Things to never say to a bereaved parent

As a culture, we can generally be pretty poor at dealing with death and the bereaved. Death in general remains a huge taboo, and many people do not know how to respond to baby loss in particular.

Bereaved parents suffer enough without having to bite their tongue at something someone has said to them – however well-meant.

Here is a list of some of the things that have been said to me in the six months since Hugo’s death that have annoyed me in some way. Many of them are well-used platitudes and I would imagine those who utter them haven’t stopped to think about the meaning or implication. So, I thought it useful to outline why they make my hackles rise.

Nothing Funnily enough, one of the worst things people can say is nothing at all. It happens quite often when Hugo’s death has been mentioned to a stranger. I can see the look of panic in their eyes: if I am being kind, I will think they say nothing because they are worried about saying the wrong thing. Fair enough, but saying nothing inevitably creates awkwardness that I usually try and fill by explaining what happened. What irritates me about that is that I am trying to make the other person feel better. Do you see what is wrong with this picture?

Tip: if you’re stuck for something to say, a simple “I’m so sorry” is sufficient. Even better, you can ask the baby’s name.

I know how you feel Most people have suffered some kind of bereavement, but it doesn’t mean we feel the same way. No one, not even another woman who had pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome at 24 weeks’ pregnant and whose baby died as a result would know how I feel, and nor I her. That’s because everyone responds to everything in their own individual way.

This is usually said in an attempt at empathy, but expressing it like this is rather irksome, to say the least. It is better to ask how the person feels, or say “I understand how you might feel because…”.

You should… Linked to the above, we are all individual. What worked for your grief might not work for me. While advice is usually well-meant, people are often falling over themselves to offer it – it can be overwhelming. Ask before offering advice.

Everything happens for a reason Really? What reason would there be for my pregnancy to nearly kill me, my baby having to be delivered 16 weeks early and him dying because of that prematurity? It is all so senseless.

People are only given what they can handle So my baby dying is some kind of twisted reward for being a strong person?

They are in a better place Where could be better for Hugo than with a mummy and daddy who loved him very much?

Skin-to-skin with Mummy

Skin-to-skin with Mummy

Are you feeling better yet? It’s another question that is asked with the best of intentions: they want you to be ok because they love you. However, in the context of baby loss asking a bereaved parent if they feel better is almost like asking if they have stopped grieving for their baby. Grief has no time limit. There is no day where you will suddenly ‘feel better’ as one might from an illness or ailment. The loss of a baby is carried with the parent forever.

I have had a sense of needing to feel the pain of my loss, and I understand other bereaved mothers feel the same way. This means that no matter how masochistic it might seem, there is a big part of me that never wants to feel better.

Yes, over time the pain feels less raw and you are able to do more ‘normal’ things. But a bereaved parent is often changed irrevocably. Fragments of their old personality may emerge given time, but they are unlikely to be wholly the same person as they were before.

You can have another baby Technically yes, hopefully. Besides the terrifying possibility that the same thing could happen in another pregnancy and the unimaginable thought of losing another baby, Hugo cannot be replaced. Hugo could not be replaced even if I had 100 more babies. To put it another way: it’s like asking a parent which of her children she would miss least. You just wouldn’t, would you?

Don’t feel guilty Rationally, I know I have no reason to feel guilty: the illness was not my fault, and if I hadn’t delivered Hugo when I did I probably would have died and Hugo would have been stillborn. I still feel a mother’s guilt: I failed, quite spectacularly, at being pregnant and at motherhood.

Being told to not feel guilty is patronising and dismissive. It has denied me the opportunity to talk about it and discuss my feelings – and it is crucial to be able to do that.

I got to a point a few months ago where I was tempted to thump the next person who told me I shouldn’t feel guilty.

So, no matter how irrational the guilt may be, never tell them not to feel guilty. Unfortunately, there is no switch to turn off the guilt, no matter how many times we are told.

They were too beautiful for this world Oh, please. Hugo was a handsome baby, but no more beautiful, or deserving to still be here than any other baby.

What thoughtless or insensitive platitudes could you add to this list?






Mums' Days

29 thoughts on “Things to never say to a bereaved parent

  1. mrstwite says:

    Hi Leigh. I love your blog! When one of our twins was stillborn we had a card saying Sorry to hear about “Dylan”. As if we’d made him up!!


