What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

A guest post by Madeleine Kolb of Age Myths

When a terrible tragedy—such as the death of a child—strikes a friend or neighbor or co-worker, what do you do? What do you say? What if you don’t know what to say? Do you say nothing to the grieving parent? Or worse of all, do you avoid her altogether?

Many of us struggle in this situation. We are stunned to hear of the death of a child or young adult whose parents we know. And we realize that we should say something, something comforting, to the parents. But what?

When Elders Die

Any death in a family is shocking. The death of an old person who’s been terminally ill for a long time still brings disbelief and sadness. The family grieves.  All who knew the person grieve.

When this happens in your own family,what comforts you is the support of others, the memories you share of good times, silly things your Uncle Bob did and said, things he was really good at and things he never quite got the hang of. But probably the most comforting thing is knowing that Uncle Bob lived a long, full life. Hard as it is to accept his death, there’s an inevitability about it. It’s in the natural order of things.

When Children Die

The death of a child, though, including a grown child, is different. It’s wrenching, unexpected, incomprehensible. It’s not supposed to happen this way. Children are supposed to live longer than their parents. When they don’t, the pain is unimaginable.

Friends and neighbors and co-workers—maybe even other family members–may not know what to do, what to say. Sometimes they say things that make the grieving parents feel even worse.

My Friend’s Son

The son of a dear friend died tragically when he was only 18. He and one of his class-mates were killed in an auto accident several days before their high school graduation. The driver and other teen-agers in the car were not injured.

It was every parent’s nightmare. My friend was awakened by a knock on his door in the middle of the night. Standing there was a deputy sheriff who handed him a piece of paper with the phone number of a hospital. By the time my friend got there, his son had died on the operating table.

What Not to Do

Before the funeral my friend heard from many friends, but afterward people began to avoid him. “I became a pariah,” he says.

Once during that period, my friend was walking down the street when he saw a man he knew coming the other way. The man, a minister, crossed the street, passed by, and crossed back. Perhaps he thought my friend didn’t notice.

What Not to Say

Most people will probably not go to such extremes. Nearly all of us would stop to talk to a friend whose child has just died, and we’d find words which comfort our friend.

Some people, though, say exactly the wrong thing. This happened to my friend many times. Some examples:

“It’s all part of God’s plan.” or “God needed another flower for his garden.”

You may be thinking, “What’s wrong with that? He meant well; he was just trying to be comforting.” My friend was raised with religious beliefs, but he was not comforted by these easy platitudes. On the contrary–they made him feel worse.

“Put it behind you.” or “You’ve got to get on with your life.”

Well-meaning, but completely clueless, people said this to my friend just days after his son was killed. He did get on with his life–in his own way and in his own time. But it’s been over 20 years, and it’s not entirely behind him. It never will be. And every year the dates of his son’s birth and of his death bring it all back and make him very sad.

“I know exactlyhow you feel.”

Even if you have lost a child and know how devastating that can be, don’t say this. Instead say something like, “It’s a terrible shock, such a loss. We lost our daughter when she was 16.”

“You can have other children.”

I’m making a real effort to understand this, but who could say such a thing? If you want another child, have another child, but not as a replacement for one who has died. Have a child with her own special set of traits and quirks and abilities, a child you will cherish for herself.

What Not to Ask

The last Not-to-Do is asking a lot of questions or pressing for details about the death. And here’s the reason. In the U.S., people over 65 die primarily of natural causes, the most common being heart disease, cancer, and stroke, in that order.

But the most common cause of death in children and young adults (ages 1-34) is unintentional injury, such as the auto accident which killed my friend’s 18-year-old son.

The second and third most common causes of death for pre-teens, teenagers and young adults (ages 10 to 34) in the U.S. is homicide or suicide (based on 2006 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control).

What parent wants to discuss his daughter’s suicide with curious co-workers? And who wants to describe how her son was thrown from a car and slowly bled to death by the side of the road? Even if there’s been an article in the local newspaper about the death, don’t ask for details.

My Own Son

My own son Jonathan, a young adult, died four months ago. He was living in Boston, and I was living in Seattle at the time. (I’ve since moved to the East Coast). I got the dreaded phone call telling me that Jonathan was dead at about 6:00 am. It was completely unexpected, shocking, hard to believe. It’s still hard to believe.

