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.
Mother & Child painting and Blossoming Heart illustration by Zarina Teli
Ring Theory illustration from fabafter40
I came accross your post and wanted to add that I love it. I lost my 5 year old last year in a car accident, in which my daughter was also injured. I find that your post is real and useful for others. I also find that many people don’t know how to be around us. I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter, it is so unfair. If you ever want to read from another mom who is grieving, feel free to visit my blog (grievingmaman.com)
You are not alone, please feel free to reach out anytime.
I have felt every thing what you have written in the article. I lost my son while we were away in vacations in Hongkong. He drowned in pool 3 days before our flight back to Pakistan. Since then I have been unable to sleep peacefully.. it is the most difficult times as we had spent 8 yrs together…
It is the biggest calamity and we never thought it could happen to us as well.. we keep reading the death news every day but could they happen to us … this never comes in our mind and now when it has happened, life has completely lost it’s meaning…it is heart wrenching and complex devastating sometimes.. May Allah give me sabr
I am deeply, truly sorry for your earth shattering loss. May Allah SWT envelop you in His mercy and grant you sabr jamil. There are no words I can offer to ease your journey. May Allah SWT give you and your husband immense strength and peace till you are reunited with your son in the best of places, Ameen. May He guide and protect us and our families through these trials, Ameen.
I hope you have found some resources that provide some comfort. Children of Jannah is a wonderful resource, http://mercyinloss.org is my attempt to help other bereaved Muslim parents.
I will remember you in my duas.
Nada, I lost my 19 year old daughter on August 16,2019. due to dengue shock syndrome. My life revolved around her and vice versa. Still in a state of shock,guilty that couldnt save her. She was the best for me in my life.She was very caring,well mannered,understanding,jovial and was full of life but I couldnt do anything for her.It was too late.Life has completely changed within minutes.Painful,sorrowful,grief.Cant control my tears 😭😭😭😭.
Inna lillahi wa Inna ilaihi rajioon. It hurts to come back to this page every few months and see another mother’s heart broken words for the loss of their beloved child but I pray that just in knowing you are not alone, that our struggles are similar in some ways, that others make dua for you and your daughter and for you to be reunited in the best of places brings at least the smallest comfort to your heart.
19 years with a daughter who you describe as shining from within with her beauty. What a blessing she must have been when she was alive and I’m sure she continues to be a blessing in your life as she waits for you. I had a year with my Rehma, I am sure the pain of having lost your daughter after 19 years is immense.
May Allah grant you much peace and envelop you in His Mercy, and reunite you in the best of places, Ameen.
I have tears flowing down my cheeks because you’ve so beautifully put into words how I feel/ felt. My baby girl passed away at 5days old after I went into preterm labour at 24 weeks. It’s been three months. and it is so hard. But I will never forget those who stood by us. I remember walking out of the hospital room and so many friends sitting on the floor outside the ward for us. My Allah fill your and your husbands hearts with sabr and reunite you with your baby girl in Jannah
My heart aches as I read your and other mother’s accounts of their own heartbreaking losses. I will remember you in my duas when I pray for my daughter and being reunited with her one day. May Allah SWT give you comfort, peace and hope and reunite you in joy with your baby, Ameen.
I have mentioned other resources in my other replies here, I hope you can find some of them to be useful.
Thank you ladies for your articles and unfortunate experiences. After losing my 4month old (2 months ago), it has been hard, even harder as most I hear and could initially find is simply “It’s gods decree”. That is so true, but proper support, empathy, being allowed to cried.. Not really anyone who could help, especially after losing a lot of friends who were not able to cope or had other priorities during a tough pregnancy and the arrival of our beautiful little one.
Long story short, I wish you would not have to write this and I wish none of us would to go through this. I wish you all the best, may Allah swt comfort you all and make our lovely little ones the best of pleaders.
Inna lillahi wa Inna Illahi Rajioon. My deepest condolences for the loss of our child and prayers that Allah SWT makes these difficult days bearable for you, Ameen.
I absolutely understand your comment on needing more than a statement about the loss being Allah’s decree. Our communities have not been taught how to handle the loss of a child and they stumble in terms of an appropriate, empathetic response.
I set up a site last year with the hope and aim of reaching other parents like myself, who were searching for support and understanding of their specific loss and pain. I hope you find some solace there: http://mercyinloss.org.
May Allah grant you ease and sakeenah in this blessed month, Ameen.
Salam, I’m someone who doesn’t know you and is a passer by. I read this article while watching my two year old sleep next to me, with tears in my eyes. This truly must be the greatest test. In the Quran, when Allah SWT mentions Musa AS’s mother putting her son in a flimsy basket in the river to protect him from firauns soldiers, it was described that her heart was emptied and that she wouldn’t have been able to do it had it not been for Allah SWT strengthening her heart.
Your article was beneficial to me, and I truly appreciate your having written it.
I will make duas for your angel waiting for you in Jamnah, our everlasting home. May Allah SWT grant you a house of Hamd for your great sabr and the benefit you are providing to our Ummah.
Inna Lillahe Wa Innaa Ilaihi Raajiuun, I have tears in my eyes as a read this post. May Allah grant you patience and understanding. May He grant you and your family Jannah.
Nada – may Allah reward you for your patience, and let your light, faith, and tawakkol be an example and benefit to many.
Nada – I just had the chance to read this and wanted to thank you for always being so candid about your experience. As difficult as it may be you manage to speak about everything with so much grace, and it really helps to hear what is helpful and what not to do. Appreciate you taking the time to share and you are truly an inspiring mother. I pray that Allah swt always keeps your beautiful family safe, healthy, happy and among the righteous. May He protect sweet Rehma in Jannat-al-Firdaus and reunite you all with her Insha’Allah.
Dear sister in faith , your ordeal is the greatest of ordeals . I do not have words of comfort for you but I am touched by your altruism and the light this little life left behind. We as mothers consciously as well as inconsiously shape the lives of our children however in your case this little life changed yours and when I say that I mean the grief of losing her and not having her with you kindled the light in your heart and in lives of people she never met. She is Rehma just like her name through which He showered blessings of mercy on you and inshallah on your generations to come . The heart that suffered this pain is purified and very dear to the almighty, I plead you to raise your hands to the heavens and pray for the lives and good being of your as well as our children . This beautiful short life served the purpose she was created for and bring the rahmah which she did as He says in the Quran “Fabiayyi alai rubikuma tukathithibani”( Surah Arrahman) “which of the favors of your lord will you deny ?”My sister in faith may that Rehma forever shine in your heart and when you meet her again you will know she truly was Rehma.
Thank you for taking the time to write such a beautiful response to this article. Ameen to your duas. You are right, I started to understand early on after Rehma passed away that her short life was meant to serve a larger purpose that I did not have the ability to comprehend. She has positively changed so many lives, not just for us but for so many people she had never even met. Allah knows best. I live with the constant dua and hope that I will hold my Rehma’s hand one day and be reunited with her and all who I love. May this dua hold true for every parent who has lost a child, Ameen!