Things to never say to a bereaved parent

As a culture, we can generally be pretty poor at dealing with death and the bereaved. Death in general remains a huge taboo, and many people do not know how to respond to baby loss in particular.

Bereaved parents suffer enough without having to bite their tongue at something someone has said to them – however well-meant.

Here is a list of some of the things that have been said to me in the six months since Hugo’s death that have annoyed me in some way. Many of them are well-used platitudes and I would imagine those who utter them haven’t stopped to think about the meaning or implication. So, I thought it useful to outline why they make my hackles rise.

Nothing Funnily enough, one of the worst things people can say is nothing at all. It happens quite often when Hugo’s death has been mentioned to a stranger. I can see the look of panic in their eyes: if I am being kind, I will think they say nothing because they are worried about saying the wrong thing. Fair enough, but saying nothing inevitably creates awkwardness that I usually try and fill by explaining what happened. What irritates me about that is that I am trying to make the other person feel better. Do you see what is wrong with this picture?

Tip: if you’re stuck for something to say, a simple “I’m so sorry” is sufficient. Even better, you can ask the baby’s name.

I know how you feel Most people have suffered some kind of bereavement, but it doesn’t mean we feel the same way. No one, not even another woman who had pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome at 24 weeks’ pregnant and whose baby died as a result would know how I feel, and nor I her. That’s because everyone responds to everything in their own individual way.

This is usually said in an attempt at empathy, but expressing it like this is rather irksome, to say the least. It is better to ask how the person feels, or say “I understand how you might feel because…”.

You should… Linked to the above, we are all individual. What worked for your grief might not work for me. While advice is usually well-meant, people are often falling over themselves to offer it – it can be overwhelming. Ask before offering advice.

Everything happens for a reason Really? What reason would there be for my pregnancy to nearly kill me, my baby having to be delivered 16 weeks early and him dying because of that prematurity? It is all so senseless.

People are only given what they can handle So my baby dying is some kind of twisted reward for being a strong person?

They are in a better place Where could be better for Hugo than with a mummy and daddy who loved him very much?

Skin-to-skin with Mummy

Skin-to-skin with Mummy

Are you feeling better yet? It’s another question that is asked with the best of intentions: they want you to be ok because they love you. However, in the context of baby loss asking a bereaved parent if they feel better is almost like asking if they have stopped grieving for their baby. Grief has no time limit. There is no day where you will suddenly ‘feel better’ as one might from an illness or ailment. The loss of a baby is carried with the parent forever.

I have had a sense of needing to feel the pain of my loss, and I understand other bereaved mothers feel the same way. This means that no matter how masochistic it might seem, there is a big part of me that never wants to feel better.

Yes, over time the pain feels less raw and you are able to do more ‘normal’ things. But a bereaved parent is often changed irrevocably. Fragments of their old personality may emerge given time, but they are unlikely to be wholly the same person as they were before.

You can have another baby Technically yes, hopefully. Besides the terrifying possibility that the same thing could happen in another pregnancy and the unimaginable thought of losing another baby, Hugo cannot be replaced. Hugo could not be replaced even if I had 100 more babies. To put it another way: it’s like asking a parent which of her children she would miss least. You just wouldn’t, would you?

Don’t feel guilty Rationally, I know I have no reason to feel guilty: the illness was not my fault, and if I hadn’t delivered Hugo when I did I probably would have died and Hugo would have been stillborn. I still feel a mother’s guilt: I failed, quite spectacularly, at being pregnant and at motherhood.

Being told to not feel guilty is patronising and dismissive. It has denied me the opportunity to talk about it and discuss my feelings – and it is crucial to be able to do that.

I got to a point a few months ago where I was tempted to thump the next person who told me I shouldn’t feel guilty.

So, no matter how irrational the guilt may be, never tell them not to feel guilty. Unfortunately, there is no switch to turn off the guilt, no matter how many times we are told.

They were too beautiful for this world Oh, please. Hugo was a handsome baby, but no more beautiful, or deserving to still be here than any other baby.

What thoughtless or insensitive platitudes could you add to this list?






