The loss of any loved one is a terrible blow that hurts our hearts and leaves us inconsolable. However, when a parent loses a child, it’s a different type of grief that can be one of the toughest to overcome. I personally believe that you never “overcome”grieving for a child. But, that the sting can become less and you can learn to tolerate the pain somewhat better as time – like many years – goes by.

Grieving For a Child

The baring of this pain also depends on the cause. A child dying in unbearable pain is different than a SID’s baby. And, grieving for a child is so personal. No one can tell you how to do it — or even what to do — and no grief is the same. Grief can often be so bad that parents split up because they can’t take the pain impacting their relationship. Some other people deal while taking medications, which is fine.

Just make sure you are with a physician who is monitoring you and helping you through the medication phase. As a caring person in their lives, yet not actually in their shoes it’s important that you realize what makes this grief different and be ready to provide support in certain ways — in the way the person needs you to support them — not in the way you perceive you want to give the help.

The only absolute rule for helping a parent grieving for the loss of a child is: Do not ever say you know what they are feeling — you don’t. You don’t know what that person is feeling even if you have experienced the death of a child in the exact same way. You do not know what they feel — at all. You may have some idea of the suffering — but you do not know what their suffering is, in any way.

SIDS and Grief

First, there is something like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is a uniquely horrible experience for parents. This syndrome has yet to be explained in terms of why it happens. Also known as crib death, the inability to explain why it happened intensifies the grief. Since this type of death often happens at home, there is an extreme level of guilt mixed with suspicion from outsiders about what actually happened. The sense of helplessness only adds to the grieving process for parents who have just lost their baby and who may have only had this sweet one for a few weeks or months.

It’s important that family and friends be supportive and do what they can to help parents deal with this loss. It doesn’t make the family feel better if they constantly bring up what could have happened. Instead, listen and love the parents as best as possible to get them through the grieving process. Most often I have found it’s best to be there often, not too long, and be quiet. Other people talking is often agitating. Just be aware and watchful.

Fathers Do Grieve, Just Differently from Mothers

Having often been taught to maintain a stoic appearance, some fathers have a difficult time reconciling their feelings over the loss of a child. They often take on the role in the family as protector so the idea that they could not protect their child is often impossible to deal with for a father. A father may also not show outwardly just how much they are dying inside at this loss while a mother may be continually expressing emotions. Moms seem to want to talk and tell, dad’s seem to need quiet companionship. But take your cue from the parents. The worst is not to show up or not to do anything because you feel uncomfortable or don’t know what to do. Remember, it’s not about you.

It is also important to listen, support, and encourage conversation when/if the father is ready to share what he is thinking and feeling about the loss. As a male friend or family member, a one-on-one conversation can also be a way to get a father to try to express what he has bottled up inside so he may be able to deal with everything better. If someone resorts to denial or blame it’s natural – you don’t need to point it out.

Other Family Members Need Support, Too

It’s easy to think that just the parents