Over the weekend, a pastor whom I don’t know contacted me asking for pediatric funeral liturgy since he, fortunately, had not officiated a child’s funeral before. He said a mutual colleague told him they used some of my liturgy for an infant funeral last year, and suggested he contact me for resources. While reading his email I thought, “Great, I’m officially one of the Death Diva colleagues.” We exchanged phone numbers and during our conversation the pastor asked what he should say to the family at the funeral as well as after it. Said pastor was then captive to my righteous rant about what not to say based on my experiences with families.
I emailed him some liturgies and a few hours later I found myself in a hospital room with grieving parents and a room full of well meaning folks saying things that make me cringe. Not only are some comments potentially hurtful and damaging to the parents emotionally, some are damaging theologically, which, depending on the person and the day, can be much worse. Often it is the chaplains and pastors who have to deconstruct said comments, then rebuild the foundation of belief in the God of Love and Grace and Life. To that end, here is my collection of likely well intentioned, yet potentially damaging, things you ought not say to grieving parents.
“You can always have another one.” They may not physically be able to have another child for various reasons or complications which you aren’t aware of, so this statement could actually be false, thus even more upsetting to them. Never mind that while this statement may be appropriate for the death of, say, a goldfish, as there are in fact “other fish in the sea,” it sounds like their child is replaceable. This is a child, not an appliance or vehicle that can simply be upgraded or replaced.
“Only the good die young.” Really? This is the time to quote Billy Joel? Also, that song discusses Catholic girls not having pre-marital sex, which makes said comment even less appropriate. In an interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Joel stated, “The point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the death of a child, or anyone else, isn’t the best time to quote 1970’s pro-lust pop songs.
“God needed him/her more.” None of us is God, thus none of us can accurately speak to what God does and doesn’t need. Also, this sounds as if the parents either don’t need their child anymore and/or God simply disregarded their needs. Either way, parents have stated it’s not comforting at all, and actually makes them even more angry with God.
“I know how you feel.” With all due respect, no you don’t. While other parents who have lost children are able to offer a unique and empathetic level of support to grieving parents, they will be the first to tell you that one of the worst things people said to them is, “I know how you feel.” The pain and horror of losing a child is just as subjective and relative to each human being as any other feeling. We all experience identical situations differently, so just don’t say it. A more helpful alternative is, “I cannot imagine what you are feeling, but I’m here to support you.”
“He/She was only on loan anyway.” This is true in that as Christians we believe that children are gifts from God and all of us belong to God. However, to grieving parents, this statement sounds as if God was sharing God’s toys at the big earthly day care playground, and then up and decided to take some of the toys back to Heaven and keep them there. It makes God sound fickle and greedy, and frankly, that image of God is bad theology.
“God needed another angel.” (I don’t even know what that means) Many people who have lost loved ones experience feeling the spirit of said loved one after their death, either at a family gathering, in nature, or in hearing a favorite song. Some even refer to those feelings as feeling like they have an angel with them, which is beautiful and comforting for them. However, again, none of us can speak to what God needs, and if God does in fact need more angels, I’m confident God can make that happen apart from the death of children.
“At least you were able to have a child. Some people can’t.” Thanks, Captain Obvious, but seriously?! While that’s not an untrue statement, it’s not really comforting either. Yes, they were able to have a child, but now they don’t tangibly have that child, so there’s that. Many grieving parents have responded to that statement with, “I wouldn’t give anything for the joy and time I had with my child, but this would hurt a lot less if I had never known such joy.” Grief is complicated and layered and feeling grateful for the life you knew, yet wishing you had never known how good it could be so the pain wouldn’t be as bad now, is all part of the authentic process and doesn’t at all lessen the love for that child.
“This is all part of God’s Divine plan for you.” Every time I’m in the room when this is said, I want to yell, “Earmuffs!” to the parents, much like we do with children when there’s something being said we don’t want them to hear. For many grieving parents, this is one of the most theologically damaging statements, and often the most painful one. Parents have stated this makes them feel like God planned to hurt them all along and God doesn’t think they deserve the joy that other people experience. They have also stated this makes them feel like God loves them less than God loves parents of healthy children. Thus, this statement can make the nightmare of losing a child even more painful and brutal. When parents are telling me these feelings and sobbing after hearing this, I want to find a massive rocking chair and adult sippy cup and rock them until they deeply believe again that, “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Ultimately, if you are journeying with someone through the grief of losing a child, remember that showing up is more important that saying the right thing. And, being honest and authentic is more powerful than any version of Sunday School Jesus or a cheesy chicken casserole. Going through such a painful grief and life change calls for a radical Jesus, unconditional and non judgmental support, and strong versions of bread and wine. Not the kind of bread and wine that can be left in a basket at the front door, though. It calls for the kind of bread and wine that are too important and messy to leave by the door, and must be brought inside and shared together. Show up and love them through it. And, if you can’t think of anything to say, break bread and let God do the talking.