Mums' Days

29 Comments on Things to never say to a bereaved parent

  1. mrstwite
    June 11, 2015 at 9:52 pm (5 years ago)

    Hi Leigh. I love your blog! When one of our twins was stillborn we had a card saying Sorry to hear about “Dylan”. As if we’d made him up!!

    • Leigh Kendall
      June 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm (5 years ago)

      I’m so sorry for your loss of Dylan. What an awful thing to say! Thank you for taking the time to visit xxx

  2. Petal and Mortar
    May 2, 2015 at 7:13 pm (5 years ago)

    My favourite kick-in-the-knees was from mother-in-law who said, “Perhaps she wouldn’t be there (NICU & PICU) if you had prayed more?”.

  3. Sarah Doyle - let them be small
    October 31, 2014 at 9:16 pm (6 years ago)

    I can’t really add anything other than I think people sometimes just don’t know what to say. I had pre eclampsia in my first pregnancy and throughout my 2nd pregnancy I was convinced that it would re-occur. No amount of reassurances etc could convince me otherwise and in all the appts I had, and people I saw only one midwife really seemed to understand. Others (including Drs) just tried to calm me with stats about chances of reoccurence etc. I wanted to scream.

    • Leigh Kendall
      November 1, 2014 at 1:55 pm (6 years ago)

      I think the human element can too often be lacking – it doesn’t matter how many times someone says something, once you’ve had something like that you’re going to be terrified it will recur – it’s natural. Thanks for commenting xxx

  4. Philippa
    October 16, 2014 at 9:03 pm (6 years ago)

    Saying you don’t know what to say is a lot better than saying nothing. I had a friend who kept ringing me in hospital while I was ill and baby was critically ill in NICU. She couldn’t really think of anything much to say, but she kept ringing anyway, and it meant so much that she was prepared to make herself uncomfortable (repeatedly) in order to show her support. Most people avoided me like a plague carrier. Also, although all equally well meant, I kept and treasured baby cards but sometimes ripped up get well soon ones.

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 18, 2014 at 10:57 am (6 years ago)

      Yes, I agree – saying that is better than having the tumbleweed blow across the silence. What a lovely friend you had, and I’m sorry most avoided you like that. It’s awful xxx

  5. hannah mum's days
    October 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm (6 years ago)

    Oh Leigh, you and Claire have taught me so much this week. Two years ago I was a ‘nothing’ person when Mike’s cousin’s child was stillborn a few weeks after Reuben. I cried and cried for them but I didn’t say anything. I have now, I’ve written to them and said how sorry I am.

    I don’t believe that people have said those other things to you, though Leigh, it makes no sense at all. As for ‘are you feeling better yet’ – I’ve also learnt this week from the hundreds of people who messaged me on Facebook and gave me the names of their precious babies, that a baby will stay with you and your loved ones forever. You put it perfectly, the loss of a baby is carried with the parent forever.

    Thank you for linking this important post to #TheList, Leigh xxx

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 18, 2014 at 10:53 am (6 years ago)

      Bless you, thank you. I’m sorry there is cause for people to have to learn about this, but I am glad to be able to help others’ experience a little bit easier by knowing what to say. xxx

  6. Katie Haydock
    October 15, 2014 at 8:11 pm (6 years ago)

    I honestly can’t believe that people are that tactless?
    I like to think that if one of my friends or family needed me as support I’d be able to say the right thing – or at least just tell them that I love them. Don’t people do that?

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 18, 2014 at 10:42 am (6 years ago)

      People do do that – it’s more strangers and acquaintances that have done the offending things on that list – and sadly you can’t always avoid them xxx

  7. Helen
    October 14, 2014 at 8:08 pm (6 years ago)

    24 years on and the question “how many children have you got” they say, there was Matthew and there‘s Owen and Lucy, then I have to explain, they then say sorry, don’t be , you asked a question I‘m just giving you the answer, I’ve had 3 children I don’t want to make you feel awkward but I would feel awkward if I failed to remember to mention Matthew

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 15, 2014 at 9:14 am (6 years ago)

      It’s horrid, isn’t it? Of course you should always mention Matthew, it’s just so sad it causes awkwardness. Much love xxx

  8. jet
    October 11, 2014 at 3:47 am (6 years ago)

    I agree with your comments and I’m glad you added ‘too beautiful for earth’ as that poem has always upset me. My daughter was an identical twin so if she was too beautiful for earth what does that say about her sister who survived?

