Saturday, May 29, 2010

What do I say to a Gold Star Mom/Dad?

Deborah Tainsh
Deborah is the author of Heart of a Hawk, her family's journey after the death of their son, and Surviving the Folded Flag, a collection of Gold Star families' stories.

As mentioned in the review above, Surviving the Folded Flag, Deborah Tainsh's latest book, does have a section with commonsense, helpful advice for those who are uncomfortable, and don't know how to talk with a Gold Star Family member.

Deb calls it the "Do's and Don't's," and has given me permission to share them here:

Please don’t ask a member of a grieving family: “Was Johnny saved?”

Saved from what? Yes, I know what you’re referring to, but consider this:

Oh, you mean that the Great God & Creator of this Universe is so vindictive that if Johnnny didn’t make a certain confession, because maybe he was Jewish, he is lost for all of eternity although Johnny’s MOTHER or FATHER learns that their child, the light of their life, was so fried in an exploding burning humvee that all his mother or father can hold upon his return is the empty uniform laying inside a casket? And to add pain on pain and confusion of life on earth, Johnny’s mother or father have to have more than one burial because a few body parts are finally found and determined to be remains of the “light of their life?”

Yes, this is real life for in living color for some of us. Such a death and MOTHER’s misery is told in my book, Surviving the Folded Flag. Such a question has been asked of me more than once.

If a Mother can love the child of her womb and life with such a love as no other can know or understand does not God the Father, who owned all our children before he loaned them to us, love them even greater?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. --1 Corinthians 13:4-5

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. --Colossians 3:12

Romans 5:19:For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

New American Standard Colossians: 1:20

and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross ; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Praise God and His Son, the one who died for us all!

Please don’t say: “Johnny is in a better place.”

A grieving mother or father cannot accept or comprehend such words. We wanted our child with us to keep hugging, shopping for, watch become the mature adult they would be, give us grandchildren, more laughter and stories, and hold our hand when we aged. Our children were our heaven on earth.

We would die for our children (as God through Christ died for us)

David’s grief over Absalom:

2 Samuel 18:33

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Job 17:7 My eyes have grown dim with grief; my whole frame is but a shadow.

Please don’t say “It was God’s plan”

We are human beings that are hurt to the point of near incapacitation. Our dad in heaven has let us down and denied us our greatest treasure to return home walking and talking. We are angry at the universe!

We have to find our own way back to accepting God’s love and “our forgiving Him!”

Please don’t think that because we return to church with a “fake smile” that we are “okay”. We’re struggling to return to the “old norm” that will never happen, but we have to learn this on our own and how to gradually move into our “new norm” and live with it.

So please don’t ask: “How are you doing today?” Unless you’re ready to be a sounding block and share some tears without need of your saying a word, or be prepared for a “lie” because we fear you don’t really want the truth anyway.

Please don’t say: “You seem to be still grieving so hard and it’s been over a year” because your view of time and what “passing time” is suppose to do is your perception, not our reality.

Through experience and watching hundreds of others’ journeys, grief is usually worse the 2nd year because during the first year we’ve been walking in a dense fog and by the end of the first year all the “local support” has returned to their own lives in their norm and we are facing our reality, “THIS IS REAL” and “I’ve got to come out of hiding” and I still don’t know what to do with this “burden”, a song, a story, a tv show, etc, etc, etc makes me cry and cry and cry…those around us don’t understand, often not even our own parents. It takes years to adjust and find our path that often means a great change in some relationships.

Please don’t ask how Johnny or Sally died…

A family suffering a death by suicide, drugs, etc carry a heightened level of grief ,stress and anxiety out of pure fear of judgment by others.

Question to you: How would you comfort a family member who suffered such tragedy?


Please don’t say: “Time heals.”

As an expert in the grief field said to a group in a grief peer mentor training class:

“Time Passes!” It doesn’t do anything! It’s what we learn to do with the time that helps us travel the path of a healthy grief process!”

We have to find how to convert anger and frustration into activities that become meaningful such as creating living legacies to our children or through our own pain, help others. This all takes TIME to develop because our mental and physical being is dealing with great trauma.

Don’t say: “You’re not alone. God is always with you.”

When we are angry, frustrated, confused in our faith and searching for answers that it takes us a while to understand that we’ll not get on this side of heaven, WE DO NOT BELIEVE GOD IS WITH US. WE CAN’T TOUCH HIM, HUG HIM, FEEL HIS HUG. WE FEEL ALONE except for maybe the person strong and compassionate enough to be with us and show us often through silence, and patience that GOD IS STILL AROUND because YOU allowed God to use you to show HIS patience and love through our most horrific time on earth!

Personally, when I see others walk the walk (not talk), I know GOD is REAL!

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. --Colossians 3:12


Don’t look away from us or take an alternate church or grocery aisle.

Okay, you don’t want to say the wrong thing! We get it!

You don’t know what to say! We get it!

Say nothing! Just smile, sincerely. Ask if you can give us a hug. Ask can you come help us do the laundry, mop the floors, wash the windows, clean the toilets, cut the grass, weed the flower bed, plant some flowers, take us for dinner, sit on the porch and drink a favorite beverage…BUT MEAN IT! DON’T BE A BAG OF EMPTY WORDS AND BROKEN PROMISES!

Don’t be afraid of tears! Care enough to share them! Care enough to sit in silence and just be there! Pelagius (410A.D.) “The Christian should heroic fortitude like Job. And should have compassion, should “feel the pain of others as if it were their own, and be moved to tears by the grief of others.”

If you know a story about our deceased loved one, just ask: “Would you mind if I share a story about your son (or daughter) with you?” Stories are all we have left! They are gifts!

Ask: “Would you mind if I hold your hands and say a prayer for peace of heart, strength, and courage for you and your family?”

Don’t say: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” As one mom said, “There was nothing sorry about my son. We’re proud of his service to our country.” Or another mom who said: “You don’t have to be sorry, we’re so very proud of him.” (The reason some of us don’t like the words, “I’m sorry…” is because with military war deaths, the debate about the right or wrong of the war seems to instantly have some individuals want to pity us because the death was by war THEY didn’t believe in…Well, it’s not about what they believe in, but what they don’t know about what a military family may or may not believe in.

Better to Say: “I can’t imagine the pain you are suffering. I know there’s nothing I can say or do to make it better, but I want you to know I care.”

Please don’t try to empathize through sharing the loss of a parent, spouse, etc…each person’s grief is their own individual experience. Unless you’ve experienced the death of a child, don’t try to convince the grieving that you “understand” because of your personal losses.

Don’t ask: “Do you have other children?” or say “At least you have another son…”

As one mom said: “Consider a car. It has four tires, if one goes flat, you’re temporarily incapacitated until you replace the flat tire and go on your merry way. We are not cars. Our deceased child cannot be replaced by any other one and we will never live the same again. The loss is debilitating and crippling in ways unexplainable and will, even if only in small ways, be so the rest of our lives.”

And last but not least :

Do you know what the Blue Star and Gold Star Service Flags and symbols represent?

Parents with their Gold Star magnets or license plates on their car have been asked:

“What did you do to deserve that Gold Star?”

“Is there a Colonel living at your house?”

“Does that mean you won teacher of the year?”

“What’s that all about?”

“Did you win an award of some kind?”

Deb is a public speaker and what I have shared above forms the basis of some of her speeches.

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