Chaplain: Quit using ‘loss’ when referring to death

AFP/GETTY IMAGES People pay their respects at a makeshift shrine to the victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, … Continued


People pay their respects at a makeshift shrine to the victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 17, 2012.

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.

View Photo Gallery: President Obama visited Newtown, Conn., on Sunday to meet family members of those killed in Friday’s shooting rampage, carrying out the awful rituals tied to mass death and national grief for his fourth time in just four years as president.

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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* Huckabee: Sandy Hook shooting not surprising after God ‘removed from our schools’

* Pace: Comfort the grieving

* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope

* Quinn: Where was God?

* Kaur: Journey from Oak Creek to Newtown

* Hirschfield: In wake of Newtown massacre, love more important than explanations

* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting

* Md. pastors were searching for solutions even before mass shooting

* Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shocks a nation

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  • Joya Hunter

    Thank you dear Chaplain Sue for sharing your wisdom and your experience and mostly, ^Sarah^, your heart.

  • PhillyJimi1

    What an non-issue here. The author does exactly what she is accusing the people who substitute the word death with loss. The issue is a mentally challenged person had easy access to firearms and murder 28 people including 20 children in cold blood.

    Having someone use the word loss rather then death or murder is so far off the radar. This is the kind of article, that is an attempt to soften the reality of the nightmare by creating a silly side issue to focus on because the reality is so ugly. No one using the word “Loss” is suggesting that a child can get lost like some keys.

  • Nancy James

    I appreciate the information offered here. Most of us do not know what to say or do to help someone who is grieving. “Presence” is so important. It was for me after my Mother died. People were present. It was a sharing of grief. I appreciated that so much. Thank you for the article.


    Another favorite is, “They’re in a better place now.”

    No, they’re dead. Because that is how reality is. Everything dies and nothing ever comes back. The skin of our planet is covered in 3.5 billion years worth of corpses.

  • Jane Iddings

    Thank you for your very thoughtful piece.

    We live in a culture that just cannot accept the nature cycle of life and death, whether it happens naturally or from a horrible tragedy such as you suffered, and now the Newtown families suffer, and we collectively suffer.

    I would add this to your helpful comments: write a note in which you relate how much the person meant to you, or a funny or endearing story that eases the grief. Most of these notes will be saved and read later on when the lonely days begin. Be generous with your words and thoughts. They may be all there is to hold on to in the moment.

    Again, thank you for your helpful and thoughtful piece.

  • DESI6N

    The madman did not create little angels in heaven with his bullets and his guns – he took the only life these children would ever know. They are dead and in caskets not somewhere over the rainbow. Someday humans will realize that consiousness does not survive death and that will make our only life that much more precious. A god didn’t call them home – a mentally ill person killed them.

  • ThomasBaum

    You wrote, “Someday humans will realize that consiousness does not survive death and that will make our only life that much more precious.”

    Just how will humans be able to realize that consciousness does not survive death is as you say consciousness does not survive death?

    Also, how would life having a meaning beyond this very temporary stay on this planet be less precious than this life being merely a dead end at death?


    How do you know that I’m not 500 feet tall and bright purple, with M-1 Abrams tanks for feet?

  • edbyronadams

    “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.”

    I absolutely agree but feel that I must point out that the use of the word “loss” is entirely appropriate in this context. I realize that the word can be used for something as prosaic as misplaced keys but the limitations of the language are not something that every individual can be made accountable for.

    No matter what your spiritual beliefs, loved ones who have died are suffering no longer. It is the living that are suffering and it is from the loss of someone dear in their lives.

  • ThomasBaum

    I don’t know one way or the other, is this the way that you perceive yourself?

    As I have said before, I do not “know” much but I do know a little.

    But as far as the statement, “Someday humans will realize that consiousness does not survive death”, how could humans possibly “realize” this if in fact consciousness would not survive physical death?

    Think about it.

    If in fact consciousness survived physical death than that is something that can be realized but if it would not survive physical death than it is unrealizable.

  • malusk03

    Epictetus was here first:
    Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel. (Enchiridion 11)

  • brandontw77

    Thank you for a very thoughtful, touching piece. I have 2 friends who each ‘lost’ parents to suicide, of all things. The senselessness and disorientation they felt in their grief were not ‘lost’ on me; I made a point to be as close to them as I could and ask questions when they could talk or just be around when they couldn’t. And ‘get lost’ when they needed it. Sometimes, just being there and/or doing ‘normal’ things (or helping out with ‘normal’, but insurmountable tedium, such as chores) can be a huge help, even if seemingly small of gesture.

    There’s never a perfect way to sympathize or empathize with someone who has ‘lost’ a loved one prematurely. Auto accidents, shootings, sporting accidents, disease – they all rob us of the time that we assumed, perhaps through naivete or dumb hope, we’d have with those taken. Premature and senseless death is an awful thing, and if one’s never experienced this in their family or network of friends, one should count themselves among the truly fortunate.

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