Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Author: Ali Ferrara (Mira's Momma)
*Author's Note: The word 'child loss' and 'child' is used in this post to encompass any loss of a baby or child (miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss, etc.).*
When you tell someone that you have a child that has died sometimes you get great support and compassion. Other times, you get less welcomed responses: awkward silence, a changing of the subject so quickly you wonder if they heard you, insulting platitudes, or even rude questions or accusations. One of the hurtful responses that is often given to loss parents is: “I could never survive that. I don’t know how you keep going.” People saying this do not realize the impact this statement is having on the bereaved parent they are talking to.
The intent with this statement seems to be to validate the deep pain that being a loss Mom entails. I think in a way, it does do that. They are acknowledging how hard this life is. And it is hard. However, this statement brings about its own issues.
When someone says something along the lines of “I could not live without my child,” they typically follow up with a change in subject or ending the conversation. This is not a great way to support a loss Mom or Dad. Basically, the speaker has acknowledged the level of pain, but then offered no support to the loss parent and has given them no opportunity to share about their story. Instead, this statement projects the speaker’s feelings onto the loss parent. It often gives the speaker comfort, subconsciously thinking, “I couldn’t survive that pain, so it won’t happen to me.” It makes the speak feel as if they have done well by providing validation, so they can move on with their day. However, the loss parent is left feeling alone and isolated.
Why is this statement such an isolating one to hear? There are two main reasons for that.
When you hear that so many others could not survive this loss, yet somehow you did, the message starts to become that you must not have loved your child as much as those people did. I mean they would have died with their child, yet you are still here! That is of course not true! Loss parents love their children just as much as parents with only living children. Our logical brains often know this, but grief and guilt often go hand-in-hand. Those thoughts in the back of your mind about how you could survive when others would not, start to make you wonder, did you do something wrong? Of course, you did not do anything wrong, you are an amazing mother/father! Those thoughts can be sneaky though and hearing these statements can make them louder.
The other huge issue with telling a loss parent that “I would never survive that,” is that many of them are fighting harder than you would ever believe to survive this. I do not mean in a figurative since, I mean literally, they a fighting daily to continue choosing to live. In a study of the long term effects of a child’s death on parents, it was found that parent who had lost a child (at birth through young adulthood, with the child’s age at death having no impact on outcomes) had significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation, mental health diagnoses, and physical health issues. Mothers, in particular, had a significantly higher rate of psychiatric hospital admission in the first 5 years post loss. These parents, unfortunately, also had higher mortality rates through the remainder of their lives, but especially in the first 3 years after their child’s death. These deaths were due to different causes but could all causes with higher rates than nonbereaved parents could be linked to stress (Rogers et al, 2010).
This research holds up in my limited personal experience. I have seen the suffering of other loss parents I have come to know and love. I have felt the suffering myself. We may be surviving this, but it is grueling work, especially in the beginning. When you tell a loss parent you could not survive their experience, you are also sending them the message that they maybe cannot either. Suicidal ideation and self-harm is present at a rate 2.5 times higher in bereaved parents then the general population (Guldin et al, 2017). This number does not even take into account those that are suffering without reporting their symptoms. Many bereaved parents are suffering with a longing to die, even if their thoughts do not rise to the level of suicidal ideation (thinking about taking one’s own life). When a parent is already struggling with these thoughts (and so many, many of them are), and they are told that others would not survive their circumstances, those thoughts intensify.
Loss parents that are reading, take heart, you certainly can survive! And feel joy in living! Good support systems, attention to self-care, and great doctors and therapists will help you get through this. You will survive, it will likely be hard, but you will do it. Even if you do not always want to survive, you can take the next breath and keep going. Do not let this information scare you. Knowledge is power, you know the fight you are up against and you can do it! Each day that goes by you will learn a little more about how to survive and it will not feel like such a heavy burden. The burden does not get lighter, but you become more accustomed to carrying it and stronger as you go. Let this information help you know that you are not alone, and help is available. Your experiences and pain are valid. If you do not have support, we would love to help you connect with some, just reach out through our contact us information.
With all this said, let us agree, we will not tell bereaved parents that someone could not survive their pain. It is simply not helpful and is often hurtful. I believe this also applies to parents who had living children before their loss telling parents with no living children that they have only survived due to having other children to care for. It may be very, very true that your living children helped you get through. However, saying this to a mother or father with no children in their arms only hurts them, for all the reasons discussed above. You can think this, you can feel this, you can talk about it with your support system, but do not say it to a bereaved parent with no living children.
What can be said instead? So much! There are lots are articles out there with tips on what to say to a loss parent, read up and be ready! If you really want to say something along these lines, I suggest, “It must be so hard to survive this loss. I am here to help you keep going.”
We are Three Little Birds will always be here to help you all keep going.
Guldin, M. B., Ina Siegismund Kjaersgaard, M., Fenger-Grøn, M., Thorlund Parner, E., Li, J., Prior, A., & Vestergaard, M. (2017). Risk of suicide, deliberate self-harm and psychiatric illness after the loss of a close relative: A nationwide cohort study. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 16(2), 193–199. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20422
Rogers, C. H., Floyd, F. J., Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J., & Hong, J. (2008). Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents' adjustment in midlife. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 22(2), 203–211. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3184.108.40.206