How to treat your grieving friends after the death of their child
Losing a child is an experience that is indescribable and there really is no black and white description of how a person should and will mourn.
We all react to situations differently. However, as hard as it is to try to decipher how to react to your mourning friend, it is certainly harder to be the person on the receiving end. Honestly, the list of ways you can help ease the pain is minimal, but your efforts will always be remembered.
On the contrary, there a lot of things you should NOT do and say to a friend or family member who has just experienced the loss of a child. While I in no way am trying to cause intimidation that will lead to avoidance, I am suggesting that you are very mindful of how your words or actions, or lack thereof, may have a lasting affect.
Also, please keep in mind that these suggestions do not just apply to parents whose children who made it home. The pain is just as real for mothers and fathers whose babies died through miscarriage, who were stillborn, or whose lifetime never entailed leaving the hospital. The heartache is piercing, no matter the circumstance.
From my experience, these are the things will likely help:
- Offer your prayers and please do follow through with that promise.
We often times tell people they are in our “thoughts and prayers,” but at the end of the day, we are too tired or too busy to really follow through. Please dedicate some actual time to praying for the child and for the child’s family. Those prayers are worth more than any other act possible could be.
- Prepare meals, even when the person declines.
Several people approached me and asked me if they could bring me meals, but the thought of having to invite folks in and entertain them was too much to handle. I also didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else. And yet, making meals and doing my regular household chores was one of the hardest parts of the process. The people I appreciated most were the ones who either brought me frozen meals or had them stored at my daughters school for me to pick up. It was appreciated beyond words and those people are some of the folks I will cherish for a lifetime. They knew what I needed, even when I didn’t. Another really great option is to give gift certificates for restaurants or delivery services.
- Offer to watch the parents other children and/or help carpool.
Having to keep up with the everyday hustle of parenting is especially hard when all you really want to do is crawl into a black hole and sleep through your pain, at least for awhile. The lives of the other children in the home still go on. They still have school, they still have activities, they still get bored and have sibling quarrels. All of those things become extremely difficult to manage when you are grieving the loss of another child. Not to mention the fact that those other kids needs outlets, too, and should be out and about, staying busy and remembering the positive things in life. By helping take the kids places and occupying them with fun, it can provide tremendous relief to every member of the grieving family.
- Send the family cards or even a quick text message to let them know you care.
Show the family you care by letting them know you are thinking about them. A simple gesture can go a long way and it will be cherished for a lifetime. Don’t be afraid to continue those messages over time, too. It helps remind the family that their loss has not, and will not, be forgotten. It also sends a message that you understand that no amount of time will “fix” what happened.
- Share your experience, but don’t try to compare apples to oranges.
One of the most helpful experiences for me was hearing the stories of other women who have been through similar experiences. Knowing that other people have lived through it and have survived has really been my saving grace throughout all of this. However, I do have to say that some people compared “apples to oranges” and emotionally, that was difficult to manage. Unless your story is, in fact, of similar caliber, please don’t feel the need to share it in the midst of the parents grief. It isn’t helpful, and can even make them feel like their experience isn’t as “big of a deal” as it really is. It is their time, it is their experience, let them have it.I know this might be a controversial issue, but after being on the receiving end of many stories, I know how hard it can be to continuously hear about instances that shared similarities, but were not at all on the same spectrum. For example, I recognize that a woman having a miscarriage at any gestation is hurtful and a tragedy that is certainly life-altering. However, emotions are heightened when a mother has to physically undergo labor and delivery of her stillborn child or has to have it removed from her body in pieces with the help of forceps and a vacuum after hearing its heartbeat or feeling him kick just days before. Things get more complex when a mother has to first stop her living baby’s heart before any of these procedures begin, or when a mother delivers her living child and then holds it in her arms as he or she dies. The situation becomes entirely different for a parent who had a child that left the hospital, who shared their home, and with whom they shared milestones and many memories with. Be mindful of how your experiences may be conceived as incomparable, at least for the time being. Remember that there is a difference between sharing your story to support someone in need, and simply wanting to share your experience with others. Please know the difference– and share your story only when and if the time is appropriate. Honestly, I think at some point, grieving parents begin to understand one another’s grief no matter the surrounding circumstances (from miscarriage to losing an adult child), but in the moment, comparisons can be challenging.
- If you don’t know what to say, just tell them that.
Of all people, the person grieving understands that there really are no words that will provide comfort. So rather than avoiding the person, just tell them that you are at a loss for words, but also remind them that you are there for them if they need anything (and mean it).
- Send thoughtful gifts.
We were blessed to have a great group of friends and family who were there to support us and remind us that their still was good in the world. Some of the most touching gifts we received were:
- Plants. Flowers are great, but like their loved one, they die. Giving trees, rose bushes, hydrangeas, or other “plantable” items can be a fantastic way to honor the family with a very special memorial that comes back year after year. If you are having a hard time deciding, you can always purchase a gift card to a nursery and let the family pick the plant out themselves.
- A Willow Tree Angel, perhaps the Remembrance model, with a personalized stand. I received one with my son’s name and his date of birth/death. It was such a heartfelt surprise to receive.
- Buy a star in honor of their loved one.
- Frame an image of the night’s sky on any given night at any specific location.
I looked into this myself, but think it would be a wonderful gift, especially for someone who someone who lost a child. Since my child only lived a day, I was able to use his time of death, but I know many moms would appreciate an image of the night sky on the day their child was born. They are customizable and you are able to add dates, times, locations, and even a sweet message.
