The death of a child is a unique loss for which no parent can ever adequately prepare. Unfortunately, this type of loss is not rare and at some point, you are likely to find yourself in a position to offer support to a grieving parent.
The grief of surviving parents is similar to that accompanying any loss. But it can be more intense and last longer. Regardless of the age, many parents who have lost a child describe it as a hole that will never heal. It is not uncommon for bereaved parents to blame themselves or to be angry over the situation. This reaction can make it difficult for those who want to offer support, but you should remember that they need you now more than ever.
So what can you do (or not do) to help a parent who is grieving the death of a child? There are no rules for how to handle these situations. Everyone handles their grief differently and on their own timeframe. We can offer suggestions to help you when someone you care about has lost a child.
The Death of a Child: What NOT to do…
- Don’t avoid talking about the child: If you avoid mentioning the child, it may be interpreted as if the child never existed. You can ask about what happened. If the bereaved is not comfortable talking about the situation, don’t press them.
- Don’t vanish: As we return to our normal activities after a child’s funeral, it is easy to forget that the parents need our support more than ever. Their lives will not return to “normal.” In fact, all the activity leading up to the funeral has likely kept them busy and occupied with planning and details. Once that flurry of activity is over, the house will be quiet and the activities that they would normally do with the child are gone.
- Don’t expect them to “get over it:” Everyone grieves on their own terms. Bereaved parents need to work through their grief in their own way and in their own time.
- Don’t bring up other people’s experiences: Let the parents focus on their loss. It is unique and it belongs to them. While others may have similar experiences, it will never be the same and it is not helpful to the grieving parents to make comparisons.
- Don’t say things like:
- “I know just how you feel.”
- “Stay busy to take your mind off things.”
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
- “You can always have another baby.”
- “Too bad you don’t have other children.”
- “It’s good you have other children.”
- “It’s probably a blessing.”
- “Miscarriages are just nature’s way of correcting things.”
- Don’t forget about the father: For a variety of reasons, we tend to focus on the loss of the mother. Remember, the father has experienced a life changing loss as well and needs support too.
- Don’t take sides: If you are in a position to see the parents interact and you find that they are blaming each other for the child’s death, stay out of it. The family will work through their difficulties in their own way. Be there to offer support but do not take sides.
The death of a child: What to do…
Now that the don’ts are out of the way, what can you do to help someone who is grieving the death of a child?
- Be loving and non-judgmental: The most important thing you can do is to be present and available to your loved one. Let parents show you pictures and talk about their child. Be a good listener.
- Ask the parents what happened: The parents may need to talk about the details. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them. Acknowledge the child’s life and refer to him or her by name. If the child was an infant, ask if the baby was named so that you can refer to him or her by name.
- Encourage the family to plan memorial: Planning a wake, funeral, and burial (even if cremated) can be helpful. If you are in an appropriate position to do so, encourage the parents to plan a memorial.
- Help make arrangements or do chores: If you know of a task that would be of help to the family, do it. You can offer assistance but many times people will hesitate to take you up on the offer for fear of imposing. If it is appropriate, take care of something that would be of help–yard work, cooking, cleaning, transportation. Let the family know you’re willing to watch their children if they need some time alone or help in other ways.
- Send flowers with a note or offer a donation to an appropriate charity or research organization: Thoughtful acknowledgments are almost always appreciated. Below are samples of the types of sentiments you can include.
- “He/She was such a fine kid with so much potential.”
- “As a parent myself, I think what you’re going through must be horrible.”
- “To have a new life end so suddenly is so very sad.”
- “I/We are thinking of you. I/we wish there were words to comfort you.”
- “I/We are shocked and saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
- Find support groups for bereaved parents: If you are in a position to do so, ask a support group leader to call the grieving parents to talk or pass along the contact information to the parents.
The most important thing you can do to help a friend or loved one who is grieving the death of a child is be available, understanding, and non-judgemental. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.