Everybody deals with death differently: my advice for how to talk to those of us who’ve lost a child

Guest post by Paprika
By: Melissa WieseCC BY 2.0

This is such an emotional and slightly awkward topic that I’m not sure how to start. Should I be blunt and just say I have a dead kid? Make it sound peaceful and say my child is in Heaven? As much as someone who hears this probably gets nervous, I do just as much.

At the dentist, getting my nails done, meeting new people, often times the fact that I have a son who has passed away (how’s that one sound?) ends up coming up in the conversation. I worry about it often because it’s not something most people are prepared to handle talking about. Should you be overly sympathetic? Ignore it?

See, now I’m unsure of how to handle this just talking to you guys. Er, let’s just jump to my story.

I got pregnant senior year of high school. A few months into my pregnancy the doctor noticed that my son’s head was much larger than it should have been. First they thought he had Down syndrome, but eventually ruled that out. After a few months the verdict was, “Well, we don’t know what’s wrong but something sure ain’t right.”

I ended up having an emergency c-section at 34 weeks. I kept waiting to hear him cry but never did. Thankfully they were able to help him breathe. The next 3 months were spent in the NICU. Multiple heart surgeries, infections, breathing tubes, feeding tubes, stomach surgery. It was incredibly difficult trying to be a mom when I lived 2 hours away from the hospital.

But at the end of those 3 months, David came home. It was scary but absolutely wonderful. He still was being fed with a feeding tube, and I had to give him shots daily, all the while living with just my parents (the father was never in the picture). But my gosh how I cherished those moments.

By: Sarah GathCC BY 2.0

One day in February, my mom, David, and I came home from some shopping. As I was pulling out his car seat, I noticed he wasn’t breathing. I yelled at my mom and I took him inside. Since he had stayed at the NICU I got trained in CPR. I started right away, not even really thinking about what was happening. We’d had so many scares before, gone through so much, there was no way he wouldn’t be fine.

Three ambulances, two fire trucks and two cop cars pulled to our house and tried to stick a tube down his throat but they were having trouble. They headed for the hospital, my mom and myself following behind at an overly illegal speed. I rushed into the ER and told them they had just taken my baby by ambulance. A woman rushed me into a small room with a few chairs.

We waited. My mom was with me, and this lady said a few prayers. I told her I wasn’t worried, he’d been in the hospital many times.

The doctor came in.

“We tried everything we could.”

“No. NO!” I screamed at her. “NO!” There had to be some mistake! My son, my baby, he can’t be gone. He was just here! Everything had been going fine! I yelled and cried, pounding my fists onto the chairs. Everything I was living for, what my whole life revolved around, was suddenly taken from me.

Everybody deals with death differently, and I think that’s a very important fact to always keep in mind when talking to someone who’s lost a child.

I asked to see him and they let me. He looked so peaceful, as if he were sleeping.

Everybody deals with death differently, and I think that’s a very important fact to always keep in mind when talking to someone who’s lost a child. What people are looking for you to say may also change depending on their stage of grief. Often I’ve seen the best thing to say to someone who’s lost a child recently is “I have no idea what you’re going through, and I’m so sorry. But I’m here whenever you need someone to talk to.” You’re not claiming to know how they feel — you’re sympathetic, and you’re offering to be there if they need you.

For someone like myself where it’s been a few years, I prefer for someone to say they’re sorry and then move on to something else, since talking about it is sad and often involves a detailed conversation as to how he died (Which I forgot to mention earlier — because he was in the NICU the doctors forgot to test him for certain things. Turned out he had Galactosemia, and thus shouldn’t have been having milk. It’s painful to know that every time I fed him I was making him worse). But this is more of something to play by ear. Some people may want to talk openly about their child, but others like myself may prefer to just drop the subject. Usually just start with “I’m sorry.” If they start into their story after saying thank you, you’ll know they want to talk about it. If not, just move on to something else.