My situation was different from my friend’s in that his son was younger when he died, my friend and his son lived in the same town, and many people in town knew both of them. My son was a young adult who lived thousands of miles from me, and most of the people who knew Jonathan and me were people I’d worked with in Boston years ago.

What to Say

Many of them sent emails or hand-written cards or left comments in his Guest Book on www.legacy.com. (I’d never heard of that website before, but it sets up guest books for those whose obituaries are published in newspapers, such as the Boston Globe.)

After my son died, I checked out the website often and read what friends had written. There were wonderful comments that expressed condolences and shared fond memories of Jonathan. Some examples:

We were so sorry to hear of Jon’s passing. We have so many fond memories of him hanging out with the Cod Squad, celebrating the last Patriot’s Super Bowl win at our house but most of all we’ll remember  the beautiful days sailing with Jon on Evergreen on Boston Harbor. God bless you, Jon…

We think of Jon everyday as we pass the dog house he lovingly built by hand for our pug, Louie. Jon and Bob were active some years back in the Coast Guard Auxilary….

I met Jon as an infant and saw him grow into a nice polite, likeable young man. For many years, we would re-meet at the annual apple picking party in October….

One of the hand-written cards enclosed a picture of an apple picking party several years ago which Jonathan had attended. For months I couldn’t bring myself to open the cards. When my BF and I moved from Seattle, I packed them up and kept them on my desk until just a few days ago.

That’s what you say to comfort a friend whose child has died: You say that you were so sorry to hear about her child; you say that your friend is in your thoughts; you talk about your memories and the good times you shared with her child; and you say how much you will miss him. If you do this, your friend will appreciate it and be comforted by it. She will never forget your thoughtfulness and kindness.

Madeleine Kolb writes about the grim myths and the positive realities of growing older at Age Myths. You can subscribe to Age Myths by RSS feed or e-mail.

Photos by  jamesjordan (top) and erikaemergency (side)

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Choosing Change at any Age
March 9, 2012 at 9:35 am

{ 38 comments }

1 Manal May 6, 2010 at 11:47 am

This is a very emotional post. You raise some very important points about how we approach death and loss and how we can offer our comfort and support.

I don’t know if it is easier for us (humans) to write about things like sharing memories and celebrating one’s life vs. talking about them.

For me when I get emotional I choke so I tend to say less and less. Maybe it is better to communicate some of the most heartfelt memories and experiences in personal written notes. And offer condolences in person (verbally) for support without putting our foot in our mouth with some of the stuff you referred to above (like you can have other children). I’m going to ponder this for a while :)

Thank you for sharing your experience and what came with it. It takes strength and courage. Your message will stay with me.
.-= Manal´s last blog ..Our Place in the Universe: How to Navigate Life from a Cosmic Perspective =-.

2 Madeleine Kolb May 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

@Manal,
“Maybe it is better to communicate some of the most heartfelt memories and experiences in personal written notes.”

I’ve thought about this too, Manal, and I think that it is easier to write than to talk about your memories of one who has died, especially a child. When you write, you have a chance to collect your thoughts in private and to tear up what you’ve written and start over if you want. I’m sure that’s one reason my friend’s experience and mine were so different.

“For me when I get emotional I choke so I tend to say less and less. ”

I also wonder whether our culture doesn’t still expect men to be less emotional than women. That would perhaps explain the “Get it behind you” remarks. I heard a remarkable speech in Toastmasters once on this theme by a man whose 29-year-old daughter had died of cancer; it was called “It’s OK for dads to cry.”

I really appreciate your comment.

3 Topi May 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Thank you for sharing this message. I appreciate your honesty and heartfelt words. Your message will stay with me.
Topi
.-= Topi´s last blog ..The power of a "power break" – guest post at Positively Present =-.

4 Madeleine Kolb May 7, 2010 at 1:56 pm

@Topi,

Topi, Thank you very much.

5 Mary Jaksch May 6, 2010 at 7:25 pm

This is an extraordinary post, Madeleine. I deeply appreciate that you are sharing it here with all of us.

Your post reminded me of the time when my father died. It was a family tragedy because my mother caused the accident that killed him.
I had only just turned 18. My brother George and I were called home and found the house sealed by the police, our mother in hospital gravely injured, and my father dead. We had to endure a state funeral (my father was a politician). It was dark and bizarre.

Hans, a good friend of mine – who is still one of my closest friends – responded in a beautiful way. (He and I used to go climbing together). Hans fetched me in his car and then we drove around all afternoon. Aimlessly. I think we hardly talked. But the silence and sense of protective friendship was exactly what I needed.

