What To Do and Say When The Unthinkable Happens
October is Pregnancy Loss and Infant Loss Awareness Month. From that no longer beating heart on the ultrasound scan, to the loss of a baby, infant or older child, whether it be through, illness, injury, accident or even, murder and suicide, and sometimes due to no obvious reason or cause – One thing is for sure, every single experience of child loss is unique to the individual parent.
Unless you have gone through this yourself, you will likely have very little knowledge on how to comfort or even talk to a friend or relative who has. Here our friend Nada shares some of her experience of child loss and offers advice on what is helpful and what can be hurtful to a parent who experiences the unthinkable.
I lost my daughter in January 2013, a few days after her first birthday. She was shaken by her caretaker and passed away as a result of her injuries.
I cannot speak for anyone’s experience but my own. However, I have found that a common thread runs through the experiences of many bereaved parents I speak with – which is that nearly every parent who has lost a child has experienced people around them unintentionally saying or doing something inappropriate. Without knowing it, even a seemingly simple remark can add a layer of pain to intense grief.
An unintentionally hurtful word or act in no way undermines the incredible love and support a family member or friend provides. Nevertheless, even with the best of intentions, it is very hard to know what to say or do to provide comfort and support for bereaved parents. Here I give some basic guidelines that family and friends can keep in mind, illustrated by my own experience.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Don’t make this about yourself. Remember that this immense loss is primarily the parents’ loss.
This seems glaringly obvious but is commonly overlooked.
While I was at the hospital, sitting at my daughter’s bedside, in shock and mounting terror at the prospect of losing her, I was inundated by everyone else’s emotional reactions too. I had to hug crying friends and explain repeatedly what had happened to each new visitor. People wanted me to take their calls, talk to them and give them updates.
I would be curled up in her hospital bed, trying to cradle her, desperate and mentally exhausted, and look up to see someone who had come in because they wanted to see her but were completely overlooking the fact that I didn’t want anyone there to witness my pain.
These same family and friends were also the backbone of our support system and for that I am deeply grateful. But even supportive family and friends should take a step back and ask themselves whether their need for information and comfort overrules the parents’.
In case you are ever unsure of who to express your emotions to, there is an excellent theory which explains it. This should be required reading for everyone because it applies to all kinds of trauma, not just child loss. In summary: if you are direct family, vent to extended family. If you are extended family, vent to distant relatives or friends. If you are friends, vent to each other or friends who are another degree removed from your friendship with the parent. Dump your emotions out and pour your comfort in. At no point should you be expressing your need for emotional support to someone who is struggling even more than you are. Here it is in a simple diagram :
Don’t tell the parent that you understand what they are going through.
No one understands what a bereaved parent goes through. In fact, even I, as a bereaved parent, cannot understand what another bereaved parent is going through.
Everyone’s trials in life are different and though a divorce or illness is undoubtedly a very difficult challenge in one’s life, it is of an entirely different nature to the test of losing one’s child.
Avoid curiosity about the circumstances around the child’s death.
Even in my state of extreme grief, I could tell those whose curiosity overcame their desire to be sensitive to our feelings.
Acquaintances visited, asked questions about the circumstances of her death and then never visited again. Those kinds of visits only deepened the pain.
If a parent wants to discuss what happened, they will tell you unprompted. If they do not, then they do not want to talk about it and that unspoken desire should be respected. Listen, don’t talk.
Don’t theorize on why this has happened.
I was told my daughter died because she got the evil eye after I posted her pictures on Facebook. I was told I wasn’t grateful enough for her. I was told I was being punished for my sins. I was asked how I could not have seen warning signs. I was told I should have done xyz to prevent it.
A parent who has lost a child is going through an earth shattering experience. We are haunted by the loss. We wonder every second what we could have done to prevent it and whether it was our fault. We blame ourselves in crazy, convoluted ways.
We carry immense guilt because as parents, our primary responsibility is to care for and protect our children and we feel we have failed, no matter the cause of our child’s passing. Please don’t exacerbate the guilt that is already wrenching our hearts out of our chests.
A simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether what you want to say will make the parent feel better. If you are in any doubt, it is safer to say nothing at all.
Don’t expect the parent to ‘get over it’.
There is no such thing as putting the loss of a child behind you. We have learnt to live without our daughter because we had no choice.
Our daughter’s two brothers were born in the three years after she passed away and they are the biggest joy in our lives. We smile and laugh. We play with them. We visit family and friends and celebrate Eids. We live our lives because life stops for no one and nothing. That is the nature of life.
But our daughter lives in our hearts. She is with us in every breath. We think of her a hundred times a day. Her brother points to her picture and says her name. Every single joy is bittersweet. We live with the hope and prayer that we will be reunited with her in a far better place, inshAllah. We will talk about her until our last day.
Everyone in our lives understands this and is comfortable with it. We find that we cannot be around people who find it awkward or unnatural that we have not compartmentalized our daughter’s loss and ‘moved on’. There is no ‘moving on’. There is just learning to live with it and hopefully doing so with grace and gratitude for our blessings.
