31 Practical Ways to Love Grieving Parents in the First Few Days

When Dominic died, I didn’t get a manual on what to do.  I didn’t get an orientation into how to be a grieving parent.  So when some people asked how they could help me and my family, I really didn’t know.

A comment repeated often by bereaved parents is, “Please don’t use the phrase, ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’, people mean well, but this is unhelpful.”

Another mom put it this way, ” There are too many meanings to this phrase.  It can mean anywhere from, ‘I really want to help’ to ‘I don’t know what to say so I’ll say this but I don’t really want you to ask’.  Also it’s so hard to make any decisions–trying to figure out what you might want or be able to do is overwhelming.  Instead, offer specific things you can do and make plans to do them.”

For those that want to help, here ia a list of 31 ways you can provide practical and timely help to grieving parents:

Show up and answer phones, open the door to visitors, find room for food they bring.  Act as a buffer zone for the parents.

Consider donating PTO, sick leave or vacation days to a bereaved parent if your employer allows it. Many employers allow three (3) days leave for a death in the family with no special consideration for the death of a child.  Three days is not long enough and many parents can’t afford to stay home without pay.

Donate sky miles, rental car points, hotel points or other loyalty points to the parents or family members that need to travel.  There are many expenses associated with burial and the family may not have extra money for travel.

Pick up family members from the airport that are coming for services.

Offer to accompany the parents to the funeral home as they make arrangements.

Donate a burial plot.  Few people have one picked out for their child.

With the family’s permission, set up an account to take donations to help with burial expenses or the medical bills that will be arriving soon.

Offer an extra bedroom to out-of-town family members or friends.  Not every home can accomodate extra guests and the parents need some space of their own.

Bring folding tables and chairs to the home–they are easy to set up and take down as needed to accomodate extra people in the house.

Respect a grieving parent’s need for some private time and space.  If we retreat to a back room, let us.  Check on us quietly and gently, but don’t follow us around asking, “Are you OK?”  No, we are not.  And being asked over and over is stressful.

It is always helpful to bring food.  Set up a meal schedule on Takethemameal.com. There is a way to note any special dietary restrictions.  When people sign up, they can see what others are bringing/have brought.  Driving directions are available on the site and the family can ask that meals be brought at a standard time so there is someone home to receive them.

Bring ice in an ice chest for drinks.

If a parent has a chronic health condition like diabetes or heart problems, check in with them regularly to see if they are taking their medication and if they are experiencing new symptoms.

Offer to drive grieving parents where they need to go.  Deep grief can impair driving as much as or more than alcohol or drugs.  Be willing to sit in the lobby or parking lot–we may not want company finalizing arrangements or speaking with our pastor.

Clean the house. And don’t allow your intimate glimpse to become a source of gossip.

Don’t turn on the television or radio unless the family asks you to or does it themselves. If you want to know the score, check your phone or go to your car.

Mow the yard, tidy flower beds, sweep, rake leaves.

Bring toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates and napkins.

If one or both of the bereaved parents are caregivers to an elderly relative, offer to take over that responsibility for awhile.  (Only if you are willing and competent to do so.)

Take surviving younger children for a walk in the park, to get ice cream or a hamburger. Not all children will be comfortable leaving their parents.  Even if they don’t understand what is going on, they may feel insecure and upset.

Sit with and minister to surviving older children.  We are concerned about our surviving children as well as the child we lost.  Knowing someone is loving on our kids is a great comfort.

Clean the family’s car before the funeral.

Make sure there are bottles of water and maybe a snack in the car for afterwards–often family members can’t eat and forget to drink before the day of the funeral.

Begin assembling electronic photos from friends for a slideshow at the funeral, if the family requests one.  Make sure you run choices by the parents before you flash them on a screen.

Make a list of appropriate songs that might help the family choose.  Don’t be hurt or offended if we use other songs instead–your list may very well have nudged our memory and been helpful.

Offer to drive the family to the funeral and burial.

Attend the funeral.  We want to know our child mattered.  We need to know you care.

If your church provides a meal for the family after burial, and you are asked to bring a dish, bring one.

Offer to help pack up a child’s dorm room or apartment.  We may welcome the help or we may want to do it alone–it has nothing to do with you.

Many grieving mamas want something that smells like their child.  If you are helping to clean in the first hours or days, don’t wash all the child’s clothing.  Put a few worn items in a ziploc bag for her to have later.

Don’t abandon the family after service.  There is such a sense of finality when the coffin is lowered or the memorial over.  Usually lots of people are around and then we go back to the house and quiet overwhelms us.  If you are close to the family, consider joining them for a little while when they first get home.

