Heather Gray

Flawed...but loved anyway.

header photo

An Open Letter to Grieving Parents


In October 2014, I was allowed the privilege of speaking at the Day of Remembrance for a local hospital – the hospital at which my daughter spent so many months.  The Day of Remembrance is a time to remember those children who we've lost, to celebrate their lives to the best of our ability, and to encourage the surviving family members as much as is humanly possible in the midst of such grief.

This is the speech I delivered that day – minus a few personal items I wasn't comfortable putting out there on the world wide web – and I'd like it to serve as an open letter to any grieving parent who happens to stop by this site.  Grief is uncomfortable, ugly, and messy – and sometimes we can feel terribly alone.  Nobody is by themselves on this journey, though, if we pull together to support, uplift, encourage, and pray for one another.


Heather Gray


§   §   §

Grief is individual.  It took me a while to figure that out.  I resented my husband in the early months after our daughter's death.  He wore his grief publicly, and I wore mine privately.  Because of that, there were times when he didn't seem to understand that I grieved just as much as he did, and it was easy for me to hold that against him.  I eventually realized, though, that no two griefs look the same.  You were forced to say goodbye to a one-of-a-kind child.  There is nobody else in this world quite like your son or daughter, and your relationship reflects both their special personality and the unique bond you shared with them.  It only makes sense that your grief would be as distinctive as that relationship.  Whether it's with your spouse or other family members - try to extend grace to one another, to forgive each other for the perceived insults and injuries that will come up as you and those close to you each make your way through this minefield of grief.


You may discover, too, that you lose friends as you struggle with the loss of your child.  Some people will fall away because they don't know what to do or say, so they choose absence and silence.  Others may find it too painful to face you because you are a reminder of their own children's mortality, a reminder of what every parent fears the most.  Whatever the reason, there will be people who fade into the background and that you never hear from again.  But there will be other friends, too – those who don't shy away from your grief, who are comfortable letting you talk about your child, and who are willing to laugh and cry with you as you do so.  Embrace those friends and hold them close.  Having them in your life will help you find equilibrium.  They will help you to bridge that space between the pain of your loss and the "business" of living.


There are a couple of questions that every grieving parent asks.  One of those questions is: "What if?".  I'm here to tell you that therein lies the way to self-destruction.  We can spin ourselves in circles asking what-if questions.  What if I'd insisted on another CT scan?  What if I'd gotten a second opinion?  What if I'd noticed the problem sooner?  What if I'd made that one decision that could have changed everything...and saved my child's life…?

"What if" is a brutal question, and it can tear you apart from the inside out.  So I'm here to tell you: put it aside.  Let go of the guilt and the what ifs.  You did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time.  Nobody could have asked more of you.  Hindsight always makes it easier to see the things that could have been handled differently – those decisions that might have led to a different outcome.  But you didn't go into this with hindsight.  Whether it was illness, an accident, or genetics – when your son or daughter needed medical attention, you didn't know everything you know now.  You did the best you could.  You made every decision out of love for your child, and that's all anyone could have ever asked of you.

Forgive yourself for not asking the questions you now wish you'd asked.  And for the choices you look back and think you should have made differently.  Let the guilt go, and put those what-if questions behind you.  Forgive yourself for all the things you didn't know.


I've found – through my own experience and by talking with others - that grief isn't a stop on the side of the road.  It's something that travels with you as you go through life.  It looks different at different times.  There are moments when it appears in bold colors that demand your attention and moments when it looks faded like an old photograph.  It won't always be the first thing on your mind when you wake up, and it won't always be the lingering memory as you fade off to sleep.  I've come to believe that grief never entirely goes away, but as time passes, it will dominate fewer of your thoughts and less of your time.

The day will come when you find yourself laughing so hard at something that you have to catch your breath, and you'll realize, "Oh – I haven't laughed like that since…oh."

However long it takes to get there – be it months or years – the moment will be bittersweet.  It will remind you of all that you lost, but it will also remind you that you are healing.  For me, that moment took over two years to come, but remember what I said at the beginning.  Grief is individual.  You can't judge where you're at by looking at other people.  Allow yourself the time you need.  Just know that there's hope.  You will get through this, and the laughter will come again.


I didn't start this speech by telling you about my daughter because I was afraid that if I started there, I wouldn't be able to make it to here.  So now that I'm here, I'll tell you a little bit about her.  My daughter was the happiest child I've ever known.  She was a ray of light to everyone she met.  She always had a hug and a smile for anyone who looked like they needed it.  She loved to laugh, had a loving and nurturing spirit, and always found a way to encourage those around her.

About a month after her ninth birthday, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Surgery went well.  She regained consciousness and was walking, talking, eating, and being herself.  Then the complications started, and there were a lot of complications.  She developed an infection in her brain, suffered several strokes, and began reacting to medications she shouldn't have reacted to.  Because she'd been a spectacularly healthy child for her entire life, the cause of her problems was difficult to uncover.  Her immune system had more or less shut down, allowing infection to run rampant and leading to the many reactions she had to different medications.  We spent five months in the hospital fighting for her life.  Each day brought a new battle.  By the time we were able to take her home, she needed around the clock care.  We never stopped praying and hoping for a miracle, but we knew that unless God intervened, the chances of our daughter surviving to her tenth birthday were slim.  Less than a month after we brought her home, she slipped away from us.  Her father and I were with her.  We stood on either side of her bed, each holding a hand.  As our daughter left this world, she did so to the sound of us telling her how much we loved her, what a privilege it was to be her parents, that she was one of the two greatest blessings God had ever given us, and that we would see her again but that she'd be okay until we got there.


