After our newborn baby died just minutes after birth, our lives were turned completely upside down. The emotions that come with holding our brand new baby while at the same time watching him pass from this life to the next were dizzying, to say the least.
In the weeks that followed, we received many cards with heartfelt words of sympathy. Many of the typical platitudes were used, and at some point, they began to fall on deaf ears. It wasn’t that we weren’t grateful that someone cared enough to hand-write a nice little thought on a card and send it in the mail, but in a certain sense, they avoided the reality of what actually happened.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” which is probably the most frequently used of all the sympathetic phrases, started to seem void any kind of actual empathy. My wife and I laughed that the same sentiment could be given for when you leave your wallet at the beach. But the reality was, we didn't lose track of him, or forget to bring him home, or misplace him somewhere.
When you’re going through something like this, you tend to be able to quickly put your finger on what comments don’t seem to help, but it can be difficult to try and think of any that would be better.
A card I received from my office, though, featured one comment that nailed it. Among the hastily scribbled “Let me know if there is anything I can do” from folks who were practically strangers, there was a short message from my now-retired boss that captured exactly what we needed to hear:
“I’m sorry your child died.”
Before going through this entire chain of events, I would have thought that kind of a comment would be too raw for parents grieving the recent death of their child, but, for us, it was actually quite the opposite. There was a comforting power in the fact that someone was willing to actually name what happened, and willing to enter into the depths of our terrible reality. When every other card tiptoed around the word "death," calling it a "loss" or a "difficult time," this one person didn't try to make it sound softer than it was. As my wife would say as we read other cards, "We had to live through it, and they can't even SAY it."
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“I’m sorry your child died” isn’t a platitude; it isn’t a meaningless sympathetic comment that you just throw out there to fill the silence. And contrary to what my previous self would have thought, it’s not too raw to say to parents in this situation. Our lives right now are about as raw as it can get, and being willing to name it and sit in that dark place is exactly what we needed from friends, family and acquaintances.
So the next time you are faced with trying to think of the perfect thing to say to someone suffering a pain so great you don’t even want to imagine what it’s like, skip the platitudes and try telling it like it is, because that let’s the person know you get it, and you’re sincerely willing to walk alongside them through this valley of tears.
Copyright 2016 Tommy Tighe
About the Author
Tommy is a Catholic husband, father of four boys, and the author of The Catholic Hipster Handbook (available now!).