I firmly believe that our friends and extended family want to reach out, want to help, want to walk alongside as we grieve the death of our child
I am also convinced that many of them don’t because they don’t know how.
It may seem unfair that in addition to experiencing our loss, we also have to educate others on how to help us as we experience it, but that’s just how it is.
The alternative is to feel frustrated and abandoned or worse.
So here’s a list of helpful tips (and a great infographic!) for interacting with bereaved families:
Express condolences and show you care. Don’t avoid me, please! You cannot make me any sadder. I need to hear from you.
Refer to my child by name. Dominic is STILL my son. He is still part of my story. But because he’s no longer visible, his name often goes unspoken. Please talk to me about him, use his name, tell me a story of how he impacted your life or a memory that makes you smile. It makes me smile too.
Actively listen and be supportive. It’s hard to listen to someone tell you how much they are hurting and not offer advice or think of ways to “fix” them. I can tell you from experience that what I need most on my darkest days is for someone to say, “It IS dark. I’m so sorry.” Silence is OK too. Not every quiet moment needs to be filled with chatter.
Understand that each family and family member will grieve in different ways. You may have observed child loss before but what you saw in one family may not translate to the next. There are no hard and fast rules for this awful journey. The age of the child, family background and structure, manner of death-all these impact grief. In addition, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers all bring their personalities, stage of life, beliefs and experiences to the journey. There were five of us left behind when Dominic ran ahead. We were each devastated but expressed it in very different ways. Nearly five years later, those gaps have widened, not narrowed.
Fathers grieve too. Sometimes support focuses almost exclusively on the mother. In part because of a common notion that mothers are somehow emotionally closer to their children than dads. In part because many men are less demonstrative and may do a good job hiding grief. Whatever the reason, don’t assume one parent is dealing “better” with the loss than another (mother or father) just because he (or she) is not crying openly. No one escapes this awful blow unscathed.
Don’t overlook siblings. Surviving siblings are sometimes referred to as “forgotten grievers”. If they are very young, people may think they are relatively unaffected by the death of a brother or sister. If they are grown and out of the home, people may figure that the siblings’ own, very full and very busy, lives keep them preoccupied. While some of that may be true-to an extent-most surviving siblings are deeply impacted by the death of a brother or sister, regardless of age. Not only have they lost a member of the family and changed birth order, they have also lost the family they knew, the parents they knew and a co-keeper of memories and secrets. Bereaved parents are often overwhelmed with grief for their living children as well as the child that is missing. One of the best gifts anyone gave me was reaching out to my surviving children. It helped my heart to know that they had friends who were supporting and loving them well.
Be yourself. People often feel awkward and stiff when approaching a bereaved parent or family member. That’s perfectly understandable. The bereaved seem so fragile (are so fragile!) that folks are afraid the wrong word or touch might shatter them into a thousand pieces. But what your friend or family needs right now is the you they’ve always known and loved. If you are a hugger, hug! If you are a storyteller, tell stories (appropriate ones, ones of the missing child). If you are a cook and cleaner, then cook and clean. Our family was blessed by our friends doing exactly what they had always done-come alongside in their own special way. So much had changed in our world that familiar touchstones, familiar routines and familiar faces were a real comfort.
Keep in mind words matter. Now is not the time to try to satisfy your curiosity about exactly “what happened”. Loud joking is rarely welcome. Many bereaved families find it hard to laugh in the first days, weeks, months because it feels like betrayal. Don’t offer platitudes intended to help them “look on the bright side” or consider that “it could be worse”. There is nothing worse than burying your child. Nothing. Listen and take direction from the person you are comforting. Follow his or her lead. And if something less than helpful slips out, own it and apologize.
It’s never too late to reach out. NEVER. Sometimes people stay away at first for lots of reasons. Or they show up for the memorial service and then fade into the background. After a bit, even if they want to reach out, they may feel embarrassed by the long absence. Don’t be. So many people stop calling, visiting and texting within the first weeks that your outstretched hand of friendship will be a welcome beacon of hope. If you need to, apologize for your absence. Be honest. Admit you were scared or whatever.
Then show up.
You don’t have to be perfect.
Just be present.