The loss of a child is about the worst thing most of us can imagine. You see reports on the news almost every day of families losing a little one and we think, “Oh, how tragic!” Then the news team breaks for commercial, and we get up to get a snack. It’s almost as if such horrid things only happen to other people.
But eventually, you will meet one of these grieving parents. They could be a friend, a family member, or a neighbor down the street. Suddenly, the tragedy hits close to home, and you want to make it better. You pluck up your courage and approach the grieving parent, ready to give that little bit of advice that you know will just make everything better.
And about thirty seconds after they smile and move on, you give yourself a dope slap on the forehead because you just botched it.
I’m a dad who lost his seven-year-old daughter, Rachel due to a medical condition. My wife and I were the ones that people were going to make better. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
When a child dies, everyone is trying to make sense of the situation. It’s a horrible truth that sometimes children die, and when the world loses that little bit of innocence, everyone suffers. Because most of us aren’t accustomed on how to deal with the situation, our ham-fisted efforts often don’t come across as helpful as we’d like them to be. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we all need to make sense of what may be the worst thing anyone can imagine.
In the process, though, some tips might assist in your efforts to actually connect with the grieving parent, and maybe help your own understanding as well.
Here are 5 do’s and don’ts of dealing with a grieving parent:
These aren’t just pet peeves of mourners. They are points that tend to make matters worse for someone who is grieving. Nobody looks at somebody who has gone through this and says “Hey, let’s pile on the frustrations!” But really, how do you approach a situation to which you have no experience or ideas on how to “fix” it.
First off, you can’t fix it. Death is final, and losing a loved one can’t be cured. But there are things you can do to make it a little easier. Most of these techniques can work for grief of any kind. I’ve seen this kindness effective in the lives of widows or people who have lost a sibling or parent as well.
Don’t do these 5 things:
1. Don’t use aphorisms
Those plucky one-liner solutions to all of life’s problems aren’t nearly as helpful as you might think. Things like “At least he/she isn’t suffering now,” or “He/She is in a better place,” don’t actually help in this situation.
“It’s darkest before the dawn” strangely doesn’t inspire healing in the least, nor does it help the grieving parent to understand what has just happened. Sure, they sound like the nice thing to say, but nothing generates an eye roll like a poorly-executed aphorism.
2. Don’t tell a grieving person how they should grieve
It sounds like an obvious bit of advice: who in their right mind would tell someone how they should react to the most horrible tragedy in their lives? But people do it all the time.A lot of people believe that once the funeral is over, the griever is ready to return to the regular social life they were used to before they lost their loved one.
The fact is, grief becomes part of a new life for most mourners, and they have to figure out what “normal” is going to be. It’s a long and difficult road ahead. As an example, at the luncheon after Rachel’s funeral, I mentioned to a cousin that my wife and I were really lucky to have Rachel as long as we did. “No!” she raised an admonitory finger, “Say it like it is. You were blessed.” Okay… I let that one slide, figuring it was some kind of cute aphorism that made her feel better. So I said that the biggest strength to me in this time was my wife, and I was really lucky to have her. “No!” The finger went up again. “Say it like it is. You were blessed.“
I just wanted to say “I’m sorry, I have to face this direction, now.” The thing is, everyone grieves differently, and telling someone how they should grieve just pushes your opinion on them, which doesn’t help anything.
3. Don’t assume this is something one just gets over
Five years later, I still think of my little girl every day. There are days when the pain of loss is so keen I just don’t want to get out of bed. There is no “getting over” the death of a child.
4. Don’t assume that they are on the same level emotionally, spiritually or socially that you are
Sometimes a grieving parent isn’t ready to do all of the things they used to, or think of things in a positive way. Maybe both parties in the conversation know each other from church or the same social group, but the death of a child changes everything for at least one of the parties. You have to let the mourner decide how this all fits into their new state of life.
Holidays are particularly difficult for a grieving family, so if they don’t feel like going to that New Year’s party, it’s probably best to let them off without the guilt trip.
5. Don’t try to get their minds off of it
If the parent is going through one of the stages of grief, they don’t need distractions, but someone to go through it with them.
My wife and I go through what we call “Rachel Days” where the absence of our daughter is especially acute. During these days, it helps to have someone to talk to, admit that we miss her, and that it hurts to have our daughter gone.
Somehow, admitting the problem seems to lessen the pain. I once brought up that I was having a Rachel Day with an acquaintance, and his solution was to talk about sports. Other than the fact that I really don’t like sports, his off-putting stance showed me that he didn’t want to be a friend. It seemed that he simply didn’t care.
Do these 5 things:
1. Do listen
One of the false schema in our society is that someone who suffers with grief shouldn’t talk about it, or they would rather think about something else. When I needed someone to talk to, the greatest friend was the one who would sit and listen without judgment.
During the first days after Rachel’s death, and even on subsequent times when I miss my daughter, the best friends I have are the ones who would come over to my place and talk with me. People came to our house after Rachel died bringing food or gifts, but the greatest gifts were the good friends who came over and cried with us.
2. Do share memories
If you knew the child and even had experiences with them, why not share those memories? Something sweet or funny about the deceased are great ways to laugh through the tears.
If you didn’t know the deceased, a great question is “What was he/she like?” Open the gateway to conversation and offer an opportunity to celebrate the life of someone so close to the parent. It’s okay if it makes them cry. They’re used to it by now. Bonus points go to the friend who has pictures of the deceased and bring them over a few months or years after the child has died and says “I was going through my things and found this picture of your kid.” Talk about making the parent’s day!
3. Do what you’re good at
No, seriously, stick to your strengths. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of our friends is a scrapbooking fiend. A few days after Rachel died, she asked us to email her some pictures of Rachel she could use to put together for a guest book for the funeral. The result was so beautiful; we still bring it out from time to time to look at.
Another group of ladies in our area who were into crocheting got together after our daughter died to see what they could do to help. When we arrived at church that Sunday, everyone in the congregation was wearing a small crocheted angel pinned on their lapel to show their support. It truly shows that, when all you have is a hammer, all your problems begin to look like nails. And if all else fails, and your talent doesn’t work in this situation, go back to #1 in this list.
4. Do be there
Show up, spend time with them, and don’t assume they want to be alone. Sometimes, being a grieving parent can be the loneliest existence in the world. Take a day to help them clean the house, or call them up to let them know you’re thinking about them. Or take them out to dinner. They like Italian and are free this Friday night around 7:00 (but they’ll go at 6:00 if you want to dodge the crowds).
5. Do be patient
Becoming accustomed to grief takes a long, long time. It goes through different phases over and over again. It takes a major adjustment on everybody’s part to get used to the idea that this is what life is going to be like.
Losing someone is awful; losing a child can be worse. What your friend is doing in their grief is creating a new normal. They are changing traditions, and their point of view is shifting dramatically. They are, essentially, becoming a new person.
Some aspects in their personality will be stronger than before, and some traits will fall by the wayside. If you value your relationship, the payment to sustain your friendship is going to be patience. Repeat the other 4 “Do’s” in this list as often as required. The reward is that you will have a new friend with a deeper sense of gratitude towards your kindness.
Working with a parent who has lost a child of any age doesn’t really take much. Overcoming social anxieties and norms is the only real obstacle, but in the end, it just takes an influx of love. Whether it’s a family member, friend or someone you aren’t familiar with, being a true friend just involves using your ears and a little bit of time. In the end, it makes someone else’s burden lighter, which in turn can lighten your own.
This article was originally published on Smarter Parenting. It has been republished here with permission.