On a recent cruise, I sat with five other ladies for dinner. It was not until the last night when the inevitable question came up: “How many children do you have, Sandy?” one lady asked. That has to be the most dreaded question a bereaved parent must answer. Do you count your deceased child in your total? Do you pretend they never existed? What is the best way to handle this sensitive topic?
I find the best way is to just say, “I have one child who was killed in a car accident.” The room becomes quiet and uncomfortable usually, as it did on this cruise. The reactions are typical. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” they murmur to me from around the table. And then they feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say next.
The lady who asked me broke the silence and said, “I lost my son also. He died of cancer.” Ah, a kindred spirit. I looked into her eyes and we formed a bond that nothing could break. We chatted across the table for a few minutes about bereavement groups and how some find them so helpful. And then we discussed how other parents find it difficult to deal with the death, no matter how long it has been.
I also mentioned to the rest of the table that statistics show in any given room of 100 people, 20 percent will have lost a child. I found that stat to be very high and was sure others would also. Their reaction showed they didn’t really care.
The lady next to me then said, “Can we talk about something more pleasant?” She had never had children and obviously couldn’t relate. And so we dropped the topic and went on to something else.
After dinner, the lady who lost her son came up to me and said, “They don’t understand and never will, unless it happens to them. Don’t they know we want to talk about our children? It’s all we have left.” I agreed completely.
The No. 1 thing that bereaved parents want most is to be able to talk about their child in a comfortable setting. They don’t want the child to be forgotten, so they bring them up in conversations when appropriate. It shows others that the bereaved parents are not afraid and want to talk about them. In the process, others, too, may have a story to tell, particularly if they knew the child. These others will then feel more comfortable talking about the child to the parents. Bereaved parents should tell others it is okay to bring up good memories, because that is all we have left.
The greatest gift we can get from others is when they start a conversation about our child, as though the child mattered and was important not only to us, but to others. They lived and now we must live for them through our conversations, activities we do, and memorials we set up in their honor. To us, they will always be in our hearts and never forgotten, and we should continue to stress that to others.
Sandy has written two books on surviving grief, coping and moving on with your life, “Creating a New Normal…After the Death of a Child” and “I Have No Intention of Saying Goodo-bye.”