Parents Who Lost A Child Share What They Wish More People Understood

Bereaved parents explain why time doesn't heal this unthinkable form of loss, why platitudes aren't helpful and other important lessons.
Illustration: Chris McGoniga/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

When a child dies, many people’s thoughts immediately go to the grieving parents. It can be difficult to fathom what they’re feeling or figure out what to say in the aftermath of such a devastating loss.

“Losing a child is a unique type of grief,” said Kimberly Schlau, whose daughters Kelli and Jessica died in a car accident in 2007. “The natural order has been disrupted. Most people have suffered the loss of a parent, grandparent or spouse, but most have not experienced losing a child, especially in an abrupt and tragic manner,” she added.

“As parents, we expect our children to make the world a better place. We have hopes and dreams for them,” Schlau continued. “So we not only grieve the loss of the child; we grieve the loss of what could have been.”

As well meaning as people are, many seem to fall into the same patterns of misconceptions and mistakes when dealing with grieving parents. Whether the child was fully grown or still a kid at the time of their death, the caregivers who loved them are likely in deep pain, so it’s crucial to be sensitive and take your cues from them.

Speaking to HuffPost, Schlau and other parents who’ve lost a child described what they want to tell people who don’t understand this kind of grief:

I want to talk about my child.

“I wish more people understood how much I want to talk about my daughter,” said Jessica Fein, whose daughter, Dalia, died of a rare mitochondrial disease in 2022.

When people learn that Fein has lost a child, they tend to just say “I’m so sorry” and nothing more.

“Once in a while somebody asks ‘what was her name?’ or ‘what was she like?’” the mother said. “This feels like a door opening, inviting me to talk about my girl. People have told me they don’t want to bring her up and risk ‘reminding me’ or ‘making me sad.’ Do they think I’ve forgotten? Yes, it sometimes feels heartbreaking to talk about my daughter, but it’s even more heartbreaking not to be able to.”

Don’t hesitate to reach out with a kind thought when you’re reminded of someone’s lost child as well.

“It’s so lovely on the child’s birthday or anniversary of their passing to just send the text ‘I’m thinking of you,’” said Dolores Cruz, whose son Eric died in a car accident in 2017. “And say the child’s name. Parents are afraid people will forget about their child. Say their name. Don’t be afraid you’ll upset us. It feels so good to have someone talk about them.”

Time will not ‘heal’ this loss.

“The phrases ‘time heals everything’ or ‘you need time to heal’ are not correct, because you never heal from the loss of a child,” said Karen Wallace Bartelt, who lost her son Randy to a drug overdose in 2018. “What you do is learn to live with it, just as you learn to live with any type of horrible disease or other bad experience. It’s not going to go away or get fixed, but you learn to deal with it. You find a place for it and carry it with you so you can function and find happiness.”

She emphasized that even if she seems to be doing great, that doesn’t mean she’s gotten over the loss of her child. She has simply adapted.

“Yes, life continues, and we will find meaning and experience joy in time,” echoed Casey Mulligan Walsh, whose son Eric died in a car crash in 1999. “But those moments of joy don’t undo or negate the emptiness we still feel in the absence of our beloved children.”

She used the analogy of three jars, each successively larger but with the same-sized ball resting at the bottom.

“In the early days of our grief, the ball consumes nearly the whole jar,” Walsh said. “It’s all we can feel, all we can see, and everything else feels crammed in around it. But as time passes, our lives expand. That ball of grief is still there, still as large, but the rest of our lives have grown. It’s that way with grief. We hold on to that ball of grief ― though maybe it’s more a ball of sweet memories now than it once was ― but we allow ourselves to embrace the life we’ve been given, too.”

“Yes, life continues, and we will find meaning and experience joy in time. But those moments of joy don’t undo or negate the emptiness we still feel in the absence of our beloved children.”

- Casey Mulligan Walsh, whose son Eric died in 1999

Platitudes and euphemisms don’t help.

“The old platitudes ― ‘he’s in a better place,’ ‘at least you have other children,’ ‘God needed an angel’ — are more than unhelpful; they’re harmful and make grieving parents feel unseen,” Walsh said. “For me, the best thing anyone could say was this: ‘I’m so sorry this has happened to your family. I’m here to listen.’”

Oftentimes, people have good intentions when they say something like “he’s in a better place.” But even if the grieving parents are religious people, that’s likely not what they need to hear.

