Friday, March 21, 2014

How to handle a grieving parent or family member when it comes up in casual introductory conversation

So the dreaded question many parents who have lost a child fear: "So how many kids do you have?"

We don't dread it because we want to avoid mentioning our child; we dread it because of the feeling that we are doing something wrong if we make the other person feel awkward or if we show emotions that make them uncomfortable.

So what do you do when it comes up in conversation with a stranger?

It is ok to say "I am sorry", but there is a huge difference in what you do next. If you look away you are telling the person that it makes YOU feel awkward... and sometimes it makes them feel like they have done something wrong. When they haven't. It is ok for them to answer this question in any way that feels true to them... even if they stutter, pause, cry. Because they are dealing with a lifetime of this reality and not just a moment, grieving parents deserve an occasional pass on the social impetus to never make the other person feel awkward. Looking away turns their child into a social taboo- saying that you do not think they should be talked about or that they should only mention living children. It ends the conversation- signaling that they have done something wrong. Which may not be what you intended, but is how it is taken by a parent. This parent may have been rushed by others to 'get over it', when really that isn't an option as normal will never be the same. They are essentially made to feel like they are doing 'it' wrong or should be lying better and your reaction may be reinforcing this.

After you say "I'm sorry" just hold eye contact for two or three seconds. If you don't know how to handle it past this point, if it someone you will have continued contact with you can always say "I want you to know that we can talk about your son/daughter, but we don't have to if you do not feel like it. I just wanted you to know it is ok either way and I recognize that he/ she is still your child." If it is someone you won't see again, you can leave it at the brief eye contact at the end or say "I can only imagine how complicated that question was to answer." Granted every parent is different, but this would at least work for me.

The two second rule can also apply anytime someone who is deceased is brought up by someone who cared about them. Looking away rapidly ends conversation. Whether it is about a parent on Mother's or Father's day, or perhaps someone sharing a memory about a child, give them just a couple seconds of good eye contact.

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