Kathy Corrigan, president of the board of Bereaved Parents USA was sitting in her Poughkeepsie, New York home this past May when she received the call that her beloved 39-year-old son Christopher had died in Durango, Colorado. Twenty-five years earlier, her son, Michael, 21, died in his sleep in his college dormitory, also in Colorado.
Life has never returned to normal for Kathy and her husband, Joe, since the death of their son in 1995. This past spring, when her second son died, the only consolation she found was that “I know they are together.” She and Joe are parents of Peter, 48, who now lives with his parents in New York.
The grief that parents have after a child dies is indescribable, and it can be hard to find the words to say when someone dies. However, Corrigan knows from first-hand experience how a loving community can provide support, compassion, and care. A national speaker, grief support leader, and leader in Bereaved Parents USA, she is also very aware of some of the ways people do not always know how to be supportive.
Tip: Parents who lose a child aren't just faced with grief. If their child was an adult, the parents likely have to sort through the life their child left behind. Our post-loss checklist can help them through that complicated and challenging process.
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How to Offer Condolences to Someone Whose Child Has Died
It may make you uncomfortable. You may have a fear that you will say the wrong thing. But parents who have had a child die need to hear from you. It may be in a card. Or in a text. Or a phone call. Or by showing up to their house with food.
Words of comfort can include “I love you,” “I’m so sorry,” or “I don’t have the words” for bereaved parents. Sometimes silence with each other is the only way to share sorrow.
One important thing that everyone interviewed said is this, don’t ever ask a parent whose child died, how they died. Friends don’t need to know how a child died. What we do need to know is how we can comfort parents in their hour of great loss and in the years to come.
“I know that friends of the parents of a child who died can be scared and frightened about their own children,” said Corrigan. “The experience of this death makes life very real, and these friends are trying to make sense of it all. I think that they feel if I find out how your child died, I can protect my child.”
Not every parent of a child who has died will want to talk about the death of their child. Not every parent will find these following ideas helpful or healing. Be mindful that for some families, words of comfort and expressions of compassion will not always be welcome. Some parents will never want to talk about the day their child died, and for other parents, they don’t want to forget a single moment of that day.
Here are some ways friends can be supportive and empathetic to a parent whose child has died. No matter if that child is young or an adult, the death of a child for parents of any age is not the way life is supposed to play out.
“The social order is that as parents, you don’t have a child die,” said Corrigan.
Be a Presence
“When Michael died in 1995, friends arrived in my house and did what needed to be done. One friend, Janet, came with a pad of paper and anything I said, she wrote down. These were rambling notes, but I was processing what the next few days needed to be,” said Corrigan.
Other friends did laundry. Some brought a huge tent in May this year when Christopher died that was put up in the backyard for a vigil, where friends gathered until Christopher’s body was released from the coroner. Christopher died of complications related to his alcoholism. There was food in the fridge.
Send a Sympathy Card
Twenty-five years after her first son died, Corrigan says that the sympathy card industry is very different now.
“Today, sympathy cards are filled with language like, there are no words. That hasn’t always been the case.” Corrigan suggests adding words like “I’m so sorry,” “we love you,” and “we care about you” to personalize a card. Include a personal note about their child, if it feels appropriate for you.
Don’t judge. Sometimes being silent is the best we can do for grieving parents. Words of love are always good, but “I would say more is less,” said Corrigan. But there are words that no parent ever needs to hear, she said.
“‘God needed another angel,’ or ‘They’re in a better place,’ or ‘I know how you feel. My grandmother died last year.’ Grief is grief. Pain is pain. Your worst loss is your worst loss...you don’t get to compare grief.”
Check-in with Parents
Check-in with parents on the anniversary of the death of their child.
“Michael died on May 7, and the seventh of every month this first year is an anniversary of that day,” she said. On the first anniversary, Corrigan suggests friends acknowledge the day for grieving parents, with a card, a phone call, or texts.
“At the very least, when a child dies, put it in the calendar and mark that date for years to come,” she said.
“November 9 is Michael’s birthday, and we had friends stop over and made a donation to Bereaved Parents USA. Celebrating the birthday is almost as important as the day he died,” said Corrigan.
Other holidays and special days can be important. “Some families don’t put up a Christmas tree, or they get a pizza for Thanksgiving. Creating new traditions is healthy. It can’t be the way it was, but we can mark the day.” Friends can also help support new traditions by encouraging and affirming parents.
Also let the parents know about special days of the year to honor a lost child, such as International Bereaved Father's Day.
Talk to Parents About Your Favorite Memories
Talk to parents about your favorite memories of their children.
“In Durango, we heard story after stores about what a wonderful, kind person Christopher was,” said Corrigan. Say their names, always speak their names.
Barb Kamlet, MA, NCC, LPC, a grief therapist, bereavement coordinator at a Denver hospice, and executive director of Shimmering Wings in Denver, Colorado and also the camp director of Camp Erin Colorado, knows a bit about grief and presence. In her role, she has been specifically supporting people who have experienced a child’s death. She has journeyed with thousands of families who have experienced the death of a child. Here are her thoughts of what to say and how to show up.
Recognize the Grief Never Disappears
Because the grief is so complicated, friends and family of parents who have had a child die, frequently “wants them to be over it,” said Kamlet. “Their grief doesn’t go away. It changes. It gets different. But it will never leave.”
Help the Other Children
People who know the family well, might take other children out for a playdate and let the parents have some time alone, suggests Kamlet.
“Parents are not usually emotionally available to their children. Support the parents by supporting the kids. When a child says, ‘I’m sad,’ adults say ‘don’t be sad.’ Instead, tell children, ‘tell me what you’re sad about.’ Telling stories is healing for everyone.”
Say 'I Love You'
Even if you don’t have the words, saying, “I love you” to grieving parents can be simply enough.
Kamlet also has a list of what not to say to grieving parents that includes, “God needed your child more than you,” “You’re young, you can have another child,” “They are in a better place,” “Thank goodness you have other children,” or “Do you know that parents who have a child that dies have a higher rate of divorce?” Hearing “war stories” or comparing grief with one-upping, should never be shared.
Show Up at Services
Lastly, one of the ways you can comfort parents of a child who died is to show up at religious rituals honoring their child. Public memorial services, vigils, viewings, funerals, and graveside services are all places where your presence in itself is a comfort. If your children knew, played with, or went to school with the child who died, bring your children with you and talk with them about their grief.
Many religions have specific rituals about honoring one who has died. The Jewish tradition invites the community to “sit shiva” for a week with the ones grieving. Frequently in the Roman Catholic tradition, there is a funeral mass for someone who has died. And again, the Jewish tradition has a service a year after someone has died, for a tombstone uncovering.
Compassion and Help Go a Long Way
Parents who have had a child die may not always know what they need. They may not know what to ask for, and so it becomes imperative for friends and family to use all their compassion skills with words, presence, showing up, even doing laundry, bringing food, and sending messages of love over and over, to say in lots of different ways that you care for them, and especially, grieve with them.