The One Thing You Should Never Say to A Grieving Mom

This post was originally published on Rage Against the Minivan.

The past two weeks brought sad news of the tragic loss of  Hannah’s friends from Minnesota, followed by the death of a young man in the adoption community whose family shares many friends with us. These heartbreaking losses brought this post about the loss of our own child to mind and it seems a good time to share it. In times of sorrow, we may not have the perfect words, and that’s okay.

fall 2014 - my youngest six with Kalkidan in the middle
fall 2014 – my youngest six with Kalkidan in the middle

The morning was cold and it was snowing lightly; a half inch had accumulated on the ground when we left our house on our way to the ski resort atop the Idaho/Montana border.  Our daughter was going to visit friends for a few days and this was our meet up spot.

Living in north Idaho, driving in a little snow was nothing new to us. We left the rest of the family sleeping, settled our daughter in with her iPod and fleece blanket, and headed up the highway, travel mugs of coffee in our hands.

Forty-five minutes later we slowly rounded a curve and our car began to slide and pivot sideways. Early on the Saturday morning after Christmas, on that rural highway, we slid in front of the only oncoming car for miles around. In that moment, our lives changed forever.

We were knocked unconscious as the impact blasted windows and spun our car the opposite direction, finally coming to rest on its side. When I became conscious, my husband had his hands on my face, telling me that we had been in an accident and he was going to check on our daughter, Kalkidan.

In the impact, my arm flung out the window and was now pinned under the car; my only view was the shattered windshield and the snow-topped grass near my face. For the next hour, I drifted in and out of awareness as people stopped to help and eventually emergency crews arrived.

At one point I heard my husband say, “Come on Kalkidan, you’re a fighter. You can do this.”

Hours later, in the emergency room, I repeated the question I had already asked many times, “Is my daughter okay?” But this time I said it a little differently, I asked, “Is my daughter alive?”

The kind, gentle trauma doctor held my hand and answered, “No, I’m sorry, she’s not.”

That moment changed my life forever. I became the mother who lost a child. Even today as I write this, I almost feel like I’m writing a story about someone else, because surely, it can’t be true.

Our families and community gathered around us, they planned a beautiful memorial service attended by nearly 1,000 people, prayed for us, fed us, cared for our children, drove me to PT and helped me recover from my injuries, cleaned my house, and most of all, they were present with us and loved us.

Cards and gifts arrived in the mail. Flowers were delivered to our door; one florist came so often that we are now friends.

As I watched my friends care for us, I realized how little I knew about grief, and what to do when a friend loses someone they love. Often we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we say nothing at all.

We see an acquaintance in the grocery store whose husband recently left her, and we turn the other way to avoid the awkward moment of trying to come up with words. We think about mailing a card to a friend who lost her father, but we’re not that close, and we didn’t know him, so really, what would we say?

We want to say just the right thing, find the perfect quote or scripture, put our thoughts into eloquent words, but we don’t have time to put that much thought into it. Or we’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we avoid it all together.

The one thing you should never say to a grieving parent? It’s saying nothing at all.

Cards with the phrase, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” are lovely and show that you care. Some of my favorite cards were the ones that said, “There are just no words…,” or “I don’t even know what to say….”

The truth is, there were no words, and even I didn’t know what to say.

And do you know the amazing thing? Not one person said the wrong thing. Not one.

The people who stumbled over their words, or spoke awkwardly with their eyes avoiding mine, even they did not say the wrong thing. If you are saying you care, the exact words just don’t matter.

So write that note, make that call, hug a friend and tell her you’re sorry for what she is going through. Be with her in the midst of her suffering; that is all you need to do.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

12 Comments

  1. Suzie Davis
    August 15, 2016

    Thank you for this post. I have always felt awkward with condolences and honestly, I just want to pretend it didn’t happen. I worked at Russell Elementary for 7 years and I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Kalkidan for the brief time she was with us and I found her a true delight. I was deeply saddened by her passing and yes, there are no words that I can say to tell you how sorry I am for your loss. Memories are the lasting gift we have of our loved ones. Peace to you.