Dealing with baby loss on holidays

By: Joseph NovakCC BY 2.0
Handling Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday is another thing that will vary from person to person. For myself, I love being acknowledged as a mom. And for my son’s birthday, I usually eat cake and visit his grave.

I guess the bottom line is, if a mother has lost a child, never assume she’ll act the same as someone else in the same situation. The best thing I personally think you can do is to ask them what they want. I wish I had a sign on me that said “By the way, I’ve lost a kid. It’s sad and I miss him, and you can ask me briefly about him, but then let’s change the subject, ‘k?”

Comments on Everybody deals with death differently: my advice for how to talk to those of us who’ve lost a child

  1. This is a good post. Situations like that can be so awkward. I am so sorry for your loss, I cannot imagine. A very good friend of mine’s sister in law just lost their baby last night. The parents had to decide to keep trying or to let him go, and that I cannot even fathom.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. Thanks for this post. My baby girl passed away this February and I am as anxious about questions as anyone who talks to me. Some days and with some people I feel like talking and others not so much.

    Just let the parent dictate how much they want to talk and be open to hearing about their experience. Most of the time just saying “I’m sorry” is best. Don’t compare one situation to another. Just truly be there.

  3. This is a wonderful post for those of us who don’t know how to react.
    Thank you for speaking up and sharing your story.
    I’m so sorry for your loss~my heart breaks for you (and other mama’s who’ve lost a child too).

  4. This post strikes near to my heart. Three years ago two dear friends lost their 6 month old to SIDS. It was a devastating loss, and I can’t begin to describe how utterly helpless I felt in supporting them through such encompassing grief. Words and actions seemed completely inadequate, save for preparing meals for friends and family who gathered at their home to mourn, listening as they shouted their rage at the world and sobbed in agony, or just sitting in silence for hours. I absolutely agree that people need to honor the lifelong grieving process of the parents by taking their lead when discussing the loss or the child. I also think (and this can depend on the circumstances and the parents themselves) that it is imperative to remember that you don’t stop being a parent the moment your child passes away. Even if a couple or an individual who has suffered that loss never opens their lives to a child in the future, they are forevermore a mother or father.

  5. This is amazing that this is posted today. A friend of a friend (we all used to be friends on a mommy board from Dec 06) just lost her little girl 2 days ago. I plan to direct everyone to this so we can know how to help her and know what to say. Thank you for posting.

  6. Thanks so much everyone for your kind words. I’m glad I could be helpful:)

    Shoshana, I hear you. I love when people still acknowledge me as a mother, even if my son is gone.

    Amanda I’m so sorry about your daughter. You never get over the loss of a child, but with time it does becomes easier to deal with/talk about. Let me know if I can be of any help.

  7. I can’t imagine the feeling of losing a child, but it feels like it took a lot for you to share this.
    My heart goes out to all parents who lose a child…I lost my sister when we were in high school, and I saw what that did to my parents. More recently, a woman in my circle of friends gave birth to, and then lost, her son the day after I gave birth to my perfectly healthy boy. I don’t know what to say…and I find myself avoiding her to not hurt her. And I’m probably doing the exact opposite. :/

  8. Thank you for such a powerful and intimate story, I hope that writing has provided you with some solace and healing. I appreciate your candor and reflection very much. I am pregnant with a little baby right now and not a day goes by when I don’t stop and think about the baby that I lost, very early in pregnancy. I can’t imagine the pain, I just can’t. I hope you continue to share your story, you’re very brave. Best of luck to you and thank you.

  9. My brother’s fiancee passed away a few months before they were to be married, and from what he’s told me, a lot of what you’ve said applies to that situation too. We as a culture are so crappy at talking about death! I think the best thing we can do is be present for the mourner and let them dictate where the conversation goes. (And whatever you do, don’t tell someone he’s “hung up” on his dead fiancee because he mentioned the situation. That’s just… gahh.)

