A mother’s guide for talking to others about the loss of a child.
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When you lose a child, it’s hard to express the oceanic depths of your heartache. I know this because I lost my child, too.
Over time, I’ve gained perspective and learned how to talk about it. Talking about my loss was like lighting a lantern in a dark cave. It helped me escape the void of despair and begin to heal.
Now, I’d like to help you do the same. Here are some tips to try, based on things I’ve learned while navigating how to talk about my loss.
As the grieving process unfolds, emotions can fluctuate, and so might your desire to discuss your loss.
It can be helpful to check in with yourself before deciding whether to engage in these conversations.
Some questions to ask:
- Do I feel comfortable being vulnerable with this person?
- Do I want to talk about my loss?
- Do I feel this is the right moment and/or place for me to have this discussion?
Imagine receiving a permission slip whenever an opportunity to discuss your loss arises. It’s your choice whether to sign it. It’s always your choice how, when, and with whom you talk about it. No justifications or apologies, whether to yourself or others, are necessary.
How you tell the story of your loss is entirely up to you. Here are some things to think about:
- How much detail do you want to share?
- What’s off-limits?
- Do you want people to refer to your child by name?
- Do you want to celebrate your child on a particular anniversary date (e.g., conception date, birthdate, or end of life date)?
- If the child you lost was your only child, do you want to be acknowledged on Mother’s Day?
Often, people will avoid talking about your child loss for fear of upsetting you. If you’re able to clearly state your needs, it can guide others in supporting you. Try to set the tone through how you talk about it, and others will follow your lead.
Grief can be sneaky. One moment you’re shopping for frozen pizza; the next, you’re creating a small puddle of tears in the checkout lane. This can be a common experience during the grieving process.
Allow yourself to feel the emotions when they arise and practice self-soothing techniques when needed. For example, you can count your breath for an equal number of inhales and exhales. This down-shifts your autonomic nervous system, which controls your body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate.
You can choose to opt out of conversations that feel disrespectful or overwhelming. To identify your conversational boundaries, try asking yourself:
- What won’t I tolerate?
- What triggers am I willing to address in the moment?
- Which triggers are too charged to engage with?
Some people will have a strong emotional response to talking about child loss. That’s OK. It’s possible to tell your story without attachment to others’ reactions. Try to resist the urge to sacrifice your feelings for politeness.
You can say something like, “I want to comfort you right now, but the truth is, I’m feeling [name your emotion] myself.” Or, give them a few moments of silence to experience the emotion and let it pass.
Everyone is responsible for their own emotions, and you have enough of — and the right to — your own. This is your truth and speaking it is part of your healing process.
There are a few common types of conversations you might encounter when talking about the loss of your child. Here’s how I recommend navigating them.
Small talk with strangers
It’s astounding how frequently strangers make offhanded comments like the examples below. Even if you’re fully open to sharing, the context of the situation may not allow it.
- Do you have any kids?
- How many kids do you have?
- Is this your first?
If telling your story feels inappropriate, you could say, “I consider myself a mother, but I don’t have any living children,” or “I have three children, and one of them is no longer alive.” This may lead to further questions, which you can choose to answer or not.
If you want to avoid the topic altogether, a simple “no” will do — no need for further explanation or elaboration. You’re not obligated to answer questions you don’t want to or aren’t ready to.
Inappropriate or invasive comments or questions
Trying to get pregnant after child loss is not the same as trying out for the high school softball team after not being selected the previous year. The comments and questions below are wildly inappropriate at worst and assumptive at best.
- You can have another one.
- Are you trying to get pregnant?
- When do you want to get pregnant again?
You could say something like, “We’re still deciding,” or “We would like to have another child at some point, but I’m focused on healing right now,” or simply, “This topic isn’t something I feel comfortable discussing.”
The decision to try having another child is highly personal and sensitive. It’s your choice, and you can make it when you’re ready, not according to someone else’s timeline. It’s also none of anyone’s business.
Statements like the ones below can be an attempt at empathy. In an effort to understand your feelings, someone may try to imagine how they might feel and unknowingly project that feeling.
They’re saying, “There’s nothing in my life to compare this with, but I’m trying to grasp what it would feel like to be in your shoes.”
- That’s so devastating.
- I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Sharing where you are on your grief journey can help you stay anchored in your reality while giving the other person insight into it. It can also open up the conversation.
Alternatively, you can agree (“Yes, it is devastating”) and change the subject.
Comparison can feel hurtful and dismissive, but it’s simply another clumsy attempt to connect.
- My sister/friend/friend’s sister/someone I know went through the same thing.
- I read about someone going through the same thing in a book or article.
If you want to talk about your loss, try redirecting the conversation to your experience by saying something like, “That’s a hard thing, too. I can only speak to my own experience. Can I share it with you?”
If you don’t want to talk about it, acknowledge what was said and change the subject: “That’s a hard thing, too. And how have you been?”
Grief and loss can be complicated, but you can get through this.
You can learn how to navigate uncomfortable situations, deal with triggers, and handle well-intentioned wound-salters. You can discover how to honor your child’s legacy and your role as their mother by speaking about their life.
You’re embarking on a lifetime journey of healing. There won’t always be smooth sailing, but if you keep your heart open, you’ll find the right words.