One of the things I was asked to address is where I am with my grief today.

I'll be honest with you.  For every day that I felt I was ready to stand up here and speak to you, there were at least five days when I was certain I wouldn't be able to get through it.  There are still things that catch me by surprise – a glimpse of a child with curly hair, a commercial that features a mother and daughter, certain songs on the radio, any child that's frightened   there are still those things that grab ahold of me and throw me right back into the early days of my grief when the pain was almost unbearable.  And even though I know I won't ever find an answer that makes it hurt less, I still sometimes grapple with why.  So where am I with my grief today?  I'm here.  I'm still hurting.  I would still give anything to wrap my arms around my little girl again, but I'm here.  I'm moving forward.  And I'm living each day – to the best of my ability – in a way that will make my son proud and honor my daughter's memory. 


There's one final thing I want to share with you.

My daughter was part of a youth bowling team, and one of the gentlemen at the bowling alley had special bracelets made for her team after she passed away.  They were pink – her favorite color – and they had her name and the years of her birth and death on them.  He knew our daughter because…well, because everyone knew her.  She'd never met a stranger.  I wanted to thank him when he gave the bracelets to her team, but I couldn't.  Those first several months were hard.  I couldn't even say her name w/out choking on the grief.

Several months later, I was at the bowling alley with my son.  I was standing in line at the concession stand getting my all-important coffee.  I looked over, and this same gentleman was standing behind me.  I found my voice enough to thank him for the bracelets.  He looked into my eyes and said, "I just wanted you to know how much she mattered to all of us."

Without knowing it, he spoke directly to my heart's biggest fear.  I was terrified that people would forget my daughter.  That everyone else in the world would move on, and I would be left alone, the only one to remember, love, and miss her.  Her life was cut short, her unlimited potential never realized.  She would never get a chance to make her mark on the world, and because of that, the day would come when nobody would care enough to want to remember her with me.  That fear was so big inside of me that I hadn't even figured out how to face it yet.

But that day in the bowling alley, as that gentleman looked at me with such earnestness, I realized something.  So just in case you don't already know this, let me tell you:  Your child mattered.  Your sons and daughters, they made a difference in this world.  They touched the lives of everyone they came into contact with.  Whether they were in this world for eighteen years or eight days, they've left behind an indelible imprint on the people they met – you, your family, friends and people from school, not to mention everyone here at the hospital who ever had the privilege of walking into their room.  Your sons and daughters touched hearts and changed lives, and this world is a better place for having known them.  Let this sink into your soul for a minute:  Your child mattered.  Your sons and daughters – they made a difference in the lives of the people honored enough to have met them.  They truly mattered.


Go Back

Hi Heather

Thank you for sharing An Open Letter to Grieving Parents with us. I respect you for taking the courage to share this personal story from your life.

I believe many can learn from your experiences on how to reach to sorrow in life just as you describe with you and your husband.

You’re right; grief is different for each of us.

Question: May I ask if you experienced losing friends after this because they, as you say, don’t know what to say or do?

I like your point about stop asking ”what if” – it’s something I struggle with as well in other areas of life, but the more I practice, the better I get at putting it aside.

My favourite part of your blog post was where you describe your daughter + the bowling part.

Beautiful description.

We who have not experienced such a loss don’t know what to say, but I was touched while reading your story and I got educated about the variety of life.

God bless,
Edna Davidsen

PS: Will share this post on my social networks so my readers can learn from it.

Thank you for sharing. We lost our youngest child a month after she turned eight, her golden birthday. MaryAshlee was in need of a heart transplant and we remained in hospital for the last three months of her precious, sweet life. Your open letter touched my heart. Thank you.

This is the most comprehensive thing I have EVER read about the death of a beloved child! My son was 45 yrs. old when he passed away from lung cancer. He was diagnosed when the cancer was already at Stage 4! He died 25 mos. later! He had MANY MANY good days but MANY MANY super sick days too!
Unfortunately we were not able to be at his bedside in the hospital when he died but both of his sisters and his dad were there! He was right with the Lord before he died and the Nurses were amazed at how peacefully he died. They said they had NEVER seen any one with his type of cancer pass on so peacefully! WE know the reason! He as ushered into the arms of Jesus and he had an opportunity to bid us all "good-bye". I was able to say my good byes on the phone!
That was 5 years ago on a "Mother's Day"! Every time I think of him now I think of how blessed he is and how blessed we are too that he is SOOOO incredibly happy and will never know a day of sadness ever again.
He was a gifted cabinet maker and I can picture him making gorgeous furniture for all the homes in Heaven waiting for us. He is also playing the piano and singing! PRAISE THE LORD!!!
God bless EVERY family that has lost a child! Imagine the joy we will have SOME DAY!!!

Okay, so I'm not going to lie. This post terrifies me, and is a blessing all in one. You see, I have a child diagnosed with a brain tumor. This fight has been going on for two years. She had clean scans, only for it to return a couple months later and metastasize to multiple locations down her spine. We're praying for that same miracle too.

Thank you Heather for sharing these beautiful words! I believe your open honesty will bring encouragement to many hearts. God bless you and your family.

Beautifully expressed with love. Thank you for sharing.

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.