On November 21, a five-year-old girl was critically injured in Gainesville, Florida, when she was thrown from her father’s ATV. Kingsley died eight days later and her memorial was held on what would have been her sixth birthday.
Kingsley was a member of our extended family. As news spread of what had happened, her mother’s Facebook page was soon flooded with well-intended sentiments. A sample: “You have a guardian angel forever and she is pain free!” “She is a beautiful angel.” “She is so beautiful and we know will always be with us.” And this misspelled thought from a stranger on the page of Concerned Families for ATV Safety: “To bad a young beautiful spirit has been lost but raisd up to heaven with jesus.”
People can respond with extraordinary compassion when a child dies, but we struggle with how to express it in ways that work. Hopeful sentiments for the bereaved are passed along with the best of intentions, but experience and research shows that they can hurt rather than help. The expression of common platitudes is emblematic of our culture’s discomfort with death and our tendency to turn too quickly away from grief.
Initial expressions of sympathy quickly dwindle away, giving parents the impression that they were supposed to “get over” their grief.
As the advances of modern medicine improved longevity throughout the 20th century, we began to lose our ability to talk about death without resorting to rationalizations. In 1999, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education began requiring interpersonal training during residencies in an attempt to reverse the coldness and poor bedside manner then associated with “professionalism.” But despite this growing emphasis on warmth in communication, even physicians who encounter death frequently are often at a loss for words, particularly when a death is “untimely.”
As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, when a child dies a sudden traumatic death physicians struggle to maintain a balance between the need for calmness in the face of an emergency and parents’ needs to have their emotions acknowledged. Similarly, for clinicians in pediatric intensive care, their uncertainty about how parents will react and a desire to protect parents from the harsh truth of a terminal prognosis serve as barriers to effective communication.
In an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pediatrician Sameer Vohra reflects on how she eventually learned to resist her profession’s pattern of “moving on” quickly following a child’s death, but offers no advice about how to communicate directly with the bereaved mothers whose cries remain in her memory. Little wonder, then, that those of us who, mercifully, encounter a child’s death infrequently are perplexed and at a loss for words.
Bereaved parents in particular find advice painful, according to a study published by bereavement researcher Paige Toller of the University of Nebraska–Omaha. In her interviews with bereaved parents, Toller noted that sayings such as “time heals all wounds,” “she’s in a better place now,” or “I hope you find peace with this” left parents feeling judged for how they were grieving. Another interview-based study of parental bereavement published in the Western Journal of Communication found what is more helpful than platitudes are messages that acknowledge the life of the child, express compassion, and maintain a connection between the bereaved parents and a support network. Both studies found that initial expressions of sympathy quickly dwindle away, giving parents the impression that they were supposed to “get over” their grief.
After watching these dynamics for 20 years, I can offer this advice to well-wishers: Resist the temptation to say anything that tries to minimize the suffering of a bereaved parent. Instead, as Vohra suggests, avoid moving on too quickly, convey an openness to be present with the parents’ sorrow, honor any and all expressions of their grief. And listen.
Gestures are often better than words. Try asking a bereaved parent, for example, “If you could wave a wand and have one task accomplished, what would it be?” and then just do it for them. If you are close to the family, you may not even need to ask—just do it. On the child’s birthday, or the anniversary of their death, or during family holidays, send a message or call to say: “I remember. I’m thinking of you.” Continue to reach out as time goes by.
No matter what, be confident in knowing that, by providing a supportive space for a parent to grieve, you will not be increasing their sorrow. Actually the opposite is true. They have already experienced the worst blow of their lives, and all you must do is remind them they do not need to walk the path of sorrow alone.