What to say to a parent who suddenly loses their child?
February 21, 2011 8:47 PM   Subscribe

I just found out that a coworker lost her daughter today in an accident. What on earth do I say to her when I see her later this week?

A coworker's college-age daughter was killed today in a car accident. Her mom is a single parent and she and her daughter were extremely close. Her daughter was her only child. I know that there is absolutely nothing that I can say or do that will make this situation any less horrific. What DO I say to her when I see her at the visitation/funeral later this week, and, beyond that, when she eventually returns to work? Is "I'm so sorry" and "You have so many people who care about you" the only thing to say?
posted by bookmammal to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do, just ask." That's what you say.
posted by holgate at 8:50 PM on February 21, 2011 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Tell her how sorry you are, absolutely, and that you care about her. Also, be willing to listen. If there are things that you can do for her around the office to make her life easier (anything time sensitive), maybe do that? If your boss allows, could you donate some personal time?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:53 PM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

What holgate said. If you're that kind of person, get her sympathy cards on Mothers Day and the anniversary. Knowing that other people still remember is important.
posted by jeffkramer at 8:54 PM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Say whatever feels most comfortable and genuine when you see her at the wake and funeral.

Don't say anything to her at the office. Stop by and say hi every morning. Ask her to go for coffee or tea during a break or downtime if you have it. If she wants to talk, listen. If she doesn't want to talk, try and feel that out and respect it.
posted by santojulieta at 8:59 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Along with what has already been suggested, I think I would say "I have no idea what you are experiencing right now." In a time of need, I would want people around me to admit that they aren't the expert on the situation, but that they would make an effort anyway.
posted by germdisco at 9:06 PM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Tell her you are sorry for her loss at the funeral, or when you see her next. Give her a hug if you are at all inclined. Send a sympathy card and/or flowers to the funeral.

When she comes back to work, gently ask her how she is doing.

Follow her lead... if she seems to want to talk about it, listen and make sympathetic responses. Don't worry about trying to say something profound and comforting if that is not your gift. Just be polite and compassionate.

If she seems not to want to talk about it, just tell her that you are glad she is back.

I had almost exactly this situation happen awhile back, and I too was incredibly anxious over what to say and do. I did/said all of the above, and it worked out well. To be honest, unless you say something really assy or neglect to say anything at all, she most likely isn't going to be up to judging what you say or do. She'll just remember that you were kind.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:17 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One simple thing that was said to me, by some long time friends of my folks, as I dealt with the deaths of my parents six weeks apart was "We're so sorry for your losses. Please, help us help you through all this. Tell us what we can do, so that we share this with you."

It made me realize that other people wanted to help with arrangements and estate issues, as a way of helping me, while they shared their own grief, and that it was a situation better shared together openly, than faced separately, by each of us. If you can get that point across, to a grieving person, you can really give them a way to draw upon those around them, and turn tragedy to shared remembrance.
posted by paulsc at 9:19 PM on February 21, 2011 [13 favorites]

I know you feel awkward, but this isn't about you (I know you know that). But it doesn't really matter what specific first thing you say--"I'm sorry" is as good as anything. Other than that, many times grieving people wanted to be treated normally. The worst thing is to avoid someone because you feel awkward.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:32 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know this isn't the exact same thing, but this might help:

If you're up to it, and if you have the means, you might be able to take some of the edge off of the interactions by finding out what the more concrete needs are, and then just pitching in right up front with some minor little day-to-day stuff. If you can follow up for a bit after her family leaves town, even better.

When my brother and I were both critically injured in a car wreck, the things that (in hindsight) meant the most to my mom weren't the words, but the little good deeds. A few of my mom's coworkers got together, asked my aunt (who was slightly more removed from the situation and thus, of somewhat clearer mind) what they thought they could do for my mom. The ended up getting a couple loads of essential groceries and cooking a couple good meals to get some of the burden off of her. Later, couple of the same ladies took my mom out to lunch and grocery shopping the first time she felt up to it.

If you've got an "in" with close friends or family they might be able to give you some ideas.
posted by The Potate at 9:39 PM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes people don't express compassion later on because they fear it will remind the bereaved of their loss. They are wrong. No parent will forget losing a child.
posted by grouse at 9:39 PM on February 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't have much to add to the specific advice about what to say. I'd go with the first comment. She'll probably just appreciate the gesture and won't be sitting around parsing your exact words.