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

James 2:16-17 MSG

Are you a bereaved parent?  Have you walked this path with a friend or family member? Please add your suggestions to these in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Well in the First Days After Loss

The death of any loved one opens a door and forces you to pass through.

You cannot procrastinate, cannot refuse, cannot ignore or pretend it away.

Suddenly, you find yourself where you absolutely do not want to be.  

And there is no going back.

Many bereaved parents describe the first hours, the first days after losing a child as a fog–we feel both horrified (I can’t believe this is happening!) and numb (Is this real? Am I dreaming?).

There are so many details, so many decisions that must be made immediately following a child’s death.  

And it is so hard to make them when consumed by overwhelming pain and loss.

This is when loving bereaved parents well is so very important.

After reading dozens of comments from bereaved parents in response to my question, “What one thing did people do for you when you lost your child that was especially helpful”, I found that the answers fell roughly into three main categories:  

  • compassionate care,
  • committed companionship, and
  • continued concern

So here they are.

Compassionate Care

The first few hours and the first days are when bereaved parents need immediate, continuous and committed help.  They need someone to step up, to take the burden of some of the  choices and chores off their shoulders and allow them to use the limited energy and focus that remains to take care of themselves, their surviving children and to prepare to say goodbye to the child they have lost.

“We were 1300 miles away when we received the call that our son would not survive.  A friend of my husband’s drove to the house, asked for a phone and credit card and made all the arrangements for us to travel to be with our son.  He contacted a local funeral home and made an appointment for us.  His fiance did our laundry.  The next morning he took us to the airport and was by our side the next three days.” ~a mom who had just had a lung biopsy earlier that day

I heard this over and over:  People showed up, they cleaned our home, they stocked our refrigerator, they mowed our grass, they answered the phone and opened the door to visitors.  They put plates of food and drinks by us, even if we weren’t eating–hoping to tempt us into at least staying hydrated.

“I wanted to gather things from my precious girl that represented LIFE to take to the funeral home.  Someone asked if they could take care of it for me and I relinquished the task.  A small army of mamas displayed everything so beautifully.  I walked in there and my daughter’s life was just bursting forth in a way I could never have imagined.”

One sweet friend who had recently lost her husband came first to cry with me and came back a little later with a car full of toilet paper, paper plates, kleenex and paper towels.

Many of us received prayer shawls–our pastor’s wife brought one for me and my daughter. I wrapped it around me and wore it every day, everywhere until several weeks after we buried Dominic.  It became my security blanket, my “God hug” that reminded me He was still with me.

“On the day of the burial, friends put bottles of cold water and granola bars in our car for us to find after the service was over.”

“Look for little things that both make life easier and that we might forget to take care of in our grief.”

Committed Companionship

It is hard to sit with the grieving.  Hard to watch them, especially in the first hours, the first days.

But our lives have been turned upside down, we need a hand to hold so we are assured we aren’t falling down a bottomless pit.

Some longtime friends showed up at my door just a couple hours after we got the news and stayed all day and late into the night until my husband arrived from California and a son drove home from West Virginia.  An “adopted” son came even sooner. By the afternoon, our home and yard were filled with people who loved our son and love us.

“When my son died, we were waiting to donate his organs.  His pastor stayed with us all night and all the next day until things were finished.  I will forever be grateful to him and his wife for the support they gave my daughter-in-law.”

“My son died very unexpectedly.  My aunt began the hymn, ‘Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place’ and everyone joined in singing as family and friends piled into the hospital waiting room.”

“I love my friends that just let me ramble and vent and didn’t tell me, ‘You can’t think like that’ and told me, ‘You did everything right’.”

“One of our good friends came, he put his forehead to mine and said, ‘Think on the good things.  He’s OK.  Remember the love.’  He just kept reassuring me,  I actually felt my spirit calm.”

“We had some missionary friends come sit with us for a couple hours each day until our family was able to get here.  Pretty sure they’d brushed up on some grief books before coming over.  They asked a few questions, but mostly just sat with us.”

Continued Concern

Because our son was killed in a motorcycle accident and because his death occurred on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, there was a delay in holding the funeral.  So it was nine long days between his death and burial.  It felt unusual to me, but I have since realized that there can be many reasons for delay.

Our friends and family stayed with us.  They continued to minister to us.  Food kept pouring in.  Cards piled up on the foyer table (many parents just can’t read them right away–but they are a source of comfort when they can).