  10. Thank you for writing the post. I thought about submitting one but I couldn’t figure out how to start it either. Most of the people in my life don’t know about the child I lost and at this point, while I’m okay talking about it, I’m happy to keep it that way. I have a very visible tattoo (on my wrist) that serves as my memorial for him but frankly if people ask I usually pull some trinket of mythology about the symbol and let them think it’s a “just b/c it was pretty” thing. And now that I’m Step Mom people give me things for Mother’s day and I cry like an idiot. And yes, I let them think that’s just normal too.

    I’m sorry for your loss. But I’m really glad you can talk about it.

    • I felt the same way – I wanted to submit something about my son, who was stillborn, but I had no idea of what to say. He would have been five years old in December, and I still don’t know what to say.

      Thank you, Paprika, for writing this.

  11. Loss of a child is something that is very hard to even utter from my inner being, as I have also lost 2 children and think that there needs to be more awareness with posts like this one. thank you to paprika for sharing her little one with the world here, it is something that is so very difficult and wrenching to do , there is not a day that goes by that I dont wish my kids were still here … it is hard being a member of the loss of a child club… sincere thanks for sharing …

  12. Thank you for this post! I lost my little man in march of last year. He is my first child, so the questions about kids come up a lot. We tend to say “yes, we have a son.” If they probe more, then we let them know he passed. It’s awkward and weird, but I honestly love getting to talk about him – even if it’s only for a second.

    And thank you so much for sharing your insight, and your sons memory!

  13. Thanks for this post. I’ve lost two children through miscarriage, and there’s a similar awkward moment when it comes up. Death in general is hard to deal with, especially with children. I wish there were brochures to hand out: How to Talk to Others with Dead Loved Ones.
    PS: Your little man is super cute! His face is so expressive. Sending some love your way.

  14. The mere passing thought of losing my baby makes me cry so I cant even begin to imagine the pain of experiencing it. I am so sorry for your loss and thank you sincerely for writing this.

  15. I will forever feel like an a-hole. My friend Jen was pregnant and decided to home birth. I was totally thrilled for her and we had a lot of conversations about it I saw her large and pregnant at a picnic and ready to burst right before the birth. The next time I saw her after that, I saw her not pregnant any longer and she wasn’t holding an infant. I thought to myself that maybe her boyfriend was nearby with the baby. I bounced up and said “where’s the peanut??” and she stood up, pulled me aside and told me that Sophia had passed away when she was giving birth to her from a prolapsed umbilical cord. I have never felt like such a jerk in my entire life. Of course I was out of the communication loop on this, but I know it hurt my friend at the time….sadface 🙁

  16. I know I am commenting on this a few months late, but just wanted to say thanks for posting about this topic. An old friend of mine, who I recently reconnected with last month as we now live in the same city, lost her 2 day old son this past week. He was born premature but the doctors thought he’d be ok, and then he suddenly passed. I can’t even fathom what she is going through…. thank you for this perspective.

  17. No offense to you but how could the doctors not know? Galactosemia has some pretty strong symptoms. So strong you would think they would look into it and figure it out. I would have been really mad at the doctors for their negligence and tried suing… that’s really uncalled for. Doctors go to med school, they are supposed to know these things and if they don’t they are supposed to find out. When did doctors stop treating patients?

    My child was a victim once too and almost died due to doctor negligence. His doctor refused to listen to me and refused to check to see what was wrong with him when he was a baby. If I had listened to her he would have died… he was so close to dying that if I waited even a week he would have been gone. I didn’t and I took him to a different doctor and he got the treatment he needed. All I can think is why didn’t the first doctor treat him like a patient? Why didn’t she care? Why did she put herself first?

    I’ve lost a child suddenly too… I put her to bed and I woke up to her dead. It was so unexpected. You are right everyone deals with grief differently!

    I’m sorry for your loss. No one could possibly know what it felt like to you.

Join the Conversation