When Someone You Love Loses Someone They Love: Addressing Some LDS Means of Comforting
This week I was talking to one of my good friends about adding to our respective families. She is considering trying for a fourth child. She said one phrase that I, and all people close to me, now know all too well. “There are no guarantees”.
I feel like I’ve ruined people. I’m that friend or family member that “it” happened to. I am the testament that something could happen to their baby and that nothing is guaranteed.
I look back on that blissful time when I was pregnant with my first child. There was no consideration that anything could ever go wrong. Either I blocked the thought from even entering my mind, or it simply just never crossed it. I had heard of stories of people losing a baby, but they were so removed from me that I thought that it was a rare occurrence.
From American Family Physician, this paragraph lays out the statistics of losses.
“Rates of pregnancy loss decrease as the pregnancy progresses. Overall, about 10 to 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies and 30 to 40 percent of all conceptions end in pregnancy loss. Miscarriage that occurs at 13 to 14 weeks’ gestation usually reflects a pregnancy loss that happened one to two weeks earlier. Approximately 1 to 5 percent of pregnancies are lost at 13 to 19 weeks’ gestation, whereas stillbirth occurs in 0.3 percent of pregnancies at 20 to 27 weeks’ gestation, a rate similar to that of third trimester stillbirth “
Here is a graphic view of the rate of pregnancy loss:
Despite my refusal to accept that anything bad could happen when I was pregnant with my first baby, the chances are that if I had conducted a poll of all the women in my ward, there probably would have been several who lost a baby. It’s likely to be the same in any group of women. While it is rare, it is also more common than we think. I have found a great deal of peace in having other women of all ages in my ward open up to me about the babies they lost.
After we lost our twin boys, we were thrown into a dark world. I remember coming home from the hospital and feeling so empty and defeated. All that I had been looking forward to was gone and replaced with the deepest sadness I have ever felt. Those months following are still a blur to me. My family stepped in and cared for my children. Ward members and friends brought us meals and love. Without them, we would have fallen apart.
Just remembering the pain from that time still brings me to tears.
It was extremely comforting to us when our neighbors knocked on our door and told us about their son who would now be 25 years old. They knew our pain and they were there for us
As members of a church and community, we have the great privilege of being able to help each other in our darkest times as we grieve and need comfort.
As I’ve had a couple of years to reflect on things that helped and things that hurt and read many lists of how to help someone who has lost a child and things not to say, I thought that I would make my own list. My list includes some unique aspects that are common in the LDS culture.
I know that there are already some great blog posts and Ensign articles out there on this already, but this is what I came up with based on my experience after losing our sons.
Overall, people were very sensitive and kind. However, along with all of the good things that were done and said, there were some things said that were less than helpful. While these things did cause some stinging, I always have kept in mind that people say things with good intent. People often say things that, as they look at the situation, are comforting thoughts for them. I think this is perhaps a little more common in Mormon culture where we have the plan of salvation as a key piece of our doctrine. Some of the thoughts I share probably are comforting for some people experiencing the pain of losing a loved one, but for others they are not.
Most people’s experiences with death have been that of an older person, such as a grandparent, who have lived a full and long life. Some people personally know the pain of losing a father or mother and others experience the loss of a child or a sibling.
While all grief is difficult to navigate and emotionally exhausting, I feel that it can be harder when the death is tragic or sudden and unexpected, regardless of the person’s age.
When we are suddenly faced with a friend or neighbor or family member who is experiencing the unexpected loss of a loved one, it is hard to figure out just what to say or what to do. Their pain is so apparent and acute that we want to say anything to them that will help them feel some peace.
When we interact with people who have lost someone, we need to pause and consider the situation.
Who did they lose? What were the circumstances? How are they feeling?
These questions are applicable even if it’s been months. Even six months later, the death still may feel like it happened just days ago. They may still be hurting and struggling. Smiles and interacting with people are likely still forced and are a facade.
I think that our church community is so important during these times. So many people want to do something and offer help. As I’ve been in my ward’s relief society presidency, I am constantly touched by the selflessness of others and their concern for their neighbors.
So many times, people don’t know what to do to help, so here are some ideas along with some things to avoid.
Do something for them.
