Supporting a Family When a Child Dies

Roger and I attended a beautiful memorial reception today for another brave cancer warrior.  Little Lois lost the battle with Leukemia.  She was a little over three years of age.

I realized that this was the first memorial that I attended for another child since Charlotte died last year.  The event was positive, bright, filled with children, and filled with smiles.  I hope that it was all Lois’s family wanted it to be.

At times like this, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to support those who are grieving.  When a child dies, there are many who are caught in the wake of loss.  It is hard to know what to say, how to say it, or whether to say anything at all.

Are there rules? Well, yes and no.  Since each person grieves in their own way, I am not sure if there is always a right or wrong answer to some questions.  That being said, my experience has caused me to realize that there are some phrases that jar a grieving parent like fingernails on a chalkboard.  If you are supporting someone who is grieving, here’s some food for thought:

Ban the phrase “at least” from your vocabulary. In the midst of acute grief, there is no bright side to things.  This is a time to allow the family their sadness.  At least she didn’t suffer or At least you have other children or At least you can still have children. NOT HELPFUL. At the moment, life sucks.  In fact, it’s going to suck for a while. It’s ok to acknowledge it.

Be cautious in your use of religious metaphors or talk of heaven. This is probably very individual, but please remember that not everyone shares the same beliefs in life, death, heaven, or an afterlife.  Some parents take serious offense to the idea of their child as “an angel in heaven” because that is not how they imagine them to be after death.  Further, the phrase know that she is in a better place is particularly bothersome.  In my mind, there is no better place for Charlotte to be than with me.  Here on Earth.  It is not necessarily comforting (even if I believe in heaven and the afterlife) to think that she is somewhere else.  In fact, sometimes the use of that phrase is extremely painful to the person who is grieving.

Don’t ask about their plans (or lack thereof) to have more children. If this information is not offered by the parent directly, it’s not up for discussion. You may wonder how they feel but for most parents, it’s a difficult and possibly painful topic.  This is true whether the child’s loss was one week ago or three years ago.  Know that if you ask this question, you are treading on dangerous ground.

Sometimes there are no words. We struggle in these situations to find the right words but sometimes, there is nothing to say. There are no answers. We don’t know the reasons why. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just sit with, cry with, laugh with, or hug the grieving person.  It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers. You can be a friend just by letting them know that you are there.

Remember that grief has no timetable. Everyone grieves on their own schedule. There is no designated time when a person will be over it. Grief ebbs and flows. It tends to fade over time. Some people get stuck and may need some additional support to approach a sense of “normal” but be careful not to project your feelings or expectations on another person’s process grieving a loss.

The last thing I will say is that the most important factor in the process a grieving family endures is the support the community can offer them. I think often of the phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase or saw it written in a card or email, I could finance a new wing of the hospital.  Individually, the phrase carried no weight.  It was just something to fill the void when no other words seemed right.  On the other hand, when I would read comments on our blog or Facebook pages or look at the piles and piles of cards that had been sent from all over the world, I felt the impact of that phrase.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Can you imagine? There were hundreds…no, thousands,…of individuals thinking of us, sending positive vibes, and praying for us.  It created an energy force that was strong and comforting at the same time.  It was like a huge, soft blanket on which we could break the freefall that had become our lives.  And for that I continue to be grateful.

Special thanks to guest author Rachel Reynolds for sharing her story with us. Rachel founded CJ’s Thumbs Up to honor the memory of her daughter, Charlotte. You can read more of Rachel’s work on her blog

photo credit.


  1. Beth said on June 19, 2012 at 6:11 pm ... #

    Thanks for the article. I lost my son in 2004 and a well meaning friend kept using the phrase “all is well”, meaning I guess that my son was in heaven blah blah blah.

    Made me want to scream every time I heard it.

  2. Ruth said on June 19, 2012 at 8:05 pm ... #

    This helps a great deal.

  3. Trux said on June 20, 2012 at 12:38 am ... #

    Too dang right on most of these points. Even more so if you are a Dad…

    The ebb and flow is not orderly like the tides. More like the tsunami that suddenly overwhelms you, runs you thru the heavy load and spin cycles and then recedes leaving you exhausted and grasping at anything solid.
    Moreover, I do not believe the grief fades. Rather it is a backpack we can never take off. Over time we become more accustomed to the relentless load and learn to do more than plod one foot in front of another hoping our legs do not buckle and thinking only of the searing unshakeable pain. We compensate, multi-task, meditate, whatever it takes to adjust to our own personal reality..counting the minutes, then hours then days then months until we too may no longer be fettered by this physical plane of existence and maybe just maybe be reunited with our bright little stars.
    and so we go…onward.

  4. Gina said on August 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm ... #

    I lost my 18 year old son to violence on June 30th this year and I still feel like I’m being selfish or mean when I don’t want to hear people talk. Especially when they use those common phrases. However the thoughts and prayers are helpful and strengthens me to know that many are thinking of my family and I and praying for us.

  5. Angela G. said on January 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm ... #

    I lost my son June 9, 2012 by a gun shot to the right eye at a friends house. I love knowing that my family is in everyone’s thoughts and prayers but it does get old hearing sometimes. I never thought I would say that but during grief of a child all you want is to see them again and hear their voice one more time and be able to tell them all you never got to say to them. And sometimes you just don’t want to hear anything but silence. All I want to do is sleep and all my husband and 14 year old son want to do is stay busy. It is very important to understand that each individual does grieve differently and you must be sensitive to their needs.

  6. Laura Hedgecock said on March 1, 2013 at 9:35 am ... #

    Couldn’t find a “Like” button, so I thought I’d write a whole sentence. I like this. Wonder if it would be bad to forward this to an individual who needs to get rid of “At least.”

    Laura Hedgecock

  7. Sherri said on May 30, 2013 at 5:02 pm ... #

    I just wanted to say thank you for making us who have never lost a son or daughter understand what the ones who have are going through and need to hear. My sister lost her son coming up on a year now and to be honest I am suprised she is still here with us. I didnt know what to say so I used excuses such as her drinking to stay away not really knowing what to do. So now I am sending her an apology for all those saying hes better off hes not suffering bla bla everyone to this day still says. We dont understand non of us have been through what she is going threw and now I know all she needs to know is I am here for her not telling her to call if she needs me becasue like u said she wont but to know Im here and will not turn my back on her when she needs to talk no matter what she wants to talk about ill be there for her. Thanks again!

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