Child Loss: Helpful Tips for Interacting With Bereaved Families

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.

friends hugging

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.

listening is a postive act

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.

bereaved fathers

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.

kids cartoon

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.

pencil-drawing-bereaved-mother

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. 

Stick around.

You don’t have to be perfect.  

Just be present.  

bereaved families infographic

The Art of Listening

We’ve all experienced it and probably been guilty of it as well:  listening with one ear while anxiously waiting to reply or to make a getaway.  

I hate that.  

What I LOVE is people who really listen.  

I knew a woman once who made me feel as if whatever I was telling her at that moment was the most important thing in the world.  She would look me in the eye,  often take my hand, and never made even the slightest body movement to suggest she had things to do or people to see or anywhere else to go.

Even when we were talking about the most ordinary things.

I want to be like THAT.  

I want to make every single heart that shares feel honored, loved, heard and safe. 

speak so others listen listen so others speak

 

 

Silence is a Gift

It’s hard to sit silent in an age when most of us live with noise nearly 24/7.

Out where I live, surrounded by grass and trees and plenty of room between me and my nearest neighbor, I am used to the quiet.

But it makes many folks uncomfortable.

They hasten to fill any empty airspace with chatter or nervous laughter or music or television or just about anything that means they don’t have to listen to their own thoughts.

It can be tempting, when trying to do the work grief requires to chase away the sorrow and pain with noise.

But that’s unhelpful.

Because you can’t really chase grief anywhere.  It’s inside you, part of you, with you wherever you go.

Every morning I get up, make coffee, sit down and drink in the quiet with my caffeine.  I listen for a bit and then write down what I hear my heart saying.  It has been the most effective habit for helping me walk through this Valley in the four years since Dominic left us.

Silence is necessary for a heart to do the work grief requires.

Don’t fight it.

Lean in, pen and pad at the ready, and let silence speak to your broken heart.

silence speaks

Why We Have to Tell Our Stories & Why We Need Someone to Listen

We’ve all been at the family dinner table when an elder launches into THAT story-the one that gets dragged out every holiday and several times in between.

Often our eyes roll and we exchange knowing glances with the younger set as if to say, “Here we go again!”

But we point our faces toward the speaker, lean in and lap it up.  

Because we know this story is important to her or else she wouldn’t be sharing it again.

You learn a lot about your parents and grandparents, older aunts and uncles by listening carefully to the stories that have stuck around in a head that finds it hard to remember what the body had for breakfast.

Some of the stories are wonderful.  Sweet, sweet memories of special times and special friends; of younger years and youthful dreams. 

Some of the stories are tragic.  The baby brother or sister who only lived a few days or months.  The mother that died too soon because there were no drugs to treat a common condition.  The friend that never came home from the war.

The stories are windows into souls.

our lives are stories take time to listen

Some of us have stories that need telling NOW.  We can’t wait until our age guarantees us a captive audience.

Because telling the stories helps our hearts.  

A fellow bereaved mom who has a gift for finding exquisite quotes found this one:

Sometimes I think that if it were possible to tell a story often enough to make the hurt ease up, to make the words slide down my arms and away from me like water, I would tell that story a thousand times.

~Anita Shreve, The Weight of Water

Every time I tell the story of Dominic, it helps to keep him real. 

It reminds my heart that he lived, that he mattered, that he matters still.

And in the telling, I am giving away a little bit of him for another heart to carry.  His light is passed to another soul that can pass it to another and another.

It doesn’t really take away the hurt and sorrow, but it does help me bear it.

So if I launch into the same old rendition of my favorite memories of my missing son, bear with me.

Be a witness.

Help me carry the burden.  

we all need people who will listen to our stories

 

Lessons in Grief: Learning to Listen

I admit it:  I’m a fixer.

It’s probably genetic (won’t mention any names!) but it has been reinforced by training and life experience.

When faced with a difficult or messy situation, my mind instantly rolls through an inventory of available resources and possible solutions.

And I tended to cut people off mid-sentence with my brilliant (?) plan to save the day.

But there are things you just can’t fix.

I knew that before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven but I mostly ignored it.

I can’t do that anymore.

heart leaf torn

 

So I’m learning to listen better.  Learning to let others express the hard things that can’t be fixed so that their burden is a bit lighter for the sharing.  I’m learning that silent hand holding or hugging or just looking someone in the eye instead of dodging their gaze is a great gift.

I’m learning that lending courage is possible.  One heart can actually beat in synchrony with another and the duet is musical and magical strength.

I’m learning that there are too many voices shouting “solution!” and too few ears listening to the full expression of a problem.

I’m learning that often my rush to remedy is hurtful, not helpful.