“I do believe that Randy is with God and that I will see him again. But it doesn’t lessen my grief in any way, shape or form,” Bartelt said. “When people say, ‘Now he’s in a better place,’ I think: ‘No, he was in a good place. He was here with me.’ It almost makes me angry because the message these platitudes send is, ‘You shouldn’t be feeling this way, because he’s in a better place.’ But I feel shattered, and I need to grieve.”

She noted that she dislikes hearing people say her son “passed away” because it seems as though they are softening what happened.

“He died. He’s not with us anymore. And when people use the words ‘pass away,’ it’s almost like it’s not quite as horrific as it really was,” Bartelt explained. “But losing your child is horrific, and that phrase seems to just be making the person who’s speaking to you feel better while you feel worse.”

Please don’t compare this to losses you’ve experienced.

“I want to emphasize the importance of listening without trying to fix or compare your own losses to the person who’s lost a child,” said Jacqueline Dooley, who lost Ana, her teenage daughter, to cancer in 2017. “I love my pets, but when people brought up the loss of a dog or their elderly grandmother right after Ana died, it made me feel worse.”

All loss is painful and deserves acknowledgement and grieving. But keep in mind the extra layers of grief around a death that feels so unnatural, as with a child dying before their parents.

“Please do not compare losing a child to losing a pet,” Schlau urged. “I love my dog. His name is Oliver, he is my ‘therapy’ dog and I call him my ‘furchild.’ I will be devastated when he dies. But I would never compare that loss to losing my children.”

Even if you have lost a child yourself, try to avoid making direct comparisons when you talk to a fellow grieving parent.

“Everyone’s grief journey is different, and there are also different types of losses that elicit all kinds of emotions,” Dooley said. “Ana died after a long illness, but I know people who’ve lost children to accidents, murder, suicide and sudden acute illnesses. Yes, we’ve all lost a child, but their pain and grief take a different shape than mine.”

Don’t rush my grieving process.

“There literally is no quick fix or time frame to grieving a child,” Dooley said. “Give people the time ― and grace ― to move through it in the way that works for them.”

Author Lehman Riley wanted more people to respect his grieving process after his daughter Lizzy died in 2020.

“People tried to rush my grief, saying things like: ‘It’s been three months. You should be more OK,’” he said. “I’m still grieving. I wish people wouldn’t have been so inconsiderate, and instead had given me space and time to process it and grieve the way I needed. So many people invaded that space I needed and told me to be brave or said, ‘This is what I would do if I were you.’ But you don’t know what you’d do if this happened to you.”

Don’t tell a grieving parent to “get over it” or point out how many months or years have passed. These comments are hurtful.

I’m not contagious.

“I wish people would understand that my grief isn’t contagious,” said Joanne Cacciatore, whose daughter Cheyenne died as an infant in 1994. “I can’t tell you how many people whose child dies say they feel like lepers in their community because people see them in the grocery store and turn the other way. Or if they don’t avoid them physically, they do emotionally. They offer superficial platitudes like ‘everything happens for a reason.’ They’re afraid to acknowledge the grief.”

She recommended approaching parents with compassion and love. Make it clear that you are thinking about them and want to know how they’re really doing ― if they feel like sharing.

“The advice I would offer to someone who doesn’t know what to say to a grieving parent is to just say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,’” Schlau told HuffPost.

“Honestly, a genuine hug, smile, or simple ‘I’m here for you’ is the best action. I had people at work literally turn around if they saw me in the halls or building lobby. At the time it hurt, but now I understand why: They didn’t know what to say or how to approach me. Just be honest with the parent and let them lead the conversation. I guarantee the majority of us welcome the opportunity to talk about our children.”

Community support is important, but don’t make it about you.

“A child’s death may seem like it’s a family tragedy, but it’s really a community tragedy because it affects everyone,” Cacciatore said. “We all need to respond in accord to support the grieving family. We owe this to each other. When a child in the family dies, a house becomes a house of pain. If we don’t respond as a compassionate community, and circle around the family and prioritize their needs and well-being, eventually this ends up affecting everyone.”

She emphasized that those aiming to support the bereaved should not make the tragedy about themselves.

“I worked with some of the families who had loved ones killed at Sandy Hook Elementary,” Cacciatore said, referring to the site of the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

“They said it was so highly publicized and there was such an outpouring of love. But there were certain people who made the loss about them, even though their child wasn’t killed. That’s hurtful. While the community has a responsibility to the grieving family and such a tragedy can affect all of us, remember this is the family’s loss.”

“When a grieving parent says they’re having a hard day, please understand that it doesn’t matter how long ago or recently their child has died.”

- Erica Landis, whose son, Noah, died in 2010

There’s nothing linear about this.

