What not to say to grieving parents

When my son, Ibrahim, passed away, I experienced pain beyond my imagination. I felt it in every part of my being, from the superficial gash of my caesarean to my shattered heart. At times I wished I could join Ibrahim in heaven and not have to face my empty womb and lap. I appreciate all the love and support from friends and family that kept me afloat. Without them, I would not have survived.
In the year after Ibrahim’s passing, people would approach me with what they felt were consoling words, and while their intentions were good, they would sometimes say precisely the wrong thing. As a mother who has lost a child, I wanted to lay out a list of what not to say or do when dealing with bereaved parents.

1. Acknowledge the loss. Some people say nothing, awkwardly avoiding the parents, when all that is needed to lift their spirits is a tight hug.
2. “You are lucky he died so young. It would have been much worse if you had seen him grow up and then lost him.” Loss at any stage is painful. It is not up to you to tell a mother and father what would be more or less painful for them.
3. “At least you know you can get pregnant. You’ll have another one.” Children are not interchangeable. We love each child as a unique individual and one will not replace another.
4. “With time you will heal and forget him.” Grieving parents want to treasure, not erase, the memory of the child they lost.
5. “It is for the best that he died now; he may become really sick later and it would have been difficult to take care of him.” Grieving parents would rather dedicate their lives to nursing a sick child than watch their little boy or girl die.
6. “Everything happens for a reason.” This may well be, but reminding a parent that there is a larger plan behind his/her child’s death or even knowing the reason itself does not dull the pain.
7. “There must have been something wrong with him.” Sometimes there are specific health reasons for an infant’s passing, and sometimes there are not. To hear their baby labeled “abnormal” is hurtful for a parent.
8. “He is in a better place” or “You should be happy he is with God.” Grieving parents know this to be true deep down but at that moment, when feelings are raw, there is no better place for the baby than with them.
9. “This world is a bad place. Do you really want your child living in it?” There are other children living in the very same world.
10. “Soon you’ll get over this pain.” Parents do not want to “get over” the pain, as they equate this with getting over their child.
11. “Did you do something in your pregnancy that could have caused this?” This sort of question implies blame and guilt is the last thing parents should be feeling.
12. “Don’t cry.” Let them cry. If they feel comfortable enough to do so in your presence, allow them to release their sorrow rather than hold it in.
13. “You should accept Allah’s decree. You are upsetting Allah by remembering your baby constantly.” Parents will never forget their greatest loss. They will reflect on it every day. Ibrahim came into my life for a reason; I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why.

Here is a list of what to do and say:

1. Say the child’s name out loud. Just hearing their child’s name will bring parents joy, even if after a moment of sadness.
2. Listen. Some parents will talk endlessly about their child; others simply revel in the quiet.
3. Say the words, “I’m sorry.” These simple words are all’s that’s needed.
4. Remind the parents of any hadith on losing children. Hearing about the Prophet’s grief upon losing some of his children in infancy helped me realize that my grief was not misplaced.
5. Suggest websites, names of other bereaved parents, support groups, and articles that may help them. Often, grieving parents are looking for others like themselves.
6. Offer to run errands, take kids to school or cook dinner for the grieving family. Demonstrate that you care with your actions.
7. Ask the grieving parents what specifically you can do to make this difficult time easier on them.
8. Don’t compare trials in your life to their loss unless it is relevant.
9. Say “there are no words for me to say to you.” At least parents know you have tried to find the right words.
10. Remember the child on holidays, his birth date and his death date. Friends who email, call, text, or even send flowers on Ibrahim’s birthday have a special place in my heart.
11. Simply saying, “I am thinking of you” and “You are in my thoughts” reminds parents they are not alone in their grief.
12. Give them time and space. This shows them that you are respecting rather than trying to rush their grieving process.
13. Pray for them. They need all the prayers for patience and peace they can get.

Remember, even if the wrong things are said by well-meaning family and friends, the grieving parents will appreciate and love them for simply being there during the most difficult time in their lives.

Choking with sorrow, (the Prophet) said to his son, “O Ibrahim, against the judgment of God, we cannot avail you a thing,” … With tears in his eyes he talked once more to the dead child: “O Ibrahim, were the truth not certain that the last of us will join the first, we would have mourned you even more than we do now.” A moment later he said: “The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except that which pleases our Lord. Indeed, O Ibrahim, we are bereaved by your departure from us.” (Muhammad Husayn Haykal)

Sabina Khan-Ibarra is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a blog called Ibrahim’s Tree, inspired by the passing of her infant son, which focuses on dealing with loss. Sabina is also the co-editor and author for “Hijabulous: Seeing the Veil through the Eyes of American Muslim Women.“

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