It takes an hour to get there.  One bus, two different subway trains, one street tram: I try never to make so many connections but the cemetery is as far away from the city center as you can get without entering the countryside.  I can see why Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof is a tourist destination.   It’s massive, it holds the graves of loads of famous folks, the Jugenstil cathedral is divine.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve visited the cemetery just to take pictures, wander around, act like a tourist, completely carefree.

Today the trip is made with intent. I can’t get over something I’ve heard my mom say every time she hears of a child dying: “A parent should never have to bury their child.”  I agree.

The hall where the funeral is to be held is small, narrow, cold.  The ceilings are high, the stone is hard, white.  I sign my name, wishing that sick kids had not kept the rest of my family at home.  And yet simultaneously grateful that the reminder of my abundance is not here.

The first thing I notice in the room is the tiny coffin.  It sits on the large slab, out of place, tilted forward.  The child’s face is shown in a large photograph situated in front of the spreads of flowers.  It’s a small gathering, my first funeral outside of the United States.  Everyone holds their roses with the head down.  I wonder why.  After I notice, I put the head of my pink rose down too.

I see my friend whose wife brought home baby number 2 yesterday from the hospital.  He looks pale, shaky.  He explained that their ‘oldest,’ 16 months old, threw up in his bed because he was so upset during the night. I offer to bring dinner,–a pebble in the pale offering–he smiles and accepts.

The bishop speaks first, his four month old making noises at the back.  The father speaks next: I think he’s 25 years old.  He describes his son to us in detail (none of us got to know the baby other than through the loving writing of his father on his blog because he spent the 6 1/2 weeks of his life in the ICU), tells us the story of how they got to hold him, how he got to breast-feed, of how grateful he was for the time they had to spend together.  The mother speaks next.

I still can’t get over how calm this young couple is.  They’re hopeful and and proud and distraught and sad.  It’s upsetting knowing that they’ll go home to their apartment and very little will have changed except the knowledge that they have loved and lost everything.  She talks about how much fun she had with her baby while he lived.  She talks of the nurses who cared for him.  She has a list of things she wants to tell us about him. She closes after saying that she’s sure she has forgotten something.

Two men gather the flowers, one man carries the coffin to the hearse.  We walk behind the hearse past the cathedral, past a group of tourists being guided through the cemetery.  We walk under dry, falling snow.  If I were to take a picture right now, there would be a blue undertone to everything.

Those of us without fur coats are wishing we had them (no matter what our opinions on the matter of fur are).  After a time, my friend remarks on my skirt.  It looks like I’m one of the only people that wore one.  He says I must be cold.  And I am.  But I’m grateful to be walking in a group, grateful to have a leader, grateful for my aching feet, grateful for my sick kids.  Grateful for the warm hug I receive from the mother after I drop my shovel-full of dirt and my rose onto the tiny coffin that lies 12 feet below.  We take a picture after all have said their goodbyes to the baby.

We try to make small talk.  We try to suppress our tears.  And then I, at the urging of one of the elderly sisters, turn around and walk towards the street tram.  I offer her my arm, she’s freezing and her left leg is hurting her.  The smiles of the sister missionaries greet us at the tram stop.  When the tram arrives, we step into it and out of the cold.  We find a few seats and bask in each other’s company until we say our goodbyes, disembarking at our destination.

From what sources have you found comfort as you’ve grieved?  In what ways have people helped?  And hurt?  If you’ve also lost a child, will you consider sharing your story?


  1. Tiffany W.

    January 6, 2009

    Maralise, this was beautifully written.