WHAT TO DO
Turn up. Be there.
This is the single most important thing you can do.
Even if you feel there is nothing you can do, be there. Even if you feel inadequate, useless and don’t have any words, be there. The bereaved parent will blink at you and look through you in their grief. But months or years from the day that you showed up, they will remember that you were there. They will never forget.
My college friend left her six week old daughter with her in laws and flew over with her husband. Our family and friends flew in from all over the country and around the world. Others called everyday and left messages. One childhood friend, who lived in another country, emailed me every week with beautiful quotes and messages throughout that terrible first year. A colleague made a prayer for my family and my daughter at every house of worship he visited over the next three years. At my daughter’s funeral, I saw people I barely knew, coworkers I was surprised to see, friends of friends I had never met before.
If you do not turn up, your relationship will irreversibly change. It’s sad but true: If you are not there for them now, you will never recover your relationship. If you are, they will make dua for you till their last day.
So show up – It will define your relationship with the parent for the rest of your life. Nothing will matter more.
Be a quiet, constant, helpful presence.
I knew that if I needed my family and close friends, I just had to walk into the waiting room. They arranged meals for everyone. They fell asleep on couches and sitting on the hospital floor in case we needed them. They took our phone and answered calls, sent text and email updates. They booked hotel rooms for family that flew in.
The day we had to turn our daughter’s life support off, they held our hands and led us out of the hospital because we couldn’t walk on our own. They cried behind closed doors so we couldn’t see their pain. They moved out of their home and invited us to stay with our entire extended families so we didn’t have to go back to a silent apartment which rang with our daughter’s absence.
They massaged my stiff shoulders as I sat frozen, day after day and night after night. They ran from office to office to make sure our daughter’s body was released to us swiftly. They took care of every detail of the janaza (funeral). They packed up my daughter’s belongings. They bought us an air ticket and arranged for our visas so we could leave for umrah immediately because I wanted to weep for my daughter at the House of Allah.
They called, emailed and texted regularly. Even when we were incapable of talking, they drove or flew hundreds of miles over the months that followed to be with us. They came every few days to sit with me.
I would do anything for these family and friends. They were, and are, a merciful blessing from God.
Be sensitive to how a bereaved parent will cope around other children.
We didn’t have other children when our daughter passed away and for months after, I would collapse sobbing when I saw other little children.
My friends would come to visit me when their kids were at school or when they could leave them with someone. I still find it difficult to be around little girls who are a year old or who are the age my daughter would have been today.
I often lock myself in the bathroom to take steadying breaths or hold back tears as I watch my friends’ daughters do the things my daughter never will. I still ache deeply when I see the children my daughter once played with. I still can’t attend first birthday parties.
Be sensitive to their pain and don’t take offense if they tell you they cannot be around your child. It is not personal.
Talk about their child.
Our daughter will always be our first child and our eldest daughter. Death doesn’t change that.
She will always be the child who initiated us into the joys of parenthood. She existed. In many ways, she continues to be a part of our everyday lives – Our experiences with her and memories of her are still with us. We include her when someone asks us how many children we have because it is the truth and our struggle to live without our child is a lifelong, daily one.
The family and friends who accept and welcome that she is a normal part of our conversations help us through this journey every day. She will always be mentioned and spoken about.
So if and when you are ever in a position where you know someone who has lost a child, please honor and respect their child and their struggle and acknowledge their child who has passed away when they speak about them. Say their name. It matters.
It has been nearly four years since my daughter passed away. With time, I have come to understand that every single person who said or did something upsetting or hurtful regarding my daughter’s passing did so unknowingly and unintentionally.
In truth, I would probably have done the same in my previous life, where I had no idea what child loss meant. But it takes time for a grieving parent to understand this and in the meantime, the grief is so raw that even unintentional, seemingly innocuous comments have the power to inflict deep wounds
May Allah make this test easy for all grieving parents, Ameen.
The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:
“When a person’s child dies, Allah the Most High asks His angels, ‘Have you taken out the life of the child of My slave?’
They reply in the affirmative.
He then asks, ‘Have you taken the fruit of his heart?’
They reply in the affirmative.
Thereupon he asks, ‘What has My slave said?’
They say: ‘He has praised You and said: Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un (We belong to Allah and to Him we shall be returned).’
Allah says: ‘Build a house for My slave in Jannah and name it Bait-ul-Hamd (the House of Praise)’.”
(At-Tirmidhi, Number 1736)
Nada, thank you so much for sharing this with such openness, honesty and heart.
In memory of their daughter Rehma, Nada and her husband, Sameer, established a charity dedicated to providing high quality healthcare to underprivileged children around the world. You can donate to the Rehma Fund here. If you’d like to learn more about Rehma’s story see here. Nada is the creator of Mercy In Loss a resource to help bereaved parents in the United States.