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

Repost: The Mercy of Not Knowing

I participate in a number of online support groups for bereaved parents.

And one topic that makes the rounds at least once a week-often once a day-is how those outside our experience cannot truly understand our experience.

Because it’s true-you THINK you can imagine the pain of child loss if you have children, but even the most vivid imagination can’t conjure the utter blackness that waits on the other side of hearing, “Your son is dead.”

Read the rest here:  The Mercy of Not Knowing

What Does it Mean to “Support” Someone?

Thank God for ADA requirements!

It wasn’t that many years ago when automatic doors were hard to find in places where they most certainly would have been helpful.

I remember approaching doors, arms full of bags and each hand grasping a child, hoping, hoping, hoping some nice person would be there to open it for me.

Many times there was.

Sometimes all I got was a glare and a sidestep from an empty-armed, able-bodied person.

I would manage to push the door open with my elbow but inside I was seething.

“Really?  Really!!  What makes you think getting out of the way is the same as opening the door?” 

(Thank goodness my thoughts are not displayed on an overhead sign! 🙂 )

In this Valley, I’ve discovered there is an emotional counterpart to the woman or fellow who refuses to actively help an overwhelmed mama.

There are those who see the burden I’m carrying and simply step aside.

I guess their rationale is that by not adding to the weight of my load, they somehow make it lighter. 

But it doesn’t work that way.  

As a matter of fact, knowing that my pain is seen but ignored is so much harder than thinking I’m just invisible.

Support means:

1. bear all or part of the weight of; hold up. 

2.  give assistance to; enable to function or act.

Support is going to cost you something.  It’s going to require action, time, energy, effort, commitment and resources. 

when the world whispers give up

I know it’s hard. 

Life is hard.  

But active, compassionate companionship is what knits hearts together no matter what struggle they are facing.  

And hearts that are bound by shared struggle and love are the strongest of all.  

friends uplift the soul little girl

 

 

Bereavement: How Other People Can Help

I ran across this infographic awhile ago and LOVE how it puts things in an easy to see and easy to follow format.

It’s a great tool-not only for those grieving the loss of a loved onebut for anyone going through a rough patch.  

bereavement how others can help graphic

Repost: Dealing With Anxious Thoughts

As a follow up to the repost a couple days ago:  Why is Anxiety Part of Child Loss?, I wanted to share this entry.

Here are some practical ways to deal with anxious thoughts, take them captive or redirect my focus so that they don’t rule my heart.

Please feel free to add any helpful tips in the comments section below.  We learn best from those that share our journey.  You may have the very words that will encourage another parent’s broken heart!

I no longer have to imagine the worst thing that could happen in the life of a mother-I know exactly how it feels. 

And if I allow my heart to ponder that too often or too long, it consumes me.

So I am learning to take those anxious thoughts captive, learning to make them live in only a small corner of my mind instead of taking it over completely.

It takes effort and discipline, but it’s possible.  

I don’t have to live the rest of my days a quivering mess-

Read the rest here:  Dealing With Anxious Thoughts

International Bereaved Mother’s Day

International Bereaved Mother’s Day is observed the Sunday before Mother’s Day in the United States.  This year it’s tomorrow, May 6, 2018.

I didn’t even know such a day existed until I was a mom that needed it.

For those of us who have children in heaven, setting aside a day to acknowledge that unique mother/child relationship is helpful.

Traditional Mother’s Day is meant to be a time of celebration.  A day when children send cards or flowers or give gifts to honor their mom and let her know that years spent pouring into their lives are appreciated.

Lots of church pews and restaurant tables are filled with family as children come home to be with mom.

But Dominic can’t come home.

That makes Mother’s Day complicated for me.  

It means that while I am thrilled to spend it with the children who can make it home, there is always a tinge of sadness to the celebration.  And I hate that.  Because they deserve a whole-hearted mama. 

So I’m thankful this other day exists. Thankful for a day when I can think about and speak about and embrace the child that won’t be with me next weekend.

Because Dominic is STILL my son.  He is still very much a part of my heart.  And I need to be able to speak that aloud for others to hear.  

Some mamas will be drawing or painting hearts on their hands and writing their missing child’s name inside as a beautiful outward testimony to an inward reality.  Every day we carry our missing child in our hearts.  

international bereaved mothers heart brave and courageous

So if you know a bereaved mama, give her a hug tomorrow.  

Make time and give space for her to share.  

And then listen, love and lift her up.  

still choose you