Helping Bereaved Parents
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO LEND SUPPORT
If you are a family member or a friend of someone whose child has just died, you are probably finding it very difficult to see someone you love in extreme pain – even more so when you can in no way ‘fix’ the problem and the only thing you can do is just hang in there for as long as it takes (which is a very long time), patiently listening to the same things over and over again, allowing the grieving person to cry, get angry, stay silent, feel self pity or even express suicidal emotions. In the face of such overwhelming pain and sorrow, friends and family often don’t know what to do or say, afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, and are likely to feel quite powerless as a source of support.
It must be particularly difficult if you too are grieving – if you have lost a grandchild, niece, or godchild. But it is important to support bereaved parents and their living children. In fact if you care deeply, you could be part of their “support team” - someone who looks out for them when their world has collapsed.
I think that one of the most important things is to be patient – allow the grieving parent as much time as they need to work through the grief process. No one can say how long it ‘should’ take – no one should ever say to a grieving parent that ‘It is time to get over it’ or ‘You must pull yourself together now’.
Realise that you can’t fix it
Nothing can bring back the dead child – so nothing can ‘fix’ the situation. Everyone feels powerless in the face of the death of a child. You have to accept that you ARE powerless – that your role is not to come up with some kind of solution but rather just to be there. Being a support through the pain means being both witness and validator. Do not be afraid to show a bereaved parent that the loss has affected you deeply as well – parents appreciate knowing that others are saddened by the death of their beloved child. It helps parents to know that others know they have suffered a tragic, unbearable loss that can neither be replaced nor repaired.
Don’t try to minimise the loss
In a well meant attempt to make a bereaved parent feel better, it can be all too easy to say something that would appear to trivialise the loss, which can really rub salt into a parent’s wounds when they feel that they are facing the most enormous, overwhelming tragedy. Many of us in our group have been stung with, ‘Never mind, you can always have another baby’. Please never say this to a bereaved parent, it really hurts! A child that has died can never be replaced like some commodity; and for all you know the couple may not be able to conceive again; or the baby who died may have been born only after a long struggle to conceive. So, whatever you say, please appreciate and acknowledge the enormity of the bereaved parent’s loss and grief – don’t refer to such loss as a ‘mishap’ as one unthinking doctor did to Grace’s mother Trish. And please don’t ever say to a bereaved parent, as someone told Sascha’s mother Kendra, ‘I know just how you feel, my pet died last year.’
Acknowledge the child – always
The dead child will always be an important part of his parents’ lives. Friends may forget, may in time adjust to seeing the parents without that child, and it might seem easier just to ‘move on’ and see the dead child as a past chapter. But for the parents he will always be their child, and they will appreciate anyone remembering that child, acknowledging his life, talking about him as a person, using the child’s name without fear or discomfort. This reaffirms for them the fact that the child lived and was loved dearly by those around him.
Active support in early days
In the early days after a child’s death there are many practical things that loving friends and family can do to help. The parents may well be so dazed and in such a state of shock that they are unable to perform even the most mundane tasks. Being there to make cups of tea, provide food, clean up, help with routine household chores – these can all be a great help. Mothers from the St. George’s playgroups organised a rota and delivered cooked meals to Max’s family for a while, thoughtfully leaving them anonymously and discreetly so that they didn’t feel obliged to talk to anyone or have their privacy invaded. Max’s grandparents took on the horrendous job of sorting through his clothes and toys, cleaning, folding, sorting and packing everything. And his parents’ two sets of closest friends filtered out the rest of the world for them so that they didn’t have to face anyone – ensuring that the news was told to everyone who needed to know, helping with funeral arrangements and administrative necessities.
Continued support – hang in there
Even harder than being there in those whirlwind early days is to stay the course and continue to be there as a support to the bereaved parents. Many parents recount how it all seems to get even harder after the initial flurry of activity, when the funeral is over and there is nothing more to be done. When friends have gone back to their normal lives and the house is quiet again, the hard job of learning to cope with a shattered life and overwhelming grief only just begins. Alexandra’s mother Marina says, ‘The friends that made a difference to me (a BIG difference) were those few who stayed the course and persisted and persisted with me. They would come and see me all the time, even in hospital, cook us dinner weeks and weeks after Alex's death and never behave as if things were all back to normal. Don't abandon a grieving parent - hang in there with them.’ Ning’s mother Val says, ‘After the horror of the first few weeks, check in on the bereaved couple, and perhaps create occasions for them to just hang out with you and your family. It is always heartwarming when friends offer time to spend with you. Some bereaved couples appreciate having children around them, little friends of their lost child, although not everyone can deal with it in the early days. Use your intuition to decide how the couple feels.’ Friends of Alistair’s parents continued to ask them to join in the social tennis at their condo – and even if they didn’t always feel like it, they appreciated the gesture. They also appreciated friends inviting them for quiet dinners at their houses and not expecting them to talk much or stay long – but just continuing to include them and care about them. Three months after Sascha died, a close friend of the family came from far away to stay for a while. She helped to pack his clothes away and spend time with the other children. But she didn’t just come that one time, she continued to write, express her concern for years, remembering death and birth anniversaries, and visiting whenever possible. This is real friendship and it makes a big difference.