6 Madeleine Kolb May 7, 2010 at 2:28 pm

@Mary Jaksch,

Mary, What a tragic thing to happen. So dark and bizarre–and yet public–because of your father’s position. How hard to go through all that as a young girl.

And it is remarkable and essential that some people like your friend Hans know just the right thing to do. He sounds like a real treasure.

Finally, I want to thank you for your encouragement. It’s been a great help to me in sharing the lessons of my experience, and I am very grateful.

7 Jamie Pixon May 7, 2010 at 12:27 am

“My own son Jonathan, a young adult, died four months ago. He was living in Boston, and I was living in Seattle at the time. ”

Very sorry to hear this. This post is very powerful and took extraordinary heart.

I was going to write I have a freind who has cancer and it just doesn’t look good. It’s very sad.

It’s all sad…..

8 Madeleine Kolb May 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm

@Jamie Pixon,
Jamie, I appreciate your comment.

I’m sorry about your friend. It is so sad that someone you care about is dying. All you can do is write to him from your heart. It’s sounds as if you’re a true friend, thoughtful and caring.

9 Jenny Hones May 7, 2010 at 1:57 am

Oh Madeleine, my heart goes out to you. Just reading this brought a lump in my throat and tears to my eyes. I can’t imagine your feelings, I’m so sorry of your loss. Thank you for teaching me what to say, what not to say and what I can do to show empathy to those who have lost loved ones.
.-= Jenny Hones´s last blog ..Children’s Day and Symbolism =-.

10 Madeleine Kolb May 7, 2010 at 3:29 pm

@Jenny Hones,
Jenny, Thank you so much. It was devastating to learn that my son had died, but it was really comforting to know that my friends cared for him and had memories of great times together. Even hearing from his friends whom I’d never met helped me.

Such simple things to say and yet so helpful.

11 Udaysree May 7, 2010 at 6:01 am

thank you for sharing this very helpful post. i’ve always been at a loss of what to say or not to say in such a situation…

12 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 2:15 am

@Udaysree,
Udaysree, Thank you for your comment. I think concentrating on what to say (rather than what not to say) is the key. Sometimes just a simple “I’ve been thinking of you” or “How are you doing?” is enough to show a friend that you care. And if people are avoiding your friend, it will be such a relief and a comfort to hear those words.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

13 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 2:26 am

@Udaysree,
Udaysree, Thank you for your comment.

I think that the key is to focus on things you should say rather than things you shouldn’t say. When a parent loses a child, he can feel very lonely and isolated in addition to his grief. So a simple “You’ve been in my thoughts” or “How are you doing?” is a great relief and a comfort to him. And saying these simple things helps the one who says them.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

14 Linda Gabriel May 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

Thank you Madeleine for having the courage to write about something we all really need to hear. I believe there are a lot of people who are terrified of saying the wrong thing and so avoid the issue by saying nothing. It makes such perfect sense that simple memories of the person can be the most helpful and supportive words to share. I will keep this post bookmarked to remind myself and to share with others as needed.
.-= Linda Gabriel´s last blog ..BDNF – Miracle-Gro for the Brain =-.

15 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 3:02 am

@Linda Gabriel,
Linda, Thank you so much for your comment.

“I believe there are a lot of people who are terrified of saying the wrong thing and so avoid the issue by saying nothing.”

That’s so true (although, in my darker moments, I can’t help but think that some people aren’t terrified enough of saying the wrong thing). Even if you never knew the young one who has died, you can say something simple, like “You’ve been in my thoughts” to the parent.

Another thing that occurs to me is that acknowleging the death and your
friend’s grief helps you as well. Two times co-workers of mine have lost a spouse or long-time boy-friend, and–when they returned to work–other co-workers avoided them. I had a longish talk with each of them and felt very good when I saw the palpable look of relief and gratitude which came over the face of the person as we talked.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

16 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 10:28 am

@Linda Gabriel,
Thank you so much for your comment, Linda. It is amazing what a difference it makes to have a friend or co-worker acknowledge the death of a child and share a memory. It’s the same when a co-worker loses his spouse. Once the wife of a man I worked with died, and when he returned to work, people tended to avoid him. I talked to him about his wife (whom I didn’t know). And I sensed that our conversation made both of us feel better. That was a real relevation for me!
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