Serene Empress Dork has a good point that as long as you say something decent and not horribly inconsiderate, you'll be fine.

As an example of what would be horribly inconsiderate, I know a couple who were in a very similar situation. Their college-age daughter was killed in a car accident. Someone said to them, right after hearing the news (this was probably based on a well-meaning instinct, but completely inappropriate given the specific situation): "Well, we've all gotta go sometime."

Don't say that.

I'm sure you won't say that, and whatever you do say will be fine.
posted by John Cohen at 9:43 PM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: Some one once said that just being at the funeral/wake says it all. You don't have to say anything if your not comfortable doing so. A simple sincere hug is all that may be needed in this case. Hugs are good (warm), shaking hands not so good (cold). I'm sure she has heard just about everything from others by now. Sometimes after a while those get tiresome to hear repeatedly. As to what to say after returning to work, just be compassionate and listen if she needs to talk. Your right about nothing you can say will make things less horrific for her. It won't. But being a friend that's there if she needs one is very important.
posted by Taurid at 9:45 PM on February 21, 2011

I think it depends. The best thing to do is follow everyone else's lead when they say kind things. Perhaps you can send flowers to the funeral or send a card that says, "I'm thinking about you and am so deeply saddened to hear of the loss of [name of deceased]. Please let me know if you need anything."

You have so many people who care about you" the only thing to say?

This isn't something I'd like to hear. It sounds too much, "Look on the bright side! Your daughter's gone but here are all these great people." I wouldn't take it the right way.
posted by anniecat at 9:46 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, 'I'm sorry for your loss' (and its cousin, 'I'm sorry you feel that way') sounds really insensitive to me. I've never liked the phrase one damn bit, it's so hollow and unfeeling. I'd replace it with 'I'm so sorry to hear about Daughter'. Mentioning sympathies, any good anecdotes that she's mentioned, and 'we'll miss her' might be good things to say too.

I'd skip the flowers (if you don't, get them from a brick-and-mortar LOCAL FLORIST and not some national company) because they're a bit ephemeral for my tastes.

(On preview, what others have said:) More tangible things might be offering to help her clean up her house, take her out to dinner or cook for her (find her favorite meals, and have her help you make them?), and generally just spending time with her. When my grandparent died, the thing that helped keep me sane was having a friend with me just as a simple distraction until I could get on a plane. Arranging memorial-type objects for her at her house, or offering to help with cleaning out her daughter's living space may help as well, depending on how close you are with your co-worker (and where her daughter lived). Help her clean out her car and get it washed. 'Stupid' little things like that can really make their day.

That's a terrible situation, and I wish her all the strength she'll probably need.
posted by Heretical at 9:55 PM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: When I have been in your situation, I have gone with "I'm so sorry" and a hug if I know the person is OK with that.

I agree with those above who say it's less about the exact words you use (within reason, obviously) and more about the intention and just acknowledging that a terrible thing has happened.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:59 PM on February 21, 2011

I've never been in this situation, but when I was miscarrying over and over, I learned that "Oh no, I'm so sorry" was incredibly helpful to hear.
posted by KathrynT at 9:59 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do, just ask."

Having lost my mom a few months ago, I can't think of one person who said that that I asked for anything. Not only is there very little anyone can do, I would have felt weird asking anyone but those closest to me for help. It's become a very meaningless phrase, however well intentioned the person delivering it is.

What I appreciated much more were those who were honest and said, "I have no idea what to say, but I am so sorry about your mom."

Also comforting were those that made specific offers of assistance that were appropriate for our relationship. For example, my good friend who asked if they could bring dinner to my house the night of the memorial so I wouldn't be alone. What was uncomfortable were the specific offers that were not appropriate for the relationship, such as friends of my mom who were strangers to me offering to be my stand in mother should I need one (this is an extreme example, but I think illustrates the point).

If I were in your shoes, at the funeral I would say, "I can't tell you how sorry I am about your daughter. There are no words." At work, be there for her. Include her in lunch or breaks, listen without discomfort if she wants to talk about her daughter, keep if professional if that seems to be the easiest way for her to make it through the day.
posted by cecic at 10:01 PM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Think of some better way to say "How are you?" for a while. I know my sister hated that when her husband died. Also, the "long look of pity" and generally much public attention for her private pains, but she also (unsurprisingly) found it offensive when people never offered any kind of condolence.
posted by pynchonesque at 10:14 PM on February 21, 2011

...get her sympathy cards on Mothers Day and the anniversary...