Don’t be afraid of their tears
Often friends will feel that they are treading on eggshells, trying not to say the ‘wrong’ thing that might make the grieving parent start to cry. But bereaved parents need friends who can cope with their sorrow and not be afraid of their tears – it can be such a support to be with someone who genuinely cares about you and with whom you feel completely safe to open up and cry. The grief is not going to go away – crying is not going to make it worse. Showing your own tears is a way of showing solidarity and, in a strange way, it soothes the bereaved parent to know that others are also deeply touched by their child’s death.
Friends would normally remember the birthday of a child when he is alive – so please try to do the same after the child has died. It can be a very touching gesture to the parent that their lost child still ‘counts’ if a friend remembers his birthday, death anniversary or other special date. Even when two, three, four or many more years have passed, it is still comforting to know that others remember the day your world changed forever. This is also an acknowledgement of the fact that even years later, you will still be deeply affected by the fact of your child’s birth and death.
Alistair’s school has not forgotten him: after he died they set up an ‘Alistair Corner’ where children at the school could write anything they wanted in a special big book. With sensitivity, the school invited Anne and Helmut in to collect the book, and the things from Alistair’s locker, during the school holidays when the place was quieter. And a year after his death, the school arranged a tree-planting ceremony in his honour.
Reach out on their behalf
You can simply put them in touch with CBSS. Email us or download our CBSS brochure and gently leave it with them. When they are ready, they will seek us out.
NOTE: A large part of this piece is taken from our book, “ Farewell, My Child“ (2nd Edition), published in 2012. The full text of the book is readable online – click here. Or if you wish to receive a copy please email us.
What Do You Say?
(This was written by Kathy Mayo, a bereaved mother, for the Child Bereavement Trust in the UK)
What do you say when a baby dies and someone says…
”At least you didn’t bring it home”.
What do you say when a baby is stillborn and someone says…
”At least it never lived”.
What do you say when a mother of three says…
”Think of all the time you’ll have”.
What do you say when so many say…
”You can always have another…”
“At least you never knew it…”
”You have your whole life ahead of you…”
”You have an angel in heaven…”
What do you say when someone says…nothing?
What do you say when someone says…
You say, with grateful tears and a warm embrace,
What Will I Say?
(This was written by Linda Sawley, a nurse who had dealt with many bereaved parents, in the UK Nursing Times in 1988)
I won’t say I know how you feel – because I don’t.
I’ve lost parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends. But I’ve never lost a child. I came close, once. I had a miscarriage, but it’s not the same. So how can I say I know how you feel?
I won’t say you’ll get over it – because you won’t.
Life will have to go on. The washing, the ironing, the cooking, the cleaning, the common round. These chores will take your mind off your loved one, but the hurt will still be there. A small corner of your heart will grieve forever. Life carries on, but it will never be quite the same.
I won’t say “Never mind, your other children will be a comfort to you – because they may not be.”
Many mothers I’ve talked to say that they easily lose their temper with their remaining children. Some even feel resentful that they’re alive and healthy, when the other child is not. Children can be cruel too. They may not understand death.
I won’t say “Never mind, you’re young enough to have another baby” – because that won’t help.
A new baby cannot replace the one you’ve lost. A new baby will fill your hours, keep you busy, and give you sleepless nights. But it will not be the one you’ve lost. And you mustn’t try to pretend it will.
You may hear all these and other platitudes from your friends and relatives. They think they are helping. They don’t know what else to say. You will find out who are your true friends at this time. Many will avoid you because they can’t face you. They’ll cross the road to avoid talking to you. Others will make the effort to talk to you. They’ll talk about the weather, the holidays, the school concert, but never about your child - never about you and how you are coping.
So what will I say?
I will say I’m here. I care. Any time. Anywhere.
I’ll cry with you if need be.
I’ll talk about your loved one.
I won’t mind how long you grieve.
I won’t tell you to pull yourself together.
I’ll sit with you during birthdays and anniversaries.
No, I don’t know how you feel – but with sharing perhaps I will learn a little of what you are going through. And perhaps you will feel comfortable with me, and find your burden has eased.