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What not to say when a child dies 

Some words don't help

Like the rest of the nation right now, I am filled with anger and sadness in regards to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is disgusting that anyone would and could be capable of committing such a horrible act and my heart breaks for the families of all the victims. This tragedy has forever changed their lives, and they will need as much love and support as they can get. The grief that these parents are feeling is unbearable; I know because I, too, have faced the excruciating pain of losing a child.

- ED. NOTE:  A version of this commentary appeared on Jamie Maraviglia-Manalo’s bog, Visit the site to see more of her writings. -
  • ED. NOTE: A version of this commentary appeared on Jamie Maraviglia-Manalo’s bog, Visit the site to see more of her writings.

In September of 2011, my seven-week-old daughter Naya died of multiple organ failure after a seven-week battle with a blood infection. She was born healthy but had become septic due to a bowel obstruction. While my pain wasn’t as public as the parents of the children slain at Sandy Hook, I received lots of support from people around the country whose lives had been touched by my story. I am sure the parents of the children in Connecticut have been inundated with support and prayers, which they will need in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come. Just glancing at people’s Facebook walls and the posts that have gone viral, I know this to be true.

With that said, I do have to say that I have seen some posts that are not entirely helpful and a few that have made me want to bitch slap the poster. I realize it’s difficult for others to put themselves in a grieving parent’s shoes. Unless you have experienced the loss of a child, it is almost impossible to know what to say and what to avoid. I can tell you from experience and from talking to many, many, many other grieving parents there are a few standouts on what NOT to say:

God has a plan/Everything happens for a reason

I hate this sentiment. Prove it. Show me a copy of this “plan” and then maybe I’ll buy it. But unless you can tell me the exact reasons why this had to happen to my child, I don’t want to hear it. In fact, I don’t want to hear it, even if you can prove it. To parents who are grieving, we can’t and don’t want to believe any plan that required our child dying. All you are doing is trivializing our pain in order to make yourself feel better by coming up with some greater purpose for our tragedy. Please don’t.

They are in a better place/God needed your child in heaven

Actually no, I needed my child here and the best place she could be is in MY arms. No one needs my child more than me. And I’m sorry, but if you really believed that they are in a better place, would you like to trade situations and have your child in heaven and mine here, still alive and in my arms? I didn’t think so. Again, saying this is probably way more comforting to you than it is to the grieving parent. Please, please don’t.

Time heals all wounds

Wrong again. It doesn’t. You will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever get over the death of your child. It’s been 15 months for me, and I am still figuring out how to function without my daughter. Time just teaches you how to better hide and deal with the pain, but it never goes away. Just don’t.

I know how you feel, I lost my mom/dad/grandparent/dog

There is no greater pain than losing a child. I’m sorry, but there just isn’t. It goes against the natural order of life. You just aren’t supposed to bury a child. Unless you’ve experienced the death of a child, you can’t even begin to understand what it feels like. Just please don’t go there.

You are young/You can have another child

We actually had someone say this to us within minutes of Naya’s death. Um no. Sorry. Children aren’t disposable. You can’t just replace them like light bulbs. You may go on to have other children, but you never, ever forget or stop yearning for the one you lost. Please, please don’t go there.

You are so strong—I would just die if I lost my child

Really. So are you saying that I didn’t love my child as much as you do because I didn’t kill myself after she died? I know you are trying to commend me on my strength, but you are just unintentionally making me feel guiltier about the fact that my child is dead and I am not. Believe me, if you were unlucky enough to be in my situation, you would find your way through because you really have no other choice.

So what should you say? First off, just know that there is absolutely nothing you can say that will fix the situation. It’s not you, it’s just the way it is. For me, the best things said to me were simple. I preferred, “I am thinking about you and here for you.” It was straightforward, honest, and didn’t assume any religious beliefs that we might not share. “I am so sorry,” “I love you,” and even “This really fucking sucks” are also completely suitable. The most important thing is just to be there, even if you don’t say anything at all. Let them cry, let them scream, let them laugh, let them vent. Make them meals, help around the house, get them drunk, hold their hand while they talk about their child, just be there for what they need and not what you need. They might not appreciate it right away, but they will when looking back on the situation and wondering how the hell they survived (which they will do, in detail, for the rest of their lives).

My heart goes out to the victims and their families in Newtown, Conn. I am so sorry for your losses, and you are all in my thoughts.

Jamie Maraviglia-Manalo’s lives in Nipomo. Send comments to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at [email protected].


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