further out from the center of the tragedy.

  • Think about where you are in the Kvetching Order then remember this rule: "The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere... . Everyone else can say those things, too, but only to people in larger rings." The idea is that you only offer comfort to people who experience more pain than you, and you can only talk about your own pain to people further away from the center.

  • Losing a child is one of the hardest things a person can live through. My own father, when he lost his oldest son, said words cannot describe the pain. And as I watched him suffer through the months and years that followed, I knew as bad as I felt, it was nothing compared to his suffering, and nothing I could ever say would make it right. So don't expect the perfect words to come to your mind when faced with such an awful situation, just be the listening ear and quiet presence that person needs for as long as they need you.

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Katie Nielsen received her bachelor's in English with an emphasis in technical writing. She has taught English and is a published writer.

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