Joan Markwell knows the gut-wrenching, hollow feeling left behind when a child is taken too early. It’s a feeling that mothers have experienced recently and throughout the last few years after tragic attacks in Orlando, Manchester, London, San Bernardino, Calif., and Charleston, S.C., just to name a few.
With every new tragedy, vigil, a story on the news or anniversary recognizing these events, plenty of mothers like Markwell – who lost her adult child to cancer – feel the sting of the wound that accompanies their loss.
While that wound may have healed, there is still a scar left as a reminder of the pain that still lives on for many grieving family members, including mothers who are surviving with that pain in many different ways.
“When a mother loses a child, the grief dictates her life,” says Markwell, author of the book Softening the Grief. “You don’t see an end to the pain. As the body reacts to the stress you feel, physical pain follows. Sleep is out of the question.”
It’s a grief that only they understand, however, and one that others usually don’t know how to deal with.
“The first time we meet a friend since the death of our child occurred can be frightening,” says Markwell, “It’s not that we don’t want to see them; we just can’t face anyone without tearing up.”
To avoid those awkward situations, Markwell offers up some phrases you should avoid saying to grieving parents and instead offers alternatives:
• “You Are So Strong.” In reality, we are exhausted from trying to look strong. Try this instead: “I know it’s hard to be strong right now. I’m here for you to lean on anytime. I have an open heart and time to listen.”
• “Be Glad You Have Other Children.” We may have other children, but they cannot replace the child we’ve lost. Try this instead: “No child is replaceable, but I hope having your surviving children around you helps in easing the pain of your loss.”
• “You’re not the first mother who has lost a child.” Yes, but this is the first time I’ve lost my child. Try this instead: “I know mothers who have lost children and how much they grieved. That has made me aware of what a fight this is for you. You will continue to be in my thoughts.”
• “My child almost died, I know how you feel.” If you said this, you only had a clue about how it might feel to lose a child. Try this instead: “My child had a close brush with death, which was terrifying enough. There can be no comparison to actually losing a child.”
• “Time heals all wounds.” In time the mind covers wounds with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it’s never gone. Try this instead: “I hope in time your pain and grief will soften. Knowing it will take time, I stand beside you for the long haul.”
• “Everything Happens for a Reason.” There is never a good enough reason as to why our children were taken. Try this instead: “It goes beyond reason for any child to be taken from a mother. There was certainly no good reason to lose yours.”
“These awkward but common questions and statements can trigger a world of grief for bereaved mothers,” says Markwell. “When talking to a grieving parent about their lost child, it’s best to take a step back and choose your words carefully.”