“I wish more people understood how nonlinear this is,” said Erica Landis, whose toddler son, Noah, died in a pool accident in 2010. “For me, it’s been almost 13 years since Noah died, and I can honestly say the shock never goes away. The triggers are both predictable and surprising: a swimming pool, the smell of chlorine, the sound of an ambulance siren, seeing a little boy who looks like him. But the unpredictable triggers can be even more powerful.”

When she recently purchased a new vacuum cleaner with a retractable cord, she felt “punched in the gut” with a memory of Noah loving this feature on a vacuum they owned when he was still alive.

“He would laugh and pull the cord back out for me to do it [retract the cord] again,” Landis recalled. “It took 13 years for that memory to come back. And I was instantly transported to that living room from three apartments ago and all the emotions that went with it. And I felt like he was taken from me all over again. So when a grieving parent says they’re having a hard day, please understand that it doesn’t matter how long ago or recently their child has died.”

Schlau shared a comparison her therapist made between dealing with grief and standing in the ocean.

“Sometimes it’s calm and you can see the waves coming, so you can brace yourself for the impact,” she said. “Sometimes those waves hit harder or blindside you, and knock you on your ass. Fight your way back to your feet, stand up and start again.”

There is indeed no timeline for grief, and no clear markers of progress. Everyone’s journey is different and ever changing.

“You might see somebody who lost a child looking pretty good one day ... and think, ‘Oh, they’re doing so much better,’” Cruz said. “They may look like that on the outside, but I can guarantee you that their inside is still pretty torn apart. And they might not look as good next time you see them.”

Don’t assume what I’m feeling.

“When my son Eric died at 20 in a single-car crash, my world stood still,” Walsh said. “Because of the many losses I’d already experienced and the struggles we’d both had in the years leading up to his death, while I grieved deeply, I also embraced a peace that carried me through those unthinkable days of early loss.”

This sense of peace was unexpected for those around her.

“I wish others had understood this ― that I wasn’t numb or in shock as everyone assumed, but that peace can sit beside sorrow,” she said. “Every loss is different, every path to that terrible day is different, and people need to grieve in the way that feels natural and right for them.”

Grief manifests in a wide variety of emotions, from anger to relief to guilt. Don’t presume to know which one a parent is experience at any time. Simply validate what they express they’re feeling and offer support.

This loss brings an identity shift.

“Losing a child is a complete identity shift,” Fein said. “Inside I will always be the mother of three children, but now my inside doesn’t match my outside. There’s a sadness that permeates even ― and especially ― the most joyful moments.”

Although the grief process is always evolving, there is also a permanence to this reality. Nothing can be fixed.

“I don’t think there’s any way to understand the shift in worldview that comes with immense grief unless you experience it. The change in identity when you lose a child is catastrophic.”

- Jacqueline Dooley, whose daughter Ana died in 2017

“The death of a child is so catastrophic and traumatic that the life we lived as parents before the loss can never be the same again,” said Katja Faber, the mother of Alex, who was murdered in 2014. “When my son was killed, what was normal ceased to exist. A part of me died, and I was forever changed.”

Faber described feeling as though she’d entered a parallel world and spending many years trying to find herself again, or rather the “new” her. She also emphasized that because her love for her son is everlasting, her grief will similarly never end.

“I’m never going to get over the loss of my daughter,” Dooley echoed. “That doesn’t mean that my life is over, but it does mean that I’m an entirely different version of myself than I was before Ana died. I don’t think there’s any way to understand the shift in worldview that comes with immense grief unless you experience it. The change in identity when you lose a child is catastrophic.”

Because I know deep sorrow, I also know immense joy.

“Though I will grieve the death of my son forever and then some, it doesn’t mean my life is lacking happiness and joy,” said Angela Miller, whose toddler son Noah died 15 years ago.

“Quite the contrary in fact, though it took a while to get there. My life is more rich now. I live from a deeper place. I love deeper still. Because I grieve, I know a joy like no other,” she added, calling this “the alchemy of grief.”

“Because I’ve clawed my way from the depths of unimaginable pain and sorrow, when the joy comes ― however and whenever it does ― it is a joy that reverberates through every pore of my skin and every bone in my body.”

Surprisingly, grief can bring “gifts,” she said.

“These gifts don’t in any way make it all ‘worth it,’ but I am grateful beyond words for each and every gift that comes my way,” Miller said. “I bow my head to each one and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ There is nothing ― and I mean absolutely nothing ― I take for granted now. Living life in this way gives me greater joy than I’ve ever known possible. I have my son to thank for that. Being his mom is the best gift I’ve ever been given. Even death can’t take that away.”

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