“My son’s friends, many of whom I’d never met, came out of the woodwork to offer comfort.  They often text or message me.  When I need to reach out to a young person just to hold and hug because I can’t hug my son anymore, any one of them is willing to do that for me and I appreciate that.”

“Offer to get the other kids out of the house and do fun activities with them.  One of the hardest aspects of losing a child with other kids in the house is helping them deal with their grief….it’s difficult for the parents to get the time and space they need to process their grief whne they are also trying to help their other kids work through their grief.”

“One mom and her sons came and worked in our yard a couple of months after our daughter died.  It was so nice to pull in our driveway and see a tidy yard and flower beds.”

Texts, cards, phone calls (even if we don’t pick up) that tell us you are thinking about us, praying for us and care are so encouraging (speak courage to our hearts) as we transition from “saying good-bye” to living with the absence of our child.

When Dominic died, I felt like I was set adrift in a giant ocean, no land in sight.

The familiar markers I had always used to navigate life were gone-POOF!  And the little boat I was clinging to had holes in the bottom, threatening to sink any minute.  I was baling as fast as I could, but my feverish activity was barely keeping me afloat.  The compassionate care, committed companionship and continued concern of friends and family gave me the courage to carry on.

Love expressed through the Body of Christ lifted my heart so that eventually I could lift my head.

How we serve the grieving in our midst makes all the difference in whether they lose sight of their Hope or whether they finish the race set before them, with their eyes fixed on the Author and Perfector of their faith.

God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake with the living or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him! So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.

I Thessalonians 5:9-11 MSG

 

 

 

Loving Well: Meaningful Ministry to Grieving Parents

Our journeys begin in different ways.

Just as every birth story is unique, so, too, is every parent’s story of loss.

It may be a phone call or an officer at the front door.  It may be a lingering illness or a sudden one. Our children may have lived days or decades.

Their death may be anticipated, but it is never expected.

And it is always devastating.

No one is prepared to bury their child.

But some of us have to.

In the best circumstances, loving well is a challenge.  It requires commitment and energy when many of us feel like we are already running on empty. The challenges are magnified in the face of child loss.

Yet as members of the Body of Christ, our calling is to minister to, encourage, care for and walk with those among us who are grieving.  And it is a daunting task.

If, as W.H. Auden said, “Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic”, then the death of a child is the sound of a tornado.

Compassion compels friends and family to reach out, but fear can constrain them.

“What do I say?”  “What can I do?”

Unsure of the answer, they may say and do nothing.

Yet some friends and family dive in bravely and do everything they can to help parents face this awful reality.  And I am certain so many more would come alongside, speaking courage and offering help if they knew more about what DOES help and what IS encouraging.

I have three goals for these next posts:

  • To share the way many bereaved parents have been loved well by those they know.
  • To encourage the members of the Body of Christ to reach out to anyone who has suffered loss and to give concrete ideas of how they can do that.
  • To exhort pastors and other ministry leaders NOT to set up a PROGRAM but to create a NETWORK of individuals, gifted in mercy and willing to serve, who can be responsible for shepherding the members of a local body who have experienced the loss of a child.

I hope you will join me as I share from my own experience and the experience of other bereaved parents how the Body of Christ can minister to members who bear the pain of grief and loss.

Please don’t think that these suggestions are appropriate only for those who have lost a child or even only for those who have experienced grief associated with death.

Grief enters our lives in many forms: the end of a marriage, chronic disease, job loss, and any number of unexpected and often undesired life transitions.

Ministry begins with awareness.  When we learn to see with the eyes of Jesus, we can become vessels through which His grace and compassion are poured out to others.

Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”

Matthew 9:35-38

Tomorrow:  Loving Well in the First Days

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well With My Soul?

If you have been in a church that sings hymns, I’m pretty certain you’ve heard the backstory to the hymn, “It is Well With My Soul”.

Or at least the most popular version–Horatio Spafford lost four daughters in a tragic accident.  Only his wife survived the sinking ship on its way to England.   Once there, she sent a heart-rending telegram, “Saved alone” to Spafford who had not accompanied them on the voyage.

As the story goes, Spafford, upon crossing the Atlantic to meet his wife, passed over the spot of the sinking and the words to the famous hymn came to mind:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Refrain:
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

But, as Paul Harvey was famous for saying, here’s “The rest of the story”.

Spafford belonged to a congregation that staunchly believed difficulty and tragedy were divine chastening for sin or lack of faith.

Apparently, in the minds of at least some of his friends, the awful things that happened to Horatio and his wife were their own fault. Eventually, Spafford and his family removed themselves from the church and created their own fellowship.

