Less than 24 hours after little Tripp Halstead passed away, his mother somehow still managed to be gracious.
We spoke only a minute or so in which time she could only say—through tears—that she and Tripp’s dad, Bill, weren’t talking to others just yet.
It made perfect sense. There are no words.
Tripp, who survived a traumatic brain injury after a tree limb fell on him five years ago, died Thursday evening, about seven hours after Stacy Halstead noticed the 7-year-old was struggling to breathe and rushed him to the hospital.
When we spoke last, Stacy Halstead said that without even looking at the calendar, she could still feel the stress of that October day.
“I let myself cry for what happened to him, for all the suffering he went through,” she said.
By evening, though, her sadness always dissolved into joy. That’s when family and friends arrived to celebrate Tripp’s life.
I didn’t know what to say then, and I didn’t know what to say to her when we spoke early Friday.
Joan Markwell, a Kentucky mother who lost an adult daughter to cancer in 2013 and author of “Softening the Grief,” told me that no one really knows. The thing is words aren’t mandatory.
Membership into what she calls the secret society, however, is.
“It’s without choice, and we become lifetime members,” Markwell said.
Death is a fact that none of us is able to escape. Losing a child, she said, is the deepest, rawest pain that anyone can live through.
“It’s something that we carry everywhere,” she said. “It engulfs our hearts, minds and souls. Until you’ve experienced it, there is no way to explain it, and there is no way for others to understand.”
In the coming days and weeks, Markwell said people will show up with casseroles and drinks. That’s good for a time—a time to celebrate Tripp’s life. What the Halsteads will need in the long term, though, is our presence and our words of compassion.
You don’t have to have something planned to say, she said. Be sincere. Be sympathetic. And be sensitive.
“It’s best to take a step back and choose your words carefully,” Markwell said.
To avoid awkward situations when talking to grieving parents, she suggested we avoid these common phrases:
You are so strong.
“In reality, we are exhausted from trying to look strong,” she said. “Try this instead: “I know it’s hard to be strong right now. I’m here for you to lean on anytime. I have an open heart and time to listen.”
Be glad you have other children.
“We may have other children, but they cannot replace the child we’ve lost. Try this instead: “No child is replaceable, but I hope having your surviving children around you helps in easing the pain of your loss.”
You’re not the first mother who has lost a child.
“Yes, but this is the first time I’ve lost my child. Try this instead: “I know mothers who have lost children and how much they grieved. That has made me aware of what a fight this is for you. You will continue to be in my thoughts.”
My child almost died; I know how you feel.
“If you said this, you only had a clue about how it might feel to lose a child. Try this instead: “My child had a close brush with death, which was terrifying enough. There can be no comparison to actually losing a child.”
Time heals all wounds.
“In time, the mind covers wounds with scar tissue and pain lessens. But it’s never gone. Try this instead: “I hope in time your pain and grief will soften. Knowing it will take time, I stand beside you for the long haul.”
Everything happens for a reason.
“There is never a good enough reason as to why our children were taken. Try this instead: “It goes beyond reason for any child to be taken from a parent. There was certainly no good reason to lose yours.”
Tripp Halstead’s mother, Stacy Halstead, announced on Facebook her son’s funeral service will be Sunday at the Jefferson Civic Center. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and the service will be held at 7 p.m.