What not to say to a grieving parent

Alby, left, with siblings Acre and Sage.
Alby, left, with siblings Acre and Sage. Photo: Instagram/The Small Folk

When Alby Davis, a beautiful little boy, just days away from his fourth birthday, died suddenly in his mother's arms after choking on a bouncy ball, there was an outpouring of grief and heartbreak.

In the days after his death, the community rallied around Alby's grieving parents Anna and Simon Davis, raising money to help ease their financial burden. As the donations poured in however, and thousands left messages of love and condolence on Mrs Davis' Instagram account, the grief-stricken mother was forced to address a number of "ignorant, hurtful and incorrect" assumptions and comments about her little one's death.

At 25 weeks pregnant, and experiencing a pain no parent should have to endure, Mrs Davis clarified that she was close by her son when the accident happened, ("Why wasn't he being supervised?), that the ball was larger than the 50c piece size recommendation for toys ("Why was he playing with something so small anyway?"), and that she attempted CPR before he died (Didn't she try to save him?)

Alby with his mother, Anna Davis.
Alby with his mother, Anna Davis. Photo: Instagram

Comments such as the ones above, left on articles about Alby's death, make strong judgements about the Davis family. But other comments, although not directly judgmental, still have the potential to cause immense pain to bereaved parents, coping with grief after a tragedy. 

Our instinct in such tragic circumstances, is often to reiterate how important it is to "never take our eyes" off our kids. And while it's a well-intentioned acknowledgement that accidents do happen - and can happen to anyone - it can also make the hurtful implication that the grief stricken parents were somehow neglectful or inattentive.

Sarah Wayland, grief expert and academic at UTS , has worked in the grief and trauma sector for the last 14 years and has met countless families managing the sudden and traumatic loss of family members - including their young children. When it comes to tragic accidents and misadventure, Ms Wayland notes that it's easy to be an armchair critic and to identify what you would have done differently.

"Maybe you feel you would have parented differently, run your house differently, but we can never place ourselves in the shoes of others," she says, adding that "shoulds" or "I would haves" are never helpful.

"The reality is, the event has occurred," says Ms Wayland. "We need to approach how we respond with compassion and respect. No one plans for tragedies to occur - but surrounding the family practically, emotionally or spiritually in the short or long term helps parents to keep moving forwards."

As well as responding with respect and compassion, what else can family and friends do to support a loved one dealing with the loss of a child after a tragic accident?

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Ms Wayland says it's important for the community to know that when a tragic loss occurs there is no rule book as to how the family, the friends and the broader community should respond to that loss.

"Families have shared with me that they want opportunities to share the raw and catastrophic grief they experience, they want to feel okay to respond however they are on the day," she says, adding that grief doesn't look the same hour by hour.

"The loss might not be characterised by tears all of the time," Ms Wayland says. "There might be space for smiles, remembering, laughter, anxiety, trauma and grief."

As such, she counsels that it's important not to judge how you think a parent should look. "Just be aware that grief reactions are not always conveyed by what a person's facial expressions are," Ms Wayland explains.

As time passes, she notes, parents want to have both their loss, as well memories of their child, acknowledged.

"Some families have shared with me that they feel that people tend to go out of their way to avoid them because they represent the greatest fear many of us would have, in terms of the fact that their child was lost in tragic circumstances," she says. But it's during these times, she explains, that the community needs to be brave and face up to the fact that bad things do sometimes happen to good people.

"Reach out to parents, say the name of the child who is no longer here and create a space for them to feel the love," Ms Wayland says.