Tragically, it seems that Spafford died confused, dismayed and perhaps, disbelieving.

Why is this important?

Because the support (or lack of support) bereaved parents receive from their fellow Christians can make all the difference between losing sight of Jesus and finishing well, with our eyes fixed on the “Author and Perfector of our faith”

We love the shortened version of the Horatio Spafford story because it ends with a triumph of faith, a crescendo of hope and a tidy finish to a messy story.

But the same reason the broad sweep of Spafford’s life is rarely brought to our attention is the same reason many find it difficult to walk beside grieving parents in their journey–even sincere, committed Christians can have doubts.

Even those who have read and believe the Bible can take longer than anyone would like to settle firmly on trusting God again after tragedy.

And even when we who struggle because of deep grief reach the place where our hearts can again rest in the sovereignty and goodness of God, we may always have unanswered questions.

Believers in Christ are called to minister to the members of His Body.  We are commissioned to encourage, uplift, care for and help each other.

It often involves more energy, time and effort than we are willing to give.

But if we believe, as Paul said, that every single member is called by God to serve a specific purpose then can we afford to ignore even one of them?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

I Corinthians 12:25-26

 

 

Life at the Intersection of Desire and Self-Control

Maybe you can relate:  It is easier to do without if what I want isn’t close enough to tempt me. 

I don’t shop if I don’t want to spend.  I don’t get donuts if I don’t want to eat sugar.  I don’t have soda in the house if I don’t want to drink carbonated soft drinks.

It’s much harder to deny my desires when what I long for is within reach.

I have practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting on and off for over a decade.  And I have learned a great deal about myself, about desire and about how very weak I am, in my own strength, to continue long on a path of self-denial.  Who can resist chocolate when it’s right there in front of you???

When I perceive that God is calling me to give up food or something else for a span of time to focus on Him and on spiritual growth, I can prepare myself.

I can pick a date.  I can arrange my home and schedule and commitments to accommodate what I know will be the challenges associated with the battle that is to ensue.

But there is a difference between choosing to fast and being forced to starve.

For those who live in parts of the world overrun by famine, choice has been removed. They don’t go without food because they desire to exercise personal or spiritual discipline–it has been decided for them. And many times, there is not one thing they can do about it except to hang on and try to survive.

Grieving my son feels like an odd and uncomfortable mix of both scenarios.

I certainly had no choice in the matter–I was not consulted, prepared or given any warning.  And he is gone. Gone, gone, gone.

Yet I am surrounded by memories, physical connections and constant reminders of the one I miss.

I must live everyday at precisely the intersection of desire and self-control.

No, I cannot “have” him back.  When I am thinking correctly, I don’t want him back here in this broken world with broken people.  If what Scripture says is true (and I preach to myself that it is) then he is experiencing joy and beauty that fills his heart so full there’s no room for missing me.

But the heart wants what the heart wants.

And my heart wants my family circle whole again.  My heart wants to see how Dominic would use his gifts and talents to impact the world.  My heart wants my surviving children and my husband and my extended family not to have to carry this heavy grief load and to be free to live life without the intimate knowledge of the darkness of death and loss.

Every day I am forced to acknowledge my heart’s desire and then exert the self-control necessary to get out of bed and participate in daily life.

It takes so much energy.  I am often tempted to give up and give in.

This fast is the most strenous ever thrust upon me.

I know in my head my desires will never be fulfilled this side of heaven.  This passionate longing won’t end until I am reunited with Dominic and ultimately, all my loved ones in the Presence of Jesus.  And I have no idea when that might be.

So I must focus my thoughts and fix my heart’s affection on the promise of God in Christ: that He will redeem every broken thing, that He will restore every lost treasure and that resurrection will rule.

Energize the limp hands,
    strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
    “Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
    on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
    He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

 Blind eyes will be opened,
    deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
    the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness,
    streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis,
    thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink,
    and barren grasslands flourish richly.

Isaiah 35:1-7 MSG

 

 

 

Debate and Faith

There are those who say faith means you never doubt.  Those who live by the creed, “Don’t ask questions!”

But I say faith is exactly what you cling to in the margins of doubt–when you have exhausted all the possibilities that exist in the physical, you-can-touch-it world and yet you KNOW there is MORE.

Now faith is the assurance (title deed, confirmation) of things hoped for (divinely guaranteed), and the evidence of things not seen [the conviction of their reality—faith comprehends as fact what cannot be experienced by the physical senses].

Hebrews 11:1 AMP

Questions are how you mark the borders of what you know and find the edges of what you don’t.