17 JoAnn Melton May 7, 2010 at 8:44 am

This is such an important topic.
Two of the items I am most proud of writing were so carefully constructed in relationship to tragedy. One situation related to a crime of murder, then a suicide, leaving behind an innocent wife who knew very few people in our area. I still have the note she mailed to me saying, “In a time when my long walk to the mailbox was filmed by TV news crews, what a joy it was to see a note from you.” The other that I remember had to do with a national tragedy when bodies were scattered over the ocean for many days while our entire town waited for the news we hoped was not true. The words truly appeared through me in a quiet hour asking for the right words. The family was so touched, they closed the service with my words. Both of the recipients told me how much it meant to them at the time when so many shied away not knowing what to say. If you are afraid you will say the wrong thing, write some thoughts – it means so much to the family to have them to read on special occasions.

18 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 3:15 am

@JoAnn Melton,
JoAnn, Such a helpful comment, beautifully expressed!

And, yes, “If you are afraid you will say the wrong thing, write some thoughts – it means so much to the family to have them to read on special occasions.”

Thank you very much.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

19 Jane Rochelle May 7, 2010 at 11:02 am

Hi Madeleine,
I am sorry to hear about the death of your son. It sounds as if Jonathan was a caring and energetic young man who gave of himself and brought much happiness to the people he touched. Thank you for sharing.
Peace and healing,
Jane
.-= Jane Rochelle´s last blog ..Is Your Flow Slow? 5 Ways to Keep It Moving =-.

20 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 3:18 am

@Jane Rochelle,
Jane, I very much appreciate your kind comment.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

21 Farnoosh May 7, 2010 at 1:24 pm

This is an unexpected post in my inbox. I just recently subscribed to Goodlifezen and I sat here with dripping wet hair and every intent to finish something else and read every word. I am so very very sorry for your loss. I have no idea what to say but I have enough tact and common sense NOT to say the things that you suggest avoiding – and it’s just a terrible tragedy when children (of any age) die for any parent. Perhaps that is one reason that keeps me from committing to having children in my life. I cannot imagine losing them.
Thank you for a very touching post. I learned something and I am again sorry for your loss.

22 Madeleine Kolb May 8, 2010 at 3:35 am

@Farnoosh,
Farnoosh, I can picture you sitting there, as you say, with dripping wet hair reading this post.

“…and it’s just a terrible tragedy when children (of any age) die for any parent. Perhaps that is one reason that keeps me from committing to having children in my life. I cannot imagine losing them.”

This is one of The Big Deep Questions in Life, isn’t it. Do I fall in love with this man, knowing that I may lose him? Do I conceive a child, knowing that something may go wrong? Or knowing that my child may be perfect but may die too soon? We each have to find our own answers and take things as they come.

I really appreciate your comment.

.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

23 Arvind Devalia May 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Madeleine, what a heart breaking and yet ultimately heart warming article you have shared with us.

Your words brought up a lot of what I went through when I lost my father over 2 years ago. Even now I can hardly believe it.

I know we tried to speak a number of times a few months ago and I had no idea what you were going through – how does anyone cope?

I am glad you are able to now share about your loss and at the same time guide us in your own way.

And yes, let’s finally, finally speak one of these days – you can contact me anytime:-)

Thank you, my friend.
.-= Arvind Devalia´s last blog ..Honour and Love Your Mother Every Day, Not Just on Mother’s Day =-.

24 Madeleine Kolb May 12, 2010 at 5:54 am

@Arvind Devalia,
Arvind, I hardly know what to say. I so appreciate this comment from you! You are a true friend, and I will definitely get in touch with you.

I do have some good news too. My daughter will be graduating with a Master’s Degree next weekend, and my BF and I are going to her graduation.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Don’t Blog Alone, Join the A-List Blogging Bootcamp =-.

25 Mark May 10, 2010 at 5:33 am

This is such an important topic.Two of the items I am most proud of writing were so carefully constructed in relationship to tragedy. One situation related to a crime of murder, then a suicide, leaving behind an innocent wife who knew very few people in our area. I still have the note she mailed to me saying, “In a time when my long walk to the mailbox was filmed by TV news crews, what a joy it was to see a note from you.” The other that I remember had to do with a national tragedy when bodies were scattered over the ocean for many days while our entire town waited for the news we hoped was not true. The words truly appeared through me in a quiet hour asking for the right words. The family was so touched, they closed the service with my words. Both of the recipients told me how much it meant to them at the time when so many shied away not knowing what to say. If you are afraid you will say the wrong thing, write some thoughts – it means so much to the family to have them to read on special occasions.
+1

26 Tess May 10, 2010 at 5:56 am

I’m coming a little late to this post but I’m drawn to comment. It is so beautifully written, with no hint of self-pity, a tribute to love and loss. Four months ago is so recent, so raw.