It takes everything to just get out of bed and survive a day, let alone do anything productive. The first few days they are likely overwhelmed. A good person to contact is the relief society president. Instead of asking what you can do, ask if you can do something specific. If it has been a week or more, things are likely to have calmed down. Call and make arrangements to do something specific. Some of the following ideas are things that you can just do or can just knock on the door and let them know that you are there to do ______ if that is okay with them.
What doesn’t help: showing up with a meal and treating the person you are visiting like they have just moved in or had a new baby. There is nothing cheerful about meeting your visiting teachers for the first time when you are overcome with grief. Please, visiting and home teachers, get to know your sisters and families before something happens.
Ideas: mow their lawn, shovel their driveway, weed their flower beds, rake their leaves, wash their windows (inside and out). Go over and play with, read with, or do a special project with their kids. Offer a night of babysitting. Take the family dinner or a treat. A freezer meal is great as is a gift card for something that can be easily picked up any night. Bring over a book (not necessarily grief related, but if you want to go that route, you can find a list here or just google to find something) or a movie. If there are little kids, go over in the morning and get them dressed, hair done, and breakfast. Let them know you are going to the store and ask if they will make you a grocery list. Take them a care package. Arrange a playdate with their kids. Make them a mix tape with special/comforting/peaceful songs.
Do something with them.
Find something they enjoy and treat them to it. After a loss, you don’t feel like the same person anymore and it’s hard to enjoy things you once did. Don’t be afraid to talk about their loved one and how they are feeling.
Ideas: Take them to lunch. Go on a walk. Help them with a project. Go to a movie or invite them over to watch a movie. Go get dessert somewhere or invite them over for dessert. Invite them to a girls/guys night. Put together a puzzle or play a game.
Listen. Don’t try to fix them.
Most people avoid talking about anything that would make the person cry, but the truth is that we like talking about it with someone who will listen. We’re going to cry either way, and sometimes it’s nice to cry with someone instead of alone. I think letting them know that you’re a safe person to talk to who won’t judge them and will just listen to all of their hurt is so important.
Send a card or a letter.
These are especially meaningful in the weeks and months after a loss.
Give a remembrance gift.
Ideas: Jewelry. Anything with the person’s name. A special picture or piece of art (even just a drawing done by a child). A plant or flower (perennials are especially nice). Money to help with a headstone or any other item they want to remember their loved one by.
Acknowledge, remember, and include their loved one.
Be sensitive on special days. Let them know you are thinking of them and remembering their loved one.
Do something special in honor or in the name of their loved one.
Service projects are wonderful. Think of something special and do it. Let the family know so they can participate if they can or want to.
Don’t forget them.
Always be aware that this pain is something they will always carry with them. Remember them and be mindful of their loss and pain. Let them know that you are thinking about them and their family.
Phrases and Things to Avoid
Don’t put a timetable on their grief.
This is often subtle and people don’t realize they are doing it. Phrases like, “I’ll be worried if you’re still this sad in a year”, “You’ll feel better once you _______”, “You’re still not over this/still having a really hard time?”, “Are you going to have more children?”, “You’re still _____? But it’s been a long time!”, “You need to put this behind you/move on”
“I know how you feel”
Just ask them how they feel. And then follow up with an understanding “really?” or a more specific question when they say they are fine.
“At least ____________”
Most of these types of phrases minimize a person’s grief.
You didn’t get the chance to know him/her. / They didn’t have to suffer. / It was fast. / They weren’t older/younger. / You didn’t give birth to him/her. / You don’t have to deal with a newborn and get up with them at night. / You still have your other kids/spouse/siblings/parents etc.
Even if you tell them that you know your experience doesn’t compare, the fact is that it doesn’t need to be compared.
“It could be worse”
Saying this minimizes what that person is feeling. Just because someone else experienced loss in a different way or experienced other hard things in life doesn’t mean that the person should feel better about their loss because someone else has it worse than them.
“Look at everything you have to be thankful for”
Most people know that there is still much good in their lives, but going through and listing all the great things they have isn’t going to make the gaping hole in their heart any smaller or feel any better.
“It was part of God’s plan” / “You must have agreed to this trial in the preexistence”
There is simply no way of knowing this unless you are God or have a direct knowledge of how the preexistence worked. To imply that someone would need to experience such an awful thing to somehow learn something is offensive.