I may have to disagree, depending on the personality of your friend and how close you two are. The last thing I, personally, would want on those days is a tangible reminder. If you do anything (again, if it were me), and you're close enough, hugs and dinner or a drink would be good. YMMV.

The best thing to do is follow everyone else's lead...

Really, I think the best thing to do is follow her lead. If she's completely and totally freaked and sobbing? Just hug her. Don't talk. If she's together and simply dealing, disconnectedly? Look her in the eye and say something to the effect of, "I don't have any words. But I am here, in whatever regard. Really." If she wants to talk? You shut up and listen. (Nthing the comment about anti- "I'm so sorry for your loss." That makes my head all static-y and mad.)

This is so crappy.
posted by functionequalsform at 10:42 PM on February 21, 2011

Best answer: I'm also a believer in making concrete offers of assistance (helping with meals, in particular, but also perhaps some concrete tasks around the office, e.g., "don't worry about running the XYZ report this week, I can cover it") more than an abstract "if there's anything I can do, let me know." The latter is usually (though, I have found to my shock, not always) well-meaning and sincere, but in practical terms it puts the burden on the bereaved person to coordinate help for themselves -- i.e., figure out what they need, then call people to ask them to do it -- which may sound simple enough, but can in fact be overwhelming in times of crisis/grief.

Don't force yourself on her, of course, but if you can find a practical form of assistance to suggest at a specific time, she may appreciate it more than just an abstract "let me know what you need."

And "I'm so sorry" is a fine thing to say. Sometimes it's the only thing to say.
posted by scody at 10:45 PM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In difficult moments, I have appreciated it when people have said something that lets me know that they noticed that person too. Something like "I am so sorry. I remember when your daughter came into work one day, she was so friendly to everyone" - if, of course, you do have any even small moments you can relate.

Just that it can be awful to lose someone that was very important and beautiful to you, and to feel like nobody else notices that the world is different. Those nice memories from other people are nice to hear, even if they are small.
posted by AnnaRat at 10:52 PM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When my sister suffered the death of her fiancee, she always felt hurt when people she knew did not acknowledge it in any way. So perhaps the best thing to do is to acknowledge the loss and say a few words.

Also, my sister found it very comforting to receive cards and letters in the mail.
posted by bearette at 11:21 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm relieved to see that so many other people dislike the increasingly prevalent "I'm sorry for your loss." I know it isn't meant that way, but to me it sounds generic almost to the point of officiousness.

"I'm so sorry about " is better. Or "I'm so sorry," just plain, is fine too.

Also consider what scody and others have said about offering specific, concrete help -- but don't force it if you can't think of anything potentially useful.

You know this, of course, but I'm mentioning this for future readers: the worst thing of all would be just to avoid her and not mention it. You absolutely need to say something.

posted by tangerine at 11:39 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My angle brackets got eaten up there. I meant: "I'm so sorry about Name."
posted by tangerine at 11:40 PM on February 21, 2011

Don't say the sentence "I'm sorry for your loss" - a whole lot of people just can't stand that. It sounds cold and impersonal.

But really, it may have been mentioned, but you care about what you'll say to her much more than she ultimately will. When it comes down to it, dozens and dozens of people have told her some form of "I'm sorry for your loss" and they all sort of run together after a while - so don't fret over it too much.
posted by beyourownsaviour at 12:01 AM on February 22, 2011

in practical terms it puts the burden on the bereaved person to coordinate help for themselves

That's true, but in turn, concrete offers can feel like an imposition. Or can be a way to keep the world turning. But you don't know which. That's why what you say first of all needs no adorning, because it needs no differentiation: you express your sorrow, you avail yourself lightly and abstractly, and what you do afterwards depends entirely upon what can be done.
posted by holgate at 12:18 AM on February 22, 2011

Whatever you say, don't follow it up with standing around silently waiting for some kind of response. When my father died, I had so many people say, "I'm so sorry," and then just stand there and look at me, which made me feel like I had to give some long speech about how I was okay and I appreciated their thoughts, etc. I preferred it most when people would just say, "I've been thinking of you," and then move on to another topic of conversation.
posted by something something at 6:18 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a bereaved parent -- my situation was a bit different because my son, Josh, was born with a condition known as CHARGE syndrome and he passed away before he turned 1.