    Other comments I’ve had a lot are:

    ‘At least you’ve got this one’ (referring to her sister), this has.been quite often from health professionals too!

    Or the other one that gets repeated by a close family member on a regular basis is ‘if it’s any consolation there was probably something wrong with her!’.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 11, 2014 at 8:56 am (6 years ago)

      What horrid things to say. The ‘too beautiful for earth’ one must be especially poignant for you with your surviving twin – people just don’t think.

      Oh, the at leasts – I can’t believe I forgot them. There is never, ever an ‘at least’ with the loss of a baby.

      I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for commenting xxx

  9. joyandpops
    October 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm (6 years ago)

    I must admit it’s the ‘nothing’ that gets to me too. It’s been 12 years since my son was stillborn at 41 weeks. His father left me but I was lucky to meet my husband and we have two daughters. It can be difficult with his family as although they are kind when my son’s name is mentioned they quickly change the subject, this happens with friends too, not many seem to even remember now – I should add that my husband and mother in law are fantastic with my son’s memory. My family all live abroad so I do sometimes feel I am very alone in remembering my son. Blogging has been great, such a release to just talk about him.
    Great post.

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm (6 years ago)

      I’m so sorry for your loss and to hear that. Just because our babies are not with us it does not mean we no longer want to talk about them. I agree about blogging, it’s been a lifesaver for me. Love and hugs xxx

  10. Tara
    October 9, 2014 at 5:37 am (6 years ago)

    “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “you were just unlucky” which I know were from people just trying to make me feel better. The ones that really hurt were “it isn’t like its a real baby” because I was only 13 weeks pregnant and suggesting that being vegetarian caused his condition.

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm (6 years ago)

      Oh my goodness. People really can say some hurtful things. I’m sorry they were said to you (or to anyone) xxx

  11. jasmineshei
    October 9, 2014 at 4:54 am (6 years ago)

    You put “nothing” in number one spot. I definitely agree. I like the rest of the “not to do things” on the list. I wish more people would know about it.

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 9, 2014 at 3:54 pm (6 years ago)

      Me too, I hope that by writing about it more people know the right/wrong things to say xxx

  12. oana79
    October 8, 2014 at 9:41 pm (6 years ago)

    “Try not to think this way”.
    “Oh, this is one of these things that we’d better try and forget about.”(!!!!!)
    “He may have ended up being a drunkard!”

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm (6 years ago)

      Oh my goodness Oana. The first two are bad enough but the third? Words fail, they really do. Hugs xxx

      • oana79
        October 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm (6 years ago)

        Yeah, I know. And they both lost relatives but not close ones so maybe that explains it some? Or maybe the culture, they were either Romanian or Greek.xx

        • Leigh Kendall
          October 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm (6 years ago)

          Whatever the culture, it’s insensitive and inexcusable xxx

  13. Suzie
    October 8, 2014 at 5:39 pm (6 years ago)

    I have to say Leigh, I’ve experienced all of these. And not just once or twice either. Its been 14 years since Georgia died and I really don’t think peoples attitude to bereaved parents has changed at all. There is still an underlying ‘you’ll get over it attitude’ when in truth, you don’t. X

    • Leigh Kendall
      October 8, 2014 at 6:09 pm (6 years ago)

      I’m sorry you’ve experienced all of these – and continue to do so 14 years after losing Georgia. These attitudes need to change xxx


2Pingbacks & Trackbacks on Things to never say to a bereaved parent

  1. […] Headspace Perspective with Leigh’s post about Things to never say to Bereaved Parents […]

  2. […] Head-space Perspective, had baby Hugo in February and he fought for 35 days. She has written this fantastic guide of things to never say to a bereaved parent (and what you should say […]

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