By Lynn Sherwood
“I’m fine,” she said, with a soft voice and forced smile. I inched closer and reached for her hand. Her head fell to my shoulder, and the floodgates opened. What do you say when someone’s child dies?
I wish there were a “one size fits all’ answer for this question. Challengingly, it may depend on the timing, the surroundings, the circumstances, the relationship. “Just the right thing” said to one friend may send another into a tailspin.
Where to start? Be present. Perhaps you could offer to sit next to her at church or drive her to the funeral home. Offer to be available at any hour by phone. Tell her that you will be grocery shopping on Thursday at 10:30 and that you would like her list. A brisk walk with your dogs might allow her to talk without having to make eye contact, or perhaps a love talk-n-cry over coffee in your pj’s may be just what she needs.
Open ended questions and statements are easier but tricky: “Let me know what you need.” However, she may not be able to articulate what she needs. Inside, she’s thinking, “I NEED my daughter back!” The dreaded “how are you today” question when rushing through the grocery store aisle forces her to reply with “I’m fine.”
The thing is, what one person needs as they grieve is different than what another person needs, and for each person that may even change by the hour – and it is absolutely okay to ask what your friend needs!
My daughter died two years ago. My girlfriend recently sent me a picture which popped up as a memory in her social media account. I balled. I was ecstatic! Tears of pure joy spilled over my eyelids and a huge smile crossed my face! “Someone else remembers Lauren, too!”, I thought. I thanked her lavishly, adding that it had been a long time since someone had mentioned my daughter’s name, presumably for fear it would hurt me.
We spoke for hours after I shared that I don’t only think about Lauren when someone mentions her name; I think about her throughout the day in various situations and when someone says her name I feel as though they acknowledge her life, her value in this world, and my loss. It validates that where there was great love there is great loss, and sometimes I cry and sometimes I smile – and I am not afraid of doing either one.
My husband, on the other hand, compartmentalizes his grief. He has said that he doesn’t want people reminding him with ‘the pity party’ (as he calls it) compassion in the grocery store aisle; he needs to focus on getting the groceries at that minute, and he can look at her picture in his office when he needs to, alone.
What do you say when someone’s child has died? My girlfriend now asks her friends what they need of her. And as the recipient of this caring act, as well as the many ways that my friends and family have shown up and been ‘present’ in my life (from the dog-walking to chats over coffee or zoom), I have finally found the words to say “this is what I actually need” and “thank you”, instead of “I’m fine.”
*”What do you say when someone’s child dies” By Lynn Sherwood