I like to think that God doesn’t plan on purposely causing his children so much pain and suffering. A better perspective to take would be that God doesn’t cause the pain, but is there as a comfort and support to help us get through the hardest times in our lives.
“Something must have been wrong with them” / “This is just natures way”
We need to remember that this is a person that we are talking about and a very dear person to the people we are talking to. To say this implies that it was better that that person died rather than lived.
“It is what it is”
This phrase shows acceptance and dismissiveness. Saying it to someone tells them that you’ve accepted and and moved on and that they should as well.
“They’re in a better place”
For this one we have to look at the plan of salvation that is an essential doctrine in the LDS church. The whole purpose of Jesus Christ’s plan, what everyone wanted more than anything, was to come to earth not only to receive a body, but to experience earth life. When we look at the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit, they are choosing to experience life, even with all of the hardships.
Life on earth and being with your family on earth is one of the most important parts of the plan of salvation.
When you say this to a person you are also discounting the deceased’s place in their family. To them, there is no “better place” for the person other than in their homes and arms.
“They’re lucky they don’t have to experience the evils of this world”/ “They didn’t have to suffer the pains of this world”
Look at your life and you decide if you would rather stay or go, even with all of the evils and hard experiences. I feel that the sweetness and beauty of life here and being part of an Earthly family far outweighs the evil and suffering.
“God needed them more”
Again, how do you know that?
“They just needed a body” / “They had another mission”
As I talked about above, I feel that such phrases totally disregard an important part of the plan of salvation. When we reduce the plan of salvation to being just about getting a body, I feel like we are missing an essential part of the picture.
“They were too perfect/good for this world”
In the case of a child dying, they would be perfect whether they were on the Earth or not. I have a hard time grappling with the fact that my child was so perfect and angelic that they just couldn’t be here.
That said, this is a very common phrase which many people find comforting. I would avoid going there unless the person who is grieving mentions it.
“At least you’ll get to see/hold/raise them again one day”
This is another one of those phrases that many find comforting. While I don’t necessarily dislike the thought, I do dislike the uncertain nature of it. Can you tell me that I can have a do-over and that I’ll get my living children to raise as well as a whole family? I want my babies to fit in my family where they should have been and I want my living children to experience life with their deceased brothers as well. I want to have all of the experiences as a family that we should have had with them. It’s not just my babies that I miss. I am missing the life and familial experiences, here and now, that they would have been here for.
Yes, it’s comforting that I will get to see them and raise them after I die, but to me it’s not the same as having them here and a part of our family on earth, and that is what makes hearing that phrase difficult.
“You should ________. / You will ________. “
Think about starting with something like “Maybe you could consider….”, “Have you thought about…”, or “You might…”
Telling a person how they should do something or saying something like “you will feel better if you do this or that” is not helpful.
Understand that grief is an upsetting and difficult time for people. For most, their heart and their world have been shattered. They are forever changed and are navigating an unfamiliar world and self.
For many Mormons, a death can trigger a re-evaluation of how they understand life and death as they now have a very personal interest in where their loved one is at and the ifs, whens, and hows of how they can be with that person again. It can be a hugely unsettling time.
As the friends, family, and neighbors of those who are enduring the pain of losing a loved one, gather them up in a hug. Cry with them and listen to their pain. Don’t discount their feelings or try to fix them. They need a true friend who can see past the forced smile and laugh and take care of them in the months and years of hurt that follow. Be their friend. Show them that you care and that you remember them and are there for them.
Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean that they are healed and better. Acceptance, despite being the final stage of grief, is merely acknowledging and accepting that what happened did happen. It does not mean that the pain and the anger is gone. There will always be sadness and longing for that person that should be here. Having people tell me that the sadness and missing my boys would always be there and that it was okay was so helpful for me. It was comforting to know that someone saw the parts of me that I expertly hid beneath the surface and told me that it was okay that those parts were there and that they would be there forever. Not only did I reach acceptance personally, but I also felt accepted just the way I was by those who care about me.
Despite all the pain, there is also beauty in the process. There is sweetness for every piece of bitterness. On my hardest days when all I could see was bitter, the sweet came in forms of my friends, family, and neighbors who did something for me. For them I am thankful.