It's a compulsion. Humans feel like they have to say something empathetic and even healing. We mean well. But what can you possibly say to a parent who has lost a child? Here are a few things I hope I never hear again.
"How are you doing?" The real answer is usually depressing, sometimes scary, and always several minutes long. It also changes by the moment. So you're forcing me to either lie to you or begin an interminable and miserable monologue. Either way, everyone is about to feel a lot worse.
Any iteration of "getting through it." "Are you getting through it?" "You'll get through it." "You and your wife will get through it together." Losing a child isn't like catching the flu. It's more like being in a horrible disfiguring car crash. You don't get through it; you learn to carry it along with you.
"I know what you're going through because I had a miscarriage." I am sure miscarriages are traumatic, tragic events. So is watching a child you have nurtured and fed and grown to love die in your arms. One experience doesn't teach you much about the other.
"I think about you constantly." Parents who have lost a child have a surplus of guilt running around in their bloodstream. We feel guilty for being unable to protect our children, for living on after they die, for forcing them through medical procedures that prolonged their suffering, and for having them in the first place. If you say something that sounds like, "You made me miserable too," you're asking for it.
"You're so strong. I can't believe how well you're holding up." There are two options here. Either the parent really is doing well, and you've made him or her feel like an amoral monster. Or the parent is working hard to hide enormous amounts of pain, and probably doesn't want a compliment on his or her acting ability.
"Your babies are with God now." At this point, the devout are either questioning God's existence or hating Him outright. And the atheists are either questioning God's nonexistence or hating the fact they'll never see their babies again. Your opinion on the afterlife is meaningless and presumptuous and sort of offensive. I don't want my babies to be with God. I want them back here with me.
"That really puts things in perspective." Volunteering at a soup kitchen puts things in perspective. Watching a child die takes the natural order of the universe, crumples it up, and spits on it.
"Let me know how I can help." A parent who has lost a child is unlikely to have the time or energy to create to-do lists for you. Much better is the person who calls and states, "I am bringing you dinner on Wednesday, so don't cook anything. If you forget, that's cool, because I'll make something freezable." The first person created a hassle. The second person solved one.
What else can you say? For me, "I'm sorry" works well. It's simple. It's sympathetic. And best of all, it's true. If you feel that's not enough, try adding extra words. Like, "I am so very sorry for your loss."
And if you can, add "I love you." Love is more important and powerful than most people suspect. It won't bring back my girls, but it makes life without them a bit less meaningless.
[Ed. - This is one of several posts about death that I've written over the past six months. Some of them, like "Life in twilight" and "Swimming with shadows," have been published here. Others will probably leak out over the next year or so. Others will probably never see the light of day. I hope someone finds something useful.]