TEN WAYS TO SUPPORT

Parents do not expect you to bring them miracles. 

Most of the time, when a parent loses a child, it does not make the evening news. There is no outpouring of national support. Parents feel isolated in their suffering and need the support of family, friends, and community to carry them forward. But it can be hard to connect with a family for fear of doing the wrong thing or saying something that is hurtful.

Here are a few simple actions you can take that are helpful:

1. Say something. Offering a sincere expression of sorrow is often the best way to convey your feelings and let families know they are not alone. Simply saying “I’m sorry” is far more effective than platitudes like “God only gives you what you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Do not force families to help you make sense of your own grief; they have enough to carry.

2. Listen. Giving families the space to talk or not talk can be a tremendous relief. No one is looking for you to “solve” their crisis or say magical words that will make them feel better. This is their time, their process, their loss. Respect their story and listen unconditionally.

3. Be consistent. Show up in predictable ways during a chaotic time. It could be as simple as delivering ice cream every Tuesday at 4p.m. or bringing food or staying to keep them company and do dishes. A family should not feel the need to entertain anyone or be kind to unannounced visitors arriving unexpectedly at their doorstep. Arrange a time to visit that is convenient and easy for them, then be consistent.

4. Keepsakes. Working with the family to find ways to commemorate the life of their child provides an outlet that can help. While the child may be physically gone from a family’s life, he or she is still very present and “with them” everyday. Consider helping them create an ornament, planting a tree, or framing a meaningful letter or piece of artwork in memory of their child.

5. Birthdays. Celebrating birthdays is a wonderful way to honor the life of a child. Draw the family together to remember the child’s legacy and his or her influence on the family. If the child enjoyed music, you might attend a concert together. If he or she had a favorite restaurant, you might treat the family to a meal there.

6. Holiday celebrations. Working with families to incorporate new traditions that include their deceased child in a meaningful way during the holiday season can reinforce that their child still matters – and that while these children may be gone, they are not forgotten. Be aware that the fall – fromThanksgiving to New Year’s – tends to be a universally difficult time of year for families.

7. Anniversaries. Slipping into deep grief, becoming isolated or easily irritated are common reactions near and during the anniversary of a child’s death date. These days tend to be especially difficult for families for many years. Looking for opportunities to help parents honor the child in their own, often very personal and private ways is best. It is not uncommon during these anniversaries for parents to write an annual heartfelt remembrance letter, plant a garden, or simply experience nature through hiking, watching the sunrise, or sitting next to the ocean.

8. Chores. Many regular household chores fall by the wayside. Help a family by raking their leaves, cleaning their kitchen or bathroom, mowing their grass, or taking on other routine tasks. Many times just remembering to eat or shower can be overwhelming for parents, especially in the early days.

9. Siblings. Parenting surviving siblings – especially young children who require a great deal of immediate attention and energy – is often challenging for grieving parents. Consider taking the siblings to a park or other energy-intensive outing, or simply invite them over to make cookies or an art project. Surviving children, regardless of age, tend to suffer in silence and repress their feelings in an effort to protect their parents. They need support too; do not forget them.

10. Remember. Losing a child is forever. While time will pass for you, families that have lost a child will carry their memory every minute of every day for the rest of their lives. Many families look for opportunities to talk about their child in a safe and supportive environment. Using the child’s name and not being afraid to enter into a discussion about them may be a welcome conversation. Openly wondering what grade the child might be in, what career path their life could have taken, and how their life could have positively influenced our world or society, are all ways to acknowledge and remember what we have all lost.

Bereaved parents need friendship, companionship and a good listener.

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