The funerals last week in Newtown raised this question for many: How do we comfort parents who have lost a child?
I draw here upon the 2,500 condolence messages I received and the numerous acts of kindness of which I was the beneficiary in the months after my son's death in a car crash in 2006.
The first step is to recognize and accept that the despair and shock is probably, for now, impenetrable. The unfortunate reality is that for weeks if not months, these parents will likely be inconsolable. They are currently taking the measure of their loss, trying to arrest the sensation of falling, seeking the bottom. Pleas that they turn their attention to healing will be misplaced. It will take time for them to stabilize, and only then can anything resembling recovery begin.
As to actual words of condolence, the critical lesson is to send positive remembrances, not reminders of the magnitude of the loss. The best condolence is a happy recollection of the child who has passed away, with one previously unknown to the parent being the very best. On the other hand, condolences that say, in words or effect, "You have suffered life's greatest loss" miss the mark. Similarly, "I can't imagine your pain" will translate as, "This is too difficult for me to think about." Few can realistically say, "I know what you are going through," so avoid that claim. Better to just compliment the child now gone and the parent's loving care.
When trying to comfort, it is also important to consider degrees of separation and to be wary of electronic communication. Mark Twain famously said, "Where a blood relation sobs, an intimate friend should choke up, and acquaintance should sigh, and a stranger should merely fumble with his handkerchief." Don't sigh when you should sob, and don't send an email when your outreach should be in person or handwritten. Condolence on a Facebook Wall or in a Tweet is risky. Emails and texts present as avoidance of face-to-face contact. Facebook posts are a public display of what probably should be private; they are communications not with the parent but with the page's audience, which misdirects the message.
For those in grief, time slows down, because their fondest wish is to turn back the clock. Electronic messages, however, convey multi-tasking where individual, heartfelt contemplation is essential. And needless to say (hopefully), the abbreviations, lack of grammar and pervasive flippancy of emails and texts have no place in communicating sympathy.
Otherwise, consider the opportunities that are always present in conveying sympathy: A parent's loss may be an opportunity to repair a frayed relationship. If your relationship is close enough that condolence should not be a one-off event, mark your calendar with the birthdays and anniversaries of the child and the parent, and follow up then.
If words are just not your comfort zone, don't neglect what I came to call condolence-by-casserole. Those burdened by sorrow need to be relieved of chores such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, errands, repairs.
Finally: Listen. Most people in pain actually want to talk, even if they give a contrary impression. Draw them out. Ask how they are doing and, within reason, don't take evasion as an answer.
On Dec. 9, The Compassionate Friends, the worldwide organization for parents who have lost a child, held its annual candle-lighting event. We lit a candle. When I heard about Newtown just days later, I thought of the scene in the movie "Forrest Gump" where Forrest's girlfriend Jenny confronts the dilapidated home where she was raised by an abusive father. She tries to vent her anger by hurling rocks at the house until she collapses, realizing that she is accomplishing nothing. Tom Hanks observes, "Sometimes, there just aren't enough rocks." What I thought on that Friday was, "Sometimes, there just aren't enough candles."
We may never have enough candles for Newtown, so in this tragedy we need to look for opportunities. Among them is reflecting on how best to comfort parents who are recoiling, with words that may eventually help them experience a dawn of redeeming grace.
Tim Hollister of Bloomfield publishes a national blog for parents of teen drivers, http://www.fromreidsdad.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now