    My husband’s youngest brother was killed in a car accident at 9 years old. It was a very painful thing for their family. I think the only thing that has made the pain bearable is a steady hope and faith that they will see him again. My in-laws have a beautiful picture of him prominently displayed in their home in the middle of the pictures of their other children.
    I also watched a yw leader lose four children of a bizarre genetic disease when each child was around 1. It was heartbreaking and I have no idea how she survived the agony. Her marriage didn’t survive the pain.
    For me, as I’ve faced tiny moments of grief (and I cannot compare my moments of grief to that of the couple who lost their baby) I think it is so important for other people to acknowledge the pain and not make trite comments like “you shouldn’t be sad because you have the gospel”. Even when you know and understand Heavenly Father’s plan, it still hurts enormously to lose someone you love.

  2. wendy

    January 6, 2009

    This was beautiful, Maralise.

    I am reminded of when a friend’s husband died of cancer two states away from where I was. I sent a letter, full of good intentions at being comforting. I’m not even going to repeat what little I recall of what I wrote, because as I looked back on the letter a few years later, I realized how awful it was. I don’t think there were any “trite” phrases, but in trying too hard to be comforting, I think I really blew it.

    Since then, if I send a card or note, I am very brief and express my love and things like, “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” I think sharing a memory or some other expression of how much the person meant to me might be appropriate, too.

    In person, I offer a hug, expressions of love, etc.

    I still think sometimes I say too much or too little.

    I appreciate when others say “I’m sorry for your loss” even though I know some people are big on not saying “sorry” unless as part of an apology (“I’m sad for your loss” is another way to say it).

    I think it’s hard to know when to say what . . . sometimes people want to talk and sometimes they want to be quiet in their grief.

  3. shed

    January 6, 2009

    A dear friend of mine had a baby who died 24 hours after birth. What hurt? An acquaintance saying something along the lines of, “At least you didn’t get to know him very well, because you won’t miss him as much.”

    That person was probably trying to be comforting and just didn’t know what to say. I think the reason we are at a loss for words so often is that there is nothing we can say to make things better. All we can do is acknowledge their pain, allow them to grieve, and tell/show them we love them.

  4. Annette

    January 6, 2009

    When a friend lost a child stillborn, I felt helpless. I finally told her, “I’m so sorry. I wish I knew what to say.” She said that was the best thing I could have said–I didn’t understand, I couldn’t, and yet I was grieving with her. To this day, I’m so glad I didn’t try spouting platitudes about eternal families and how she’d get over it.

  5. Justine

    January 6, 2009

    I’ve had a few friends lose babies, and there is really nothing worse in the world than watching a grieving father carry a tiny coffin down a church aisle. I always feel so helpless and wordless. Food is a safe way for me to connect to these friends without pushing them to reach back. Freezer food, hot food, comfort food. Feeding someone feels very spiritual to me, and I know that bringing food allows me to show love without bumbling around my awkward lack of appropriate words.

  6. jendoop

    January 6, 2009

    What has helped me in grief is having something to do. For some reason we picture the grieving family as just sitting around crying for days on end. When my younger sister-in-law died I had to do something. My sister and I cleaned their home, where she died. Then I took my brother shopping for her burial dress and the necklace he wanted to buy for her but didn’t have the money. We went to the funeral home where I paid the balance on the funeral with my credit card- the best debt I ever incurred, I still carry the receipt in my wallet.

    My sister and a good friend lost babies when I lived far from them. It was impossible to do anything active for them, I couldn’t even fly to be with them. It helped when they told me the specific things friends and church members were doing for them. It made me grateful for a worldwide church that cares for our temporal needs as well as spiritual. Now I still try to aid them in their grief by talking about their babies. My friend shared this poem recently:

    The mention of my child’s name
    may bring tears to my eyes,
    but never fails to bring
    music to my ears.

    If you are truly my friend,
    let me hear the beautiful
    music of her name.
    It soothes my broken heart
    and sings to my soul.
    -author unknown

  7. Michelle L.

    January 6, 2009

    Maralise- thank you.

    jendoop– I think your advice is best. Parents love to talk about their children. Even decades after losing them. I’ll never forget having my broken foot examined by a doctor/friend and asking about his son who’d passed 12 years earlier. He talked and cried and thanked me over and over just for saying his name.