I’m learning that time does not heal all wounds-there are many among us bearing injuries that may be decades old but have never been spoken aloud because no one would listen.

we all need people who will listen to our stories

I’m learning that even the spoken stories need to be repeated often and with just as much emotion each time because the telling has a way of releasing pain all it’s own.  

I’m convinced that if we were a society of listeners who slowed down just long enough to really HEAR other people’s stories we’d be a society with much less pent up anger, bitterness and other dark emotions.

sometimes you can hurt yourself more by keeping feelings hidden

I’m embracing the old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we talk”.  

Sometimes that means literally biting my tongue or placing my hand over my mouth.  

But I’m trying not to waste this hard-bought lesson.  

Need an ear?  

I’m here.  ❤

friends hugging

 

Be Present

I remember the first year cell phones became common among my children’s friends.

We hosted an event at our home and I watched, amused, as the guests realized, one by one, that there was NO cell service out here in the country.

get smart hear me now

Cut off from their electronic connection to everyone not in attendance, they were forced to be fully present with those that were.

Some of them embraced the opportunity while others bemoaned the fact they had to carry on face-to-face conversations.

And when they found out we didn’t have cable TV, well, THAT was a whole other disappointment!

What seemed natural to me and my family was unusual and uncomfortable for most of them.

Being present takes effort.

It’s so much easier to listen with one ear while pointing the other toward Facebook, YouTube, music or some other distraction.

It’s a lot harder to sit quietly through the same story you’ve heard every Christmas.  It requires self-discipline to lean in and love on that difficult aunt or uncle who can be so critical but is really so desperate for compassionate companionship. It is unnatural to lay aside our own desire to be the center of attention and make room for someone else instead.

But being present is the present only YOU can give.

wherever you are be all there

And it is the present that others will remember long after the trinket you bought them has been lost or broken.

So put down the phone. Turn off the TV.  Hide the remote and close the apps.

BE with your people.  They, and you, are a gift.

Today is a treasure that will never be repeated.  

Treat it that way.  

 

 

 

Why I Have To Talk It Out

I admit I’m full of words.  When my mama came to pick me up when her best friend was babysitting for awhile, she said, “You can’t have her yet, she’s telling me all kinds of things!”

More than once my mouth got me in trouble.

It’s still the source of most of my problems.

But for a time after Dominic left I found that the only words I could muster beyond what was absolutely necessary were written in my journal.  Because the words I wanted to say were bitter and harsh and tasted bad as they came up my throat and threatened to roll off my tongue.

I didn’t want to tell the story of that early morning knock.  I didn’t want to speak aloud the terror that gripped my soul, the literal shattering of my heart, the unholy darkness that enveloped me.

I HAD to make phone calls.  I was forced to say, “Dominic is dead” over and over and over.  Then I wanted to hide in silence and stay on the fringe of conversations that filled our home and the church before we buried him.

It seemed easier to swallow the words than taste them.

But I couldn’t do that forever.

Eventually the words began to rot inside me and make the pain even worse.  I had to let them out.  I had to talk about it.  All of it.

The actual events.

The feelings associated with the accident.

The pain of choosing a cemetery plot, a casket, an order of service, of writing an obituary, of burying my son.

The awful emptiness that one life missing makes in a family of six.

The fact that at some point I woke from the stupor enough to wonder how the God I had worshiped for all these years let this happen.

And I needed someone to listen.  I needed someone to be a witness to my words.  It was no longer enough to write them down, wrap them up and hide them away.

They had to be spoken so that the power they had over my soul could be broken.

business-authenticity

Thank God for people who are willing to listen!  

I have friends and family who let me recite the same thing over and over and over so that each telling helps my heart toward healing.

I have several online and in-person communities of bereaved parents who do the same (and more!) because they understand precisely how I feel and can offer hope from their own stories of healing. *

Listening is love in action.

If you know someone whose heart carries great grief-and child loss is not the only hard journey hearts are makingoffer to listen. 

Give up a few minutes to hear how they are really doing, what is really hard, what they really need to say but may be afraid to speak aloud.  Leave spaces in conversation so a heart can work up the courage to share.  Don’t be quick to offer platitudes that shut down deep discussion.  

It often takes many, many repetitions of traumatic events for a heart to begin to heal. 

And each time you grant someone permission to share and listen to his or her story, you are applying balm to a weary soul.  ❤

listening is a postive act

 

*Here are two online closed communities for bereaved parents:   While We’re Waiting Support for Bereaved Parents  Heartache and Hope: Life After Losing a Child

The Compassionate Friends offers in-person support groups around the country.

GriefShare also holds classes and offers in-person support.  Check online for availability in your area.