My nephew, my oldest brother’s son, was killed in a motorbike accident a few years ago. He was 35. Not so very young perhaps, but with so much unfilled potential still ahead of him.

I am so sorry for your loss of Jon, and that you’ve reached out from that experience to share this excellent practical advice. Thank you.
.-= Tess´s last blog ..Politics: what’s the point? =-.

27 Madeleine Kolb May 10, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Tess, Thank you for your empathetic comment. Losing a child or nephew or other young family member is heart-breaking not only when he is a little boy but when he’s grown into a young man. It’s hard to acccept that his life was cut short, that–as you say– there is “so much unfilled potential still ahead of him.”
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..SALT Talks: 5 Reasons Why the Government Shouldn’t Set Sodium Standards =-.

28 Zengirl @ Heart and Mind May 11, 2010 at 6:23 pm

I am so sorry for your loss! *hug* This post hit close to home, as I miscarried a few times, every times some “well meaning” friend or relative had said things that seemed so unhelpful to me at the time. We as a society are not taught how to deal with death and what to say.

I am more sensitive to others in same situations because I have been there, otherwise I suspect I might be one of these “well meaning” folks.
.-= Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last blog ..Why we can not win on 100 things minimalist race! =-.

29 Madeleine Kolb May 12, 2010 at 5:43 am

Thank you so much for your comment and for the virtual hug. I too miscarried twice before my son was born. As you say, at such a time friends sometimes say things that are not helpful at all. I know that I felt not only the loss of the baby growing inside but also a fear that I might never be able to have children.

“I am more sensitive to others in same situations because I have been there, otherwise I suspect I might be one of these “well meaning” folks.” This is an excellent point.

I think that a post on “What Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman” would be really helpful to people.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Don’t Blog Alone, Join the A-List Blogging Bootcamp =-.

30 Barrie Davenport May 12, 2010 at 9:40 am

Madeleine,
It is so very courageous of you to share your story with all of us. Thank you! I lost both of my parents relatively young, and what meant most to me were the cards in which people shared good memories and experiences. It is strange how much you can learn about the person you love after they pass away. It gives a sense that their presence is still nearby through the memories of people close to them.
Barrie
.-= Barrie Davenport´s last blog ..Blogging and A Decision that Can Change Your Life =-.

31 Madeleine Kolb May 12, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Barrie, Thank you so much. I agree that cards sharing good memories of one who has died mean a great deal. As you say, “It gives a sense that their presence is still nearby through the memories of people close to them.” That is a very comforting thought indeed.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Don’t Blog Alone, Join the A-List Blogging Bootcamp =-.

32 Debbie September 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

My daughter just lost her son. He died as a result of a “cord” accident, and never drew a breath. I cannot believe the idiotic things people have said. They range from, well at least you never held him, so you didn’t get attached. ( Yes she held him, she held him for hours), to you have two other children to think of so get on with your life, and my personal favorite. You’re having a funeral? don’t they just get rid of that at the hospital? No, he was a full term baby.

33 Madeleine Kolb September 17, 2010 at 8:03 am

@Debbie,
How heart-breaking for her and you and the rest of the family. When I was pregnant with my second child, a woman in the LaMaze class called me to say that her baby had died the same way. The birth was induced, she went into labor, and she delivered a dead baby. (He would have been her first child.)

I think people aren’t really callous and unfeeling. They just have no idea what to say when a tragedy occurs. All they need to say is something like, “I was so sorry to hear about your baby.”
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..The Right Stuff Award- Dr Kenneth Cooper =-.

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37 Lilly February 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Your words ring true, more than a few times I was left with a blank stare after some comments that were well meaning.
Lilly´s last blog post ..san antonio clubs

38 kathy r. lk.wth. fl. April 9, 2012 at 9:54 pm

My college friend just lost her 20 something son to heart attack last weds. and buried him yesterday. We are in shock, just found out about it 2 hrs. ago. via facebook. My kids are same ages. What do i say? We’ll see each other this weds. Pls. help. I’m devastated.

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