What NOT to Say to a Grieving Child
Updated: Nov 9, 2022
Especially in this case, please think before you speak
A week before my 15th birthday, my parents were in a fatal car accident. My mom died that same day and my dad died six weeks later. Some of the adults in my life, trying to make things better, spoke words that did anything but that.
Please don’t just say what comes to mind at the funeral or wake or any other time. Please think before you speak. Without knowing it you can cause long-lasting shame, anxiety, and confusion. We all know that words are powerful — they can also be especially damaging when spoken thoughtlessly to a traumatized child.
That’s not appropriate to wear to a funeral. I had sewn myself a white flowy skirt in Home Ec that term and I loved it. The morning of my dad’s funeral I matched it with a pale pink blouse printed with white flowers. I loved the look and felt pretty in it and even though looking pretty wasn’t top of my list of priorities that day, it was certainly better going to my dad’s funeral feeling good about myself than going to the funeral looking as dark as I felt on the inside. At the funeral, someone asked me whether I’d had any black I could have worn instead. I’d worn the only black skirt I owned at my mom’s funeral six weeks earlier. I’m not sure how I answered or if I did at all but I do remember the shame I felt for not being dressed ‘correctly’ at my dad’s funeral. At that point, what could I have done about it anyway? Go home and change? After the funeral was over? What a completely thoughtless thing to say.
Why are you laughing at your mother’s wake? No one actually said this to me but I felt it with looks cast my way. It had been a Monday to Friday from hell and when some friends from my class showed up at my mother’s wake — like me, probably the first one they’d ever been to — they cheered me up and made me laugh. Yes, in the same room where my mother’s open casket was (also, who decided to have the casket open the whole time?). Laughing felt so good…until my eye caught those of some adults who must have thought my moment of release and relief was not appropriate. Don’t be that adult.
It’ll be ok. It won’t. Not for a long time.
They’re in a better place. A better place than here with me? For real? As a kid who believed in heaven and in God (I still do) I remember wondering, after having several people say this to me in many different ways, if my mom and dad were indeed happier up in heaven than they would have been if they’d be able to stay alive ‘down here’ with their own kids. I couldn’t sync up the feelings that on the one hand my parents should be here with us and on the other hand that it was better for them ‘up there’? Should I be happy that they were in heaven in that better place? No, this isn’t the way it‘s supposed to be. Children should have their parents to grow up with and there is no better place for parents than with their kids. I’m pretty sure God would agree with me on this one.
Don’t talk to your dad about your mom dying or he might give up the will to live. This one came from the doctors. Not many children go through the loss of both their parents so close together so hopefully, few people will have to consider this one. My dad was in a coma after their car accident. During those six weeks that he was lying on his back sometimes his eyes were open, sometimes not. The doctors told us that he likely didn’t have any clue what was going on. We were told to talk about things that would cheer him up so that if he were ‘in’ there he would hear pleasant things. If we had talked about my mom’s death then he may “lose the will to live”. I still remember those exact words. What did that say to me? That his four amazing kids weren’t enough for my dad to live for. If indeed my dad was ‘in’ there, you’d better believe we were enough to live for. Those visits to see my comatose father were so hard. But to not be able to cry in front of him about our mom being dead or to not be allowed to whisper in his ear, I miss her so much Dad, while resting my head on his shoulder was not forward-thinking in any way. What a comfort it would have been to have cast my heart’s cries out upon to my father.
Do you want to talk about it? If you’re super close to the child this one may be ok but probably not. A teen will talk with whomever they feel safest with. If you have to ask the question, they likely don’t feel like talking about it.
I know how you feel. Even if you‘ve had someone close to you die don’t say it.Once these words are spoken it stops the child from wanting to express how they feel. I needed to talk about how I felt. I needed to validate my feelings. When people told me they already knew how I felt, then I just kept silent.
I’m so so sorry that your mom/dad died. That’s the truth. You are so sorry that their mom or dad died. Offer a hug only if you’re close to the child. Remember this is about their loss, not about the sadness you’re feeling, even though part of your sadness is for the child. If they don’t know you don’t hug them. And please, no kisses. Holding their hand with both of yours is appropriate and heartfelt.
I remember when your mom/dad…So often, in order to shield kids from pain, people around them stop talking about their dead parent/s. Mom or dad is the exact topic the child wants to talk about even if they don’t know how. If you have a funny story or a touching story about their parents, tell them. Accept whatever response you get from them — tears, a smile, conversation or nothing. Again, this is about their grief.
Don’t say thoughtless things to a grieving kid. Don’t let your desire to be the person with the ‘right’ words override just being the person who is there — quiet and available. And be ok if you’re not the one they open up to.
You don’t want someone to write a post about you thirty-six years later.
Think before you speak.