    Regards,

    Suzie Davis

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      August 15, 2016

      Suzie, I’m sitting in the orthodontist’s waiting room reading your words with tears of thanks. It’s been nearly 20 months and I am SO thankful when people still remember her and send us their thoughts and memories. Thank you. Kalkidan was truly unforgettable.

      Reply
  2. Joy Headrick
    August 15, 2016

    Beautiful, and I have realized what a grief you must bear even now. I have three beautiful sons, and I cannot imagine…….Praying for you today. No words…..just feeling…..cannot begin to understand….but care.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      August 15, 2016

      Thank you, Joy.

      Reply
  3. Chantel fox
    August 15, 2016

    Much love. My foster daughter (born at 23 weeks and ours in the hospital for 5.5 months) has been gone 10 months. Can you believe we can keep on living? I make sure to talk about her as often as I can so people realize it’s ok to bring her up. Thankfully my people have been amazing!!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      August 16, 2016

      Chantel, I’m so glad you have people around you who offer support and love – me too. Such a blessing. I’m very thankful the Lord gave me so many reasons to keep getting up every day and live. It was (is) so hard even still.

      Reply
  4. Lori
    August 15, 2016

    Thank you, again, Lisa, for addressing the topic of grief. I’d like to add a couple of things that have been comforting to me in these early stages of my grief.

    First, share your stories about the person who has died. I love hearing other people’s memories of my son. I can identify with Mary, Jesus’ mother, who “quietly treasured these things in her heart and thought about them often “.

    Second, don’t be afraid to ask the grieving person to tell you about their loved one. I want to talk about my son. I want you to know the person he was not just that his death made him a trending article on Facebook for a couple of days.

    If you aren’t comfortable with either of these options or you don’t know the person well enough to engage in a deeper conversation, at the very least, acknowledge their loss by saying “I’m so sorry” or “I just don’t know what to say”. That’s okay; I understand. Just don’t negate my son’s life by refusing to acknowledge his death and my grief.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      August 16, 2016

      Lori, yes, yes, and yes. You are so correct on all three points. I love hearing stories about Kalkidan! They almost always make me smile – and cry a little, but in a good way. Thank you.

      Reply
  5. Peg
    August 15, 2016

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I can not imagine. The difficulty of loss and what to say is also felt with a parent or spouse. The same advice goes. I lost my husband last year. I appreciate people asking how I am.
    I hope you are taking good care of yourself.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      August 16, 2016

      I’m so sorry you lost your husband, Peg – such a huge sorrow. I’ve always told my kids, “It’s never too late to say ‘thank you.'” I think I can add, “It’s never too late to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss (tragedy, difficult experience, sorrow).'” We can always love one another with compassion and kindness.

      Reply
  6. Kimberlie Meyer
    September 13, 2016

    Beautiful post. I remember your original post sharing your loss, and it left me in tears as it does today. I do not know the pain you have been through but I have lost my spouse, and I too, think the worst thing you can say to a grieving widow is nothing at all. There are no words really, but for someone to just say, “I am so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.” Those words are enough. None of our friends or family can take away our pain, but knowing we are not sitting alone in it, is a comfort.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      September 13, 2016

      I’m very sorry for your loss, Kimberlie. Yes, just having someone with us, even when they don’t know what to say, is a gift. A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch at a local restaurant with my son. An old friend walked in and glanced my way. I was thinking of getting up to say hello, but then she seemed to avoid making eye contact and quickly left. Of course, I have no idea if she was avoiding saying hello, and of course, it probably had nothing at all to do with me – but I had to wonder if she felt uncomfortable because she hadn’t seen me since the accident and didn’t know what to say. I’ll never know, but I’ll admit, moments like that make me wonder. I’ve learned to give the hug, say the words, and not avoid them, and to talk about the person who has died – because we still love them and carry them in our hearts.

      Reply

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