Child death is one of those awful things that no one likes to think or talk about, but the sad truth is that many parents face it every day. When a child dies, there is often a well of support from family, friends and the broader community in light of the tragedy. People band together to assist the bereaved family, but beyond delivered meals and help around the house, family and friends are often unsure of how to continue supporting the bereaved parents and surviving children. As a bereaved parent myself, I observed as family members and friends struggled to know how to support me. The intent of this article is to shed light on the experience of bereaved parents, so you can better support your friends or family members as they grieve for their child.
Expect anything. The grief of a parent is multi-faceted, impacting every aspect of a parent’s life and sense of self. Grief and trauma overtake the physical, mental and emotional health of a parent. A parent’s grief experience is influenced by unique factors such as the relationship with the child and the personality of the parent. In addition, the cause and nature of the death can determine the challenges and experiences a parent may face after the loss. For example, in a homicide a parent will have to endure criminal trials, an experience that will heavily interplay with their grief.
Understanding that every individual, even within a couple, will grieve in his or her own way, is paramount in supporting a parent. Placing expectations regarding how a parent should respond to the death, or how the grieving process should proceed causes unnecessary pressure for the bereaved parent. Instead, be open to what the parent needs and do what you can to accommodate those needs.
Check in. After the memorial service has ended and family and friends return to their routines, parents can begin to feel isolated in their grief. It can be difficult to garner the courage to reach out and ask for help as they face the barrage of emotions associated with the death of their child. Call to say hi and check in; keep calling even if you don’t hear back. Let the parents know that you are available and thinking of them.
Grief follows no timelines. Many parents express surprise when a few months after their child has died, strong emotions rise to the surface. The fog and haziness associated with shock begin to lift and parents suddenly feel anger, heartbreak, disappointment, guilt or shame. Or years later, a memory bubbles to the surface, and a parent returns emotionally and mentally to that horrible day, as if a day has not passed since their child died. Our society often touts grief as a finite process; grief for a child breaks these confines and truly is a lifelong grief. Understanding this will help as you support your friend or family member in their lifetime.
Watch for warning signs. If your friend or family member seems to be self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, encourage them to speak with a physician or counselor. Self-medicating and depression prolong the acute grief period and can stagnate the grieving process. Seeking professional help in these circumstances is the most appropriate thing to do.
Talk about the child. Often family and friends hesitate to bring up a child’s name or the death of a child because they are afraid to make a parent upset. Although well meaning family and friends try their best to avoid the topic, parent’s acutely sense the awkward and nervous behavior that accompanies the uncertainty. If you ever find yourself asking, “Should I say something?” the answer is almost undoubtedly yes. The simplest and most appropriate thing to say is, “I’m sorry about (child’s name)”. Share pleasant stories and personal sentiments about the child in person or in writing. It can feel like a relief for the parent that you are willing and able to acknowledge the death of their child and, if a parent wants to, it creates an opening for them to talk about their grief.
Help build a support system. In the context of child loss, a support system can be many things. Contact your local hospital or speak with doctors about local support groups or resources that are available for your family member. Drive the parents to their first support group meeting. Organize a weekly hockey game, or tea at a coffee shop once a month with close friends. Offer to be an emotional support for surviving children. Do some research online and find forums, websites or books that can help (such as When Your Child Dies: Tools for Mending Parents’ Broken Hearts). It is proven that the level of support a parent perceives contributes to an ability to develop healthy coping mechanisms over the long-term.
Bereaved parents face a seemingly insurmountable heartbreak. As time passes, a parent develops coping mechanisms and their grief changes, but the heartbreak never does. When you go to support them, be patient, be a listening ear, and respect their needs without judgment.
No parent expects to outlive his or her child and each parent’s grief is unique and personal. Paramount to their experience is the support they receive. Small gestures of love, reassurance and compassion can help parents get through the day and remain in a parent’s memory in the aftermath of the tragedy.