What do you say when someone loses a child?

What is the Right Thing to Say or Do?

Dianne Kemp BA, RN


It seems the current trend is to have an “occasion” for every day or month.  National Taco Day, National Kiss Day, Grandparent’s Day and so on. I am quite sure that much of it is started by Hallmark to sell more cards.  But some of the observations are real and thought-provoking,

That brings me to something I saw while perusing online the other day.  It is National Parent Bereavement Month. That hit a bit too close to my heart.  

We have all heard it said that no parent should bury a child and that is sad and true.  My third child was born on July 22, 1982 and as that date approaches I start to feel the memories return. The memories of the hopes and dreams I had for him.  The anticipation of his birth and the excitement his brother and sister felt (his sister wanted a sister and told me when I called her to tell her she had another brother “put it back and a girl!). The shock and grief of the hours and days after his birth when we learned of his multiple congenital anomalies with no definite diagnosis and the trip when he was three days old to Children’s Hospital of Detroit to leave him there for tests and treatment. We had to enter through the Emergency Room where there were masses of people – even a drunk man sleeping under the nurse’s station.  Matthew’s dad was sent to admitting and I was escorted by a young man to the Neonatal Intensive Care. I had given birth three day prior and I walked carrying Matthew, down multiple hallways into this huge place. The nurses took him from my arms, asked a few questions, and said we must leave as they had admitting work to do with my son. I distinctly remember the feeling of driving away from the massive hospital complex where I had left the baby who was part of me for nine months, with strangers. Heartbreaking. A part of me was missing. Memories of his forty-nine surgeries and the pain of handing him to the nurses each time he went to the operating room.  And memories of that phone call saying he was gone at age twenty-five.

There are so many types of parental bereavement.  Of course, we all think of it as losing a child. But what about the parents who experience a stillbirth or a miscarriage.  Or the parent who has a disabled child, or a child who needs special care due to prematurity?

What do you do? What do you say?

When I had my Matthew, the word traveled fast at the hospital – as I worked there.  Instead of the avalanche of visitors that I had with my second child, no one on the staff came to see me.  When I came home without him (he spent much of his first nine months in the hospital in Detroit), only his grandparents and my best friend came to visit.  I did not receive any cards or gifts.

I understand that people did not know what to do or say.  But I had had a baby – certainly not the baby I anticipated but a baby none the less.  I needed celebration, congratulations, some sense of normalcy.

So, what is the answer.  I am sure it is different in every situation or relationship, but a few suggestions:

For stillbirth or miscarriage:

  • Send a card or note, or flowers
  • Acknowledge the loss – a miscarriage is losing a child
  • Offer assistance, even if the parents seem ok, offer help or take over a meal
  • Do not say the words “you lost the baby” around older siblings. I once had a mom tell me that she found her four-year-old son in the attic trying to find the baby she “lost”.

For a baby who is hospitalized for an extended period after birth:

  • Again, a card or gift.
  • Take a meal
  • Offer to watch other children
  • If baby is far away, offer to drive parents to hospital
  • Celebrate the birth, let parents talk about the experience. If you are a close friend or relative, just listen.

And know that the pain never goes away for those parents who lose a child.  Anniversaries are hard. Just understand and be there.


Dianne Kemp was born in Detroit and moved to Lexington at age 9. She received her Associate Degree in Nursing Science in 1972 from SC4, and a Bachelors in Healthcare Psychology from Graceland College (Iowa) in 1996.
Dianne’s career developed from her love of babies. She was a Maternal Child nurse for 45 years – developing and teaching childbirth and parenting education classes, working as an RN in Mother Baby Care and was the first lactation consultant in the county. She is now volunteering as a chaplain at River District Hospital since losing her vision in her left eye due to a retinal detachment in 2010.
Dianne is the proud mother of three children (one who was disabled and passed away in 2007) and two grandchildren.

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Disclaimer: Blue Water Healthy Living is an online magazine located in Port Huron, Michigan. Our purpose is to promote healthy living by showcasing the Blue Water Area, its people, issues and surroundings. This online magazine is devoted to providing healthy living related stories, local happenings, and commentary. Often inspiring and uplifting, our stories come from our heart and soul to promote the enjoyment of a more fulfilling Blue Water Area lifestyle. The material on this web site is provided for informational and amusement purposes only and is not to be confused with any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and values of Blue Water Healthy Living.

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