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It is quite common to avoid using the word death in the context of discussing someone who died. I think most of us are guilty of it in one context or another. Even as I write these words, I find myself reflecting on the struggle to be upfront and say death instead of some other term. I recall some years ago that R. Maurice Lamm, author of the Jewish Way in Death and Mourning and founder of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice (NIJH), taught about the dangers of skirting around certain topics by using “cleaner” words. The following article highlights this idea in relationship to the recent tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Quit using ‘loss’ when referring to death
By Sue Wintz

People pay their respects at a makeshift shrine to the victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 17, 2012. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES) The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has left all of us wondering how to respond in dealing with our own emotions, reaching out to those who are grieving, and explaining to the children in our lives what happened. There is a wealth of information and advice being presented on news stations, in articles, and across the internet.

The death of any loved one is difficult. The death of a child is excruciating. How do we respond and provide support to someone whose child has died? What can we say, and what can we do?

The first step is to remove the word “loss” from our vocabulary. As a bereaved parent myself, I hate that word. For those of us whose child has died, it can be a slap in the face to use the word “loss” to refer to what we are experiencing. I didn’t lose my child like I’d lose my cell phone or keys. I know exactly where my 17-year-old daughter died as the result of the reckless choice made by a speeding adult who ran a red light right before Christmas in 2003.

So stop referring to death as a “loss.” Euphemisms – using words that sound nicer – aren’t helpful to parents who are trying to absorb the fact that their child has died. While it may feel more comfortable to those of us who are trying to provide support, remember that bereaved parents are not at all comfortable with the reality they are facing.

The use of the word “loss” is also problematic when trying to explain death to a child. Depending on their developmental stage, children may easily more confused by the use of the word. If one is referring to Grandma’s death as a “loss,” the child may literally wonder why someone doesn’t go and find Grandma. Instead, become familiar with the ways in which children best understand death, for example with the materials provided by the Hospice of Southeastern Connecticut and use them as a guideline for your conversations with children and teenagers.

Find meaning is another matter. We know – or at least we should know by now – that clichés do not bring comfort when a grieving parent or family member is in the midst of their sadness and trauma. Don’t use meaningless statements that are intended to explain what happened: “God needed another flower in heaven’s garden,” “It was their time,” “The Lord gave you a gift for a little while” or a multitude of other trite sayings are simply not helpful and often cause more pain than comfort.

What does bring grieving parents and families comfort after the inconsolable death of a child is simply a quiet presence that acknowledges the powerful emotions including sadness, anger, hopelessness, and feeling out of control because one’s world has changed forever. Provide a listening presence, don’t judge the emotions, and offer to do the ordinary things – laundry, answering the phone, cleaning the bathroom, filling the car with gas – that grief makes impossible to do.

Embracing your own spirituality or religious practices, without imposing them on the grieving person can also be helpful. Our family deeply appreciated knowing that prayers were being offered, candles were being lit, and donations were being made to the scholarship fund in our daughter’s memory. What we didn’t find helpful were the persons who told us that they were praying for our daughter’s soul as if it was somehow damaged, or those who wanted to tell us what their understanding was of God’s will for her death. Grieving parents and families may come to a place where they want to have the conversation about why and attempt to find meaning, but the first days and weeks are typically not the time. And when they do, it is essential that the delicate conversation be done with a religious leader or professional chaplain who is trained in responding to grief and trauma.

When faced with tragedies, particularly those that involve the death of a child, all of us want to respond to provide care and support. It’s important that we do. Let’s do it with sensitivity and compassion.

The Rev. Sue Wintz, a board certified chaplain, is managing editor of the online professional chaplaincy journal PlainViews®, a publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy where she is also a consultant for chaplaincy practice.

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