I did not want anybody to help out with funeral arrangements or anything else related directly to the services I was organizing because it would be the last thing I would ever do for my son. If you feel a strong need to help with this type of stuff then just ask; however I would caution against involvement of this type.

You know what was really great? When people would drop by to give us groceries or home-cooked meals or whatever and then disappear.

As far as what to say: "I'm so sorry for your loss" or any variation on that phrase is just fine. The point is to make it known that you care about the bereaved and feel the loss as well while at the same time not making an ass of yourself. I had plenty of well meaning people tell me things like "Well, at least he's not suffering anymore" which is a concise way of saying "Your child's life sucked; he's better off dead". Just stay away from trying to reason with the situation.

Here's the thing though: you have made it clear that you are a conscientious person, so maybe you can take on another background job. If you know of people that are likely to make the comments I warned of try to instruct them as well. That would be a great way to help without ever having to involve your coworker.
posted by MustardTent at 6:29 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

What everyone said upthread. And, put the date in your calendar, and next year, ask her how she's coping. In fact, check in with her throughout the year, if you're at all close. Grieving the loss of a child is very hard; she will likely be in tough shape for quite a while, but the world will move on, and forget. I thinks it's especially kind to give a grieving person an outlet after the outpouring of sympathy has ended.
posted by theora55 at 7:02 AM on February 22, 2011

Best answer: It's no wonder that people don't know what to say - reading this thread, it has answers all over the map and lots of people are saying NOT to do what others are suggesting that you NEED to do.

The fact is that there is no right answer. Your answer will depend on how well you know the person, what your personality is and what is the personality/desires/needs of your coworker at each moment.

My mother passed away last week, and when I got back from the out-of-town funeral many people in my office came to me and said "I'm so sorry" or "I'm sorry for your loss". I thanked them kindly for the sentiments and we all moved on. Some closer coworkers stayed for a bit after the initial "I'm sorry for your loss" and they asked about her illness and how were the other members of my family - that was appropriate because we had been the type of work friends to talk about our family many times in the past.

Then, one woman who sits nearby but is on a different team and I hadn't ever met her before - she came to my cubicle with tears in her eyes, introduced herself, and told me that her mother had passed away within the past year, so she knows what it's like and she was there for me if I ever needed to talk. I thanked her very much, but really? I'm trying to hold it together at work and I don't need a stranger crying in my office. That was all about HER, not about what I needed.

As long as you make a statement which is appropriate to your level of friendship with this person, I think you'll be okay. And if you really are only "coworkers" and not friends, then just say the minimum.
posted by CathyG at 9:08 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was involved in a similar situation. However, in my situation, I played the role of the best friend of the daughter that passed away. I was never particularly close to the mother of my best friend (who, like the mother in your story, is a single mother and devoted to her daughter), but over the last four years I've seen the mother go through the grieving process.

The most important things I've seen from the mother's coworkers:
* Acknowledging her loss.
* Acting interested and supportive when she brings up her daughter, not awkward/ unsure/ uncomfortable.
* Attending the ceremonies that celebrate her daughter's life. Of course, not everyone has attended, but many people did attend a small ceremony that the mother hosted on the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death. It was a very supportive gesture, and it only took an hour or two of their time. I think that meant a LOT to her.
* ...Or, otherwise marking the anniversary of her daughter's birthday/death through cards, flowers, a day off, etc.
posted by samthemander at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2011

Best answer: After the immediate funeral/memorial services are over, it's really hard for the bereaved to snap back into "normal mode" when their friends and co-workers have moved on. People ask if "there's anything they can do," but it's such a vague offer that it often feels like an imposition to actually ASK for help. Since you're a co-worker is there anything you can do to help lessen her load? Take over an account? Close-up for her, so she can leave early? You know your work environment best, so that's the best place for you to help her out.
Don't feel awkward about showing an "inappropriate" level of concern. If you want to hug her, hug her. If you want to make her lunch one day, do so. This is probably the hardest thing she'll ever deal with, and worrying about being to "nice" to her is absurd. You can be supportive and helpful without patronizing her in any way.
Some of the sweetest, most comforting things after a personal tragedy came from unexpected people. Their support was a huge blessing.
posted by missmary6 at 12:56 PM on February 22, 2011

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