Monday, January 10, 2011

What to Say/What Not to Say

This week, a young person in our community died suddenly, due to an accident. He was the son of a schoolmate of Gregg's, a much-loved young man in his 20s, who was happily married and had a darling one-year-old baby. Our community is reeling from this tragedy. The internet's instant-communication capability has made it possible for community members to learn the news, and for friends to share their condolences with his family, very rapidly.

It’s hard to know what to say when a child dies, whatever his age, even though we are the parents of a child who has died. When Katie passed away, we experienced the generous outpouring of words of sympathy from this community. I kept every single card that we received; yet it’s still difficult for me to write that card to another parent. There are no easy words in such a situation, and certainly, few words that make sense, because the death of a child makes no sense, no matter his or her age. Parents are not supposed to have to bury their children.

Facing the blank card this week – and worse, perusing some of the awful sympathy cards for sale in  stores – inspired me to share some ideas with you.

What Not to Say

We live on a long, winding county road, and we don't know all of our neighbors personally. One of the worst things said to us was spoken by a neighbor we don't know, who stopped us on our street a day or two after Katie’s passing and asked, “Do you know if the little girl has died?” That really took our breath away. When I answered, through my shock, “Yes, she did; that’s our daughter,” the woman went on to ask the date and time of the memorial service.  We didn’t even know her first name, and she didn’t know Katie’s. Though it was unintentional, and we don't harbor hard feelings, it was a very awkward and painful encounter.

There is also what we call the "cancer-face," the "head-tilt," and fearful eyes, all of which I've encountered when grocery-shopping or running errands. People are horrified by what we've experienced, and they can't help their shock and avoidance instincts, because we are living every parent's worst nightmare. But all of those responses are noticeable to the bereaved family. The best way to be supportive is to remember that the parent is still who they always were, but now they are living in a tragedy. They are normal people having an abnormal experience. You being your normal self is the kindest thing you can do.

I know you never would, but please don’t say:

 “At least you have your other children.”

“God must have needed another angel.”

“She is better off where she is now.”

“God only picks the most perfect flowers for his garden.”

“At least his suffering is over.”

“Be grateful for what you had.”

“Call me if you need anything.”

“Let us know if you need help.”

"I could never do what you're doing."

Please do say:

“I’m so sorry.”

“Our hearts are with yours.”

“We are heartbroken for you.”

“We are praying for you – for comfort, peace and love to surround you.”

“I will always remember (a favorite quality/memory/story) about him.”

“Do you need help with (yard work/errands/groceries/child care)?”

“Do you need help answering notes or ___?”

"May I bring dinner over next week?"

“How can we honor her memory? Is there a charity or cause she cared about?”

“We will never forget him.”

“I miss her, too.”

"Would you like to have coffee/tea/a glass of wine next week?"

"Would you like to take a walk next week?"

This is by no means an exhaustive list; it's simply a bunch of suggestions from one who has walked the path. If you have other suggestions to add, feel free to post them in the comments.  

Karen Gerstenberger blogs at Gberger ( ) and is the president of Katie’s Comforters Guild at Seattle Children’s Hospital.


  1. Posting a comment so I can be sure to see yours!

  2. Karen, what a thoughtful message - thank you for sharing 'what to say'.
    More specifically, while I think it's natural to ask 'What can I do', your post helped me to realize that it would be better to ask HOW I can help you / your family. It's a subtle difference; still, it is important.
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you for writing this. Unfortunately, we will all need to know what to say at some point. I'm so sorry to hear both about your daughter and the man that died. What a tragedy for your families.

  4. This is another post that I believe you should submit to your newspaper or some other general periodical such is its simplicity and power.
    Thank you, Karen, for helping those of us who often know WHAT to say but don't know what NOT to say.

  5. I am one of those people-the idiots that walk away going, "Really? Of all the things you COULD say, that's what you chose?" So thank you. I always enjoy reading your posts.