    Maybe we feel like it’s tactless to mention a lost child? But the parents are thinking about their baby anyway. I’ll send my friend Zaila over and see what she has to say.

  8. Selwyn

    January 6, 2009

    Grief at losing a loved one is hard,no matter how the loss happens.

    One of the best blog posts I’ve read about grieving, and what people can do is . I’ve saved it, printed it, reread it so many times, and am about to send it to someone who has been the most amazing support to me in my grief.

    Grief isn’t pretty, but ignoring it is bad, trivialising or rationalising it makes it worse.

    Excellent post and comments!

  9. Annie

    January 7, 2009

    So touching. Thank you for this beautiful passage. I am grateful for the topic because I often find myself feeling stumbling and clumsy in my attempts to comfort or express condolences.

    I agree with what’s been said: simple expressions that acknowledge the loss, sensitive opportunities to talk about the person they’ve lost.

    Also I think it’s important to remember that the grief doesn’t end with the funeral or even months/years after. I remember a close friend who lost her son mentioned that the pain really began after the casseroles were gone and the busyness of the funeral was over. When normal life began for everyone else, she was left with ample, spilling-over grief and empty spots in her home and heart.

  10. Calluna

    January 7, 2009

    I agree with so much of what has been said already. Even a couple years after the death of my infant twins they are still so present in my daily thoughts. It means so much when others ask questions or acknowledge that they were and are part of my family. I appreciate when someone is willing to risk an awkward moment and let me discuss something that is such a huge part of my life.

  11. Kim

    January 7, 2009

    Your Mom is right, no parent should ever have to bury their child. Sadly, it happens more than any of us realize.
    When my daughter died, the pain was so intense, so raw that I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was the funeral, and all the arrangements of what to do with her and then, there was nothing. People stopped calling, food stopped coming in, life was going on. But mine, my life was stuck in that awful moment of her death.
    I think that the one thing that people don’t realize is that when a parent loses their child, their life never goes back to normal. They will never be that person that they were when their child was alive.
    The gospel is fabulous, but really, it doesn’t fill your arms. That was one thing my husband and I said over and over was that the Gospel is true, we will see her again, but right now it hurts and right now we can’t hold her. Let those around you who may have lost a child know that it’s ok for it to hurt for a long time, because it does.
    I am working on a two part series on my blog about this very topic right now. It should be up within the next week or so.
    Much love to your friends. The road will be difficult. Continue to talk to them about their baby. Remember important days, his birthday and angel day are two really important ones. Call just to ask how she’s doing. If she has too much milk, tell her sage and parsley will really help. Also, cabbage leaves directly on the breasts will help with swelling. These are practical tips that many people don’t know.
    Pray for them also. I could literally feel the prayers of those who loved me bearing me up.

  12. Rynell

    January 8, 2009

    I’ve lost two baby boys born prematurely. Sometimes I still don’t know what to say to other people who lose babies because there are no words to ease that pain. It is an experience that I stumbled through. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and I hoped. I hoped to have joy in my life again, I hoped for the future, I hoped to have babies to hold, love and raise. My two baby boys were my first two children and my arms and my life and my body felt so empty after going through two premature deliveries, two graveside funerals. Just as the pain had been intense, the joy when I had healthy term babies was very intense. A beautiful life is made of both pain and joy.

    As for your friends, my advice is to simply love them and don’t expect them to act in any certain way. Don’t forget their baby and don’t expect them to “get over” their loss. Just love them. Let them talk about how they feel if they feel like it. Some days are harder than others.

    (And I second the cabbage remedy.)

  13. ~j.

    January 24, 2009

    I lost a child. He was stillborn at 30 & 1/2 weeks. He’d be 8 years old. One comment can’t contain ‘my story’, but I do want to thank you for acknowledging your friend’s child. That means the world to them.

Comments are closed.