This week I judged a high school debate.  It took me back over a decade to the time and place my own children were competing in tournaments.  As I watched the eager and earnest faces of these young adults, I remembered the equally eager and earnest face of Dominic.

He was always passionate about a debate.

Not so much the formal ones–he was on the tail-end of our family’s participation in that scene–but the kind you have around the dinner table and the campfire.  He did not like to lose.  But more importantly, he would not tolerate sloppy thinking or lousy logic.

And I hear his voice in these months after his death challenging me to think critically and work carefully through my doubts and my feelings about life, about death, about grief and about eternity.

When we discussed Scripture, or politics, or lifestyle, or the intersection of all three, Dominic would often be the one digging deeper, looking longer at the hand-me-down Bible verses used to proclaim and prop up popular points of view.  He asked, “Why?” and “Why not?” The six of us spent hours talking (sometimes arguing)–passionately defending our own understanding and interpretations.

All of my children are critical thinkers.  And I am grateful for this.

I don’t want to raise a generation that accepts without comment the thoughts and actions of the generation before.

Isn’t that part of what blinded the Pharisees and Saducees to the Presence of Messiah in their midst?  They clung desperately to what they thought they knew, all the time missing the very revelation of God they craved.

So, in honor of Dominic, I will allow myself the time, the energy and the space to wrestle with my questions.  I will search the Scriptures.  I will ask God for insight.  I will push back against the knee-jerk reactions and answers that come too easily and offer a false sense of closure.

God is not threatened by my wondering.  His throne is in no danger due to my queries.

It is most often other believers who find the questions unsettling.

I don’t want or expect to have the last word.  I believe that belongs to the Creator of the Universe.  But I think He will hear my plea.

In my trouble I called to the Lord. I cried out to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice. My call for help reached his ears.

Psalm 18:6 ICB

 

 

 

Perspective is Everything

NOTE:  I’m including links to another blog and an old post of my own.  You’ll see that I am unskilled at inserting them smoothly. Yet another in the list of losses–Dominic was my tech advisor…

When my husband and I visited the Sequoia National Forest, we were overwhelmed by the enormity and beauty of the trees.  Even standing beside them, it is hard to realize how very huge they are.  But when you are able to drive your car through one of them, that gives you  some perspective.

Losing a child changes your perspective.  Some things look bigger than they did before and some much smaller.

And some things I thought I understood, I find I don’t understand at all.

Lately I have been challenged to re-read Bible stories I once blazed through like a novel and pay more attention to the people in them and their feelings and lives.

I was reminded of the story of Hagar by fellow blogger Janet Boxx [Boxxbanter.wordpress.com] when she commented on my recent post Sparrows Do Fall:

(https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2016/01/12/sparrows-do-fall/)

And I am ashamed to realize that until now, I saw Hagar’s story as a kind of minor corollary to the over-arching and “more important” story of Abraham.

But to Hagar and Ishmael, this was THE story–it was THEIR story and it was as important as any other story that was happening at the same time.

Perspective is everything.

Eye-witness testimony is often touted as the most solid proof when presenting a criminal case.  But those who study eye-witness accounts know that there can be as many versions of a story as there are people who see it.

What stands out to one person will be ignored or misremembered by another. Different witnesses focus on different aspects of the same scene because their individual experiences make them vulnerable to having their attention turned to various details.

I know that before I lost a child, I was more likely to focus on the “good” that came from the child’s death:  testimonies of lives changed, people coming to Christ, community activism on behalf of a cause or a condition that contributed to the death.

But now, I’m consumed by thoughts of the child’s parents.  I think about the siblings left behind.  I know by experience that they are just beginning a life-long journey that will be so very hard.

When others view the lives of bereaved parents, it is easier for them to place the narrative that consumes the attention, energy and passion of the parents within the larger story of “what God is doing in the world” because they (the non-bereaved) can see the panorama while we (the bereaved) are looking through a keyhole.

And no matter how you twist and turn to try to expand your view when it is limited by physical facts that defy alteration, you just can’t do it.

Hagar called the LORD, Jehovah-Roi,” The God Who Sees”.  

As a slave, no doubt Hagar was often overlooked and undervalued.  But the God of the Universe, SAW HER.

I know in my bones that God does see.

I don’t know or understand what He’s doing, but I know He sees. It is both comforting and disturbing–part of my ongoing wrestling.

Being seen is powerful.  When another comes alongside as witness to my journey, it is helpful.  It speaks courage to my heart to keep on walking and to continue to trust.