by Chris Ward
Nothing stops a conversation like bringing up your lost children.
Whether in the workplace or just passing someone by while out and about, there are certain topics that are supposed to be safe to bring up in small talk. You know the drill – one person says something innocent, and there is common, in passing reply you are supposed to give. “How are you doing today?” Fine. “Isn't it a nice day today?” Oh yes. “Aww, your baby is cute! Does he have any brothers or sisters?”
As a father who has lost two children and has two more, I have brought my fair share of conversations to a screeching halt by bringing up all four of my children in everyday conversation. And I have seen many eyes glaze over as an innocent chat turns into a horrible exercise of simple arithmetic. It takes a lot for someone to open up about the loss of a child and leaves him or her in a very vulnerable position. What is the safe response?
I'll be honest, there is no perfect answer to how to address the loss of someone's children because everyone handles loss differently. But like many things in life, there are plenty of responses that can make the conversation go much worse. Below are a few responses that I have had thrown my way that you should avoid saying to a bereaved father – even years after the fact.
"I Know How You Feel..."
One of the worst things that can possibly happen to someone is losing a child. As bad as you might have felt losing a loved one, whether it was a dog or a grandparent or a close friend, not all losses are the same and everyone handles them differently. In this sense, grief is not just grief. And even if you decide to open up yourself and share your child loss story, saying you “know” how someone feels is the wrong approach. Understand. Sure. But knowing how someone feels can also be taken as a dismissal of their feelings or a request to stop sharing – after all, what needs to be shared when we know what is going to be said?
"Everything Happens for a Reason / God has a Plan"
Without getting into a religious entanglement regarding the wide variety of beliefs people carry, these statements also serve to shut down conversation instead of opening the door. Horrible things happen to otherwise good people everyday – and losing a child is about as horrible as it can get. Both of these statements justify the child loss. For a bereaved parent, these words can twist the knife and bring more sorrow despite the speaker's good intentions.
"It's Okay, You Can Have Another One"
This statement is very commonly said, especially to people who lost because of a miscarriage. I'll admit I have made the mistake of saying the same thing when I was younger and stupider. So why is it a mistake? First, there are enough people who have had to struggle with years of fertility treatments to even get pregnant one time. For some that one pregnancy might be the only one. But even when speaking to someone with fertility problems (how did we get to this point when we were just having small talk again?), there is a lot of pressure put on by society to churn out a replacement child A.S.A.P. Especially if the pregnancy was public knowledge. The whispers of “when are you having another” grow louder and louder as time goes on. Meanwhile, a grieving parent may still be somewhere in between honoring the lost child and accepting the reality that no one has ever slept in the crib in the still empty nursery. Don't add to those whispers. Don't pile on the pain.
"Tell me about Your Other, Normal Children"
Numerous child losses happen due to genetic defects or congenital conditions that could not be avoided or taken into account before the loss occurred. Having had two losses that fit the above description, I have come to experience that many people are very uncomfortable talking about children with special needs or ones that might not otherwise be “perfect.” The problem word in the above statement is, “normal.” I promise you, things do not feel normal after you lose a child. The sun rising, people going to work, and celebrity gossip and the radio were all completely foreign, disconnected concepts while I was in the worst throws of my grief. It may seem obvious while sitting here reading this to not throw loaded words like “normal” at someone who lost a child for medical reasons, but you would be surprised what comes out of people's mouths when the topic comes up. In this instance, dismissing the lost child and trying to pivot the conversation is the wrong approach.
So here's the hard part. Someone felt safe enough to share with you that they had children but those children, for whatever reason and however young. As much as you might want to turn and run, please don't. There is a massive culture of silence about child loss. I've had plenty of people say they were surprised that I would even talk about the subject because I'm a man. I promise you, being a man has nothing to do with the love I have for all of my children, whether they are here or waiting for me somewhere else. So yes, I will bring them up in everyday conversation. And yes, I know that the subject makes people uncomfortable precisely because child loss is something people are not supposed to talk about. But that is exactly why saying nothing is one of the worst responses you can give. All I have left of two of my children are memories and mementos. If there is no room in society to bring up all of my children, what will I tell my two remaining children when they ask about their siblings? I want to be able to share their love freely. It's not always easy, but it sure is better then casting it away never to be felt again.