- Photo gifts. Shutterfly has a large assortment of gifts that are both meaningful and easy to make. You can use footprints, photos, or even just customize a product with initials.
- Fingerprint memorial jewelry.
If you are close enough to the individual to have access to their loved ones finger or footprint, these are really touching gifts. Not only does the jewelry include the exact print, but some of them allow for other personalized options like birthstones, photos, and engraving.
- Consider gifts for the other children, too. I received a children’s book that explained death and it oddly helped remind me, let alone the kids. They also received a really neat CD with lullabies written from scriptures. The person that gave me those items had lost not one, but two children in her lifetime and she really understood how much the gesture would mean. Stuffed animals can bring a lot of comfort, too.
On the contrary, these are things to avoid:
- Do not ask if the family will “try again.”
The life of a child is not something that can be replaced, not even by another baby. While having another child may be something that brings some peace later on, it will not be because the new child will take the place of the life that it was lost.Also, it is completely inappropriate to ask a grieving mother to start considering when she will put her body through the process again. Whether her child died from miscarriage, was stillborn, or only lived a short while–her body is still in pregnancy mode. It takes at least 6 weeks for your body to begin going back to “normal.” Then there are the hormones that are unpredictable, which is typical of any pregnancy. Add the hardship of losing the child and just try to imagine the whirlwind of emotions that she is experiencing. Think about how she will be, physiologically speaking, around the due date of her child. Perhaps imagine how hard the act of getting pregnant again will be in general, as well as the fear that both parents will face. Every appointment, every test, every ultrasound–would likely be haunted by their past experience. The pregnancy, even if the next baby is healthy, would be a terrifying experience and likely one full of feelings of guilt, as well. It is completely unacceptable to ask a parent to even think through those things during their time of grief, or very a very long time after (if at all). That is something I would suggest waiting for the mom to be ready to bring up on her own.
- Don’t pretend it never happened.
I think one of a parent’s biggest fears is that their child will be forgotten, or that their memory is not considered important enough to carry on. Do not try to avoid any hurt feelings or awkwardness by not talking about the child that has passed away. Whether the child was an infant or was 50, a parent’s connection with their child is undeniable. Help the parent feel like their child’s time on earth mattered and that his or her life was, and always will be, valued.
- Don’t tell someone how they should grieve.
Some parents have a traditional funeral for their child, some have a celebration of life, and some opt out of a funeral entirely. In the aftermath, some people lay in bed for days, wishing it was all a bad nightmare and avoid interaction with others. That process might last a few days, or it might last a few weeks or months. Each person and each experience is unique, as is their grieving process. Give them all the time they need (or don’t need). Alternatively, some people cope by getting out and about and staying busy or even going back to work immediately. If you see a parent out at the store or at an event, don’t assume it means they are “okay” and are no longer grieving internally. They are hurting. Immensely. But remember that 1) life goes on for the world around them, including their other family members and 2) sometimes the only thing that helps is distraction. Be kind.
- Don’t tell them that their child is “in a better place.”
I know this is sometimes a “go to” phrase when someone dies, but when it is a child or young person, I really don’t recommend saying it. First of all, you don’t know what the other person’s religious beliefs are, and even if you do, there is a very big chance that they are questioning any and everything during the immediate aftermath. Second, a parent’s relationship with their child is perhaps the strongest bond one can feel. Although the person may eventually find comfort in knowing that their child is in heaven (if that is what they believe), all they really want is to be able to hold their kid and to be a part of every one of their important milestones. Losing a baby is particularly hard because it is hard to fathom the infant’s transformation when they get to heaven. What form are they in? Are they still tiny or do they need to be held? Who is taking care of them? To the outside person, those questions might seem silly, but to a grieving mama, those ideas control her mind.
- Don’t forget this experience and use it in your future interactions.
A fellow mother who had lost a child over thirty years prior told me about a recent experience she had on an airplane. It was a simple conversation and one that many of us have likely had. The woman sitting next to her was a friendly lady who engaged in small talk by asking her how many children she had. When the mother responded with, “two boys,” the lady went on to say, “I bet you wish you’d had a girl.” The truth is, she did have a girl. Stephanie. Stephanie lived for about six hours before passing away. To make matters worse, the parents had no idea that their baby girl had any medical conditions that would cause her any distress upon arrival. She was rushed away from her mother and was taken to a children’s hospital, where she later passed away. Not only did the mother have a girl, but she had a girl that she never got to hold. She never even got to see the color of her eyes.The woman on the airplane had good intentions and simply wanted to start a conversation. However, when you have experienced something so tragic, the effects are lasting. As others have said before me, “losing a child is not a single event.” Even thirty years later, the reminder that she had a daughter, and lost a daughter, cut the mother deep. Please be mindful in your future conversations. Even if your intentions are good, you may unknowingly be saying something very hurtful to someone else.
Remember that the single most important thing you can do is let your friend or family member know that you are thinking of them. Offer your support, your help, and your prayers and hold true to your promises. Death is a hard thing to navigate, no matter the timing, and it can leave a person feeling very isolated and alone. It is hard to understand how the world around you just keeps moving when someone you loved just lost their life. Recognizing a person’s loss and letting them know you care can go a very long way.
#grievingparents #lossofchild #grief #bereavement #whattosay #remembrance