  2. Sarah Doyle - let them be small says:

    I can’t really add anything other than I think people sometimes just don’t know what to say. I had pre eclampsia in my first pregnancy and throughout my 2nd pregnancy I was convinced that it would re-occur. No amount of reassurances etc could convince me otherwise and in all the appts I had, and people I saw only one midwife really seemed to understand. Others (including Drs) just tried to calm me with stats about chances of reoccurence etc. I wanted to scream.


    • Leigh Kendall says:

      I think the human element can too often be lacking – it doesn’t matter how many times someone says something, once you’ve had something like that you’re going to be terrified it will recur – it’s natural. Thanks for commenting xxx


  3. Philippa says:

    Saying you don’t know what to say is a lot better than saying nothing. I had a friend who kept ringing me in hospital while I was ill and baby was critically ill in NICU. She couldn’t really think of anything much to say, but she kept ringing anyway, and it meant so much that she was prepared to make herself uncomfortable (repeatedly) in order to show her support. Most people avoided me like a plague carrier. Also, although all equally well meant, I kept and treasured baby cards but sometimes ripped up get well soon ones.


  4. hannah mum's days says:

    Oh Leigh, you and Claire have taught me so much this week. Two years ago I was a ‘nothing’ person when Mike’s cousin’s child was stillborn a few weeks after Reuben. I cried and cried for them but I didn’t say anything. I have now, I’ve written to them and said how sorry I am.

    I don’t believe that people have said those other things to you, though Leigh, it makes no sense at all. As for ‘are you feeling better yet’ – I’ve also learnt this week from the hundreds of people who messaged me on Facebook and gave me the names of their precious babies, that a baby will stay with you and your loved ones forever. You put it perfectly, the loss of a baby is carried with the parent forever.

    Thank you for linking this important post to #TheList, Leigh xxx


  5. Katie Haydock says:

    I honestly can’t believe that people are that tactless?
    I like to think that if one of my friends or family needed me as support I’d be able to say the right thing – or at least just tell them that I love them. Don’t people do that?


  6. Helen says:

    24 years on and the question “how many children have you got” they say, there was Matthew and there‘s Owen and Lucy, then I have to explain, they then say sorry, don’t be , you asked a question I‘m just giving you the answer, I’ve had 3 children I don’t want to make you feel awkward but I would feel awkward if I failed to remember to mention Matthew


  7. jet says:

    I agree with your comments and I’m glad you added ‘too beautiful for earth’ as that poem has always upset me. My daughter was an identical twin so if she was too beautiful for earth what does that say about her sister who survived?

    Other comments I’ve had a lot are:

    ‘At least you’ve got this one’ (referring to her sister), this has.been quite often from health professionals too!

    Or the other one that gets repeated by a close family member on a regular basis is ‘if it’s any consolation there was probably something wrong with her!’.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Leigh Kendall says:

      What horrid things to say. The ‘too beautiful for earth’ one must be especially poignant for you with your surviving twin – people just don’t think.

      Oh, the at leasts – I can’t believe I forgot them. There is never, ever an ‘at least’ with the loss of a baby.

      I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for commenting xxx


  8. joyandpops says:

    I must admit it’s the ‘nothing’ that gets to me too. It’s been 12 years since my son was stillborn at 41 weeks. His father left me but I was lucky to meet my husband and we have two daughters. It can be difficult with his family as although they are kind when my son’s name is mentioned they quickly change the subject, this happens with friends too, not many seem to even remember now – I should add that my husband and mother in law are fantastic with my son’s memory. My family all live abroad so I do sometimes feel I am very alone in remembering my son. Blogging has been great, such a release to just talk about him.
    Great post.


  9. Tara says:

    “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “you were just unlucky” which I know were from people just trying to make me feel better. The ones that really hurt were “it isn’t like its a real baby” because I was only 13 weeks pregnant and suggesting that being vegetarian caused his condition.


  10. oana79 says:

    “Try not to think this way”.
    “Oh, this is one of these things that we’d better try and forget about.”(!!!!!)
    “He may have ended up being a drunkard!”


  11. Suzie says:

    I have to say Leigh, I’ve experienced all of these. And not just once or twice either. Its been 14 years since Georgia died and I really don’t think peoples attitude to bereaved parents has changed at all. There is still an underlying ‘you’ll get over it attitude’ when in truth, you don’t. X


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