How to talk with grieving parents

(This is a sidebar in a four-part series that was published in the Charlotte Observer from Nov. 14-17, 2010.)

People who haven't lost a baby may have trouble knowing what to say to grieving parents.

"As a society, we all struggle with talking about death, " said Pam Mange, manager of Kids Path, the pediatric program for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region. "You don't always know the right thing to say. As long as you let them know that you care, that's OK."

Grief is different for everyone, but even more complicated for parents who don't have a chance to get to know their child.

"You can sit around and tell stories about grandma ... and that's acceptable, " Mange said. "But to talk about an infant that didn't live very long, there's not that generational memory ...

"It's especially important when a baby is born with a physical deformity to provide that family with love and support and help them see that baby for the beautiful baby that she or he is."

Mange suggested trying to "normalize" the experience. If the baby has a deformity, focus on something else. "You can say 'She's got the prettiest fingers. Look at her little toes.' "

One way to help is to mention the baby by name and remember the baby's birthday as years pass, Mange said. "Don't avoid bringing up the baby."

Talking points

DON'T say:

"I know how you feel."

"You'll get over it."

"It's for the best."

"You can always have another baby."

DO say:

"I'm thinking of you."

"I care about you."

"I don't know what to say."

Use Caution:

"It was God's will" might be appropriate in some cases. But even parents with a strong faith in God say the sentiment isn't comforting when a loss is fresh. Make sure you know the bereaved person well enough to know whether it will be comforting.

Sources: Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region; Shannon and Kip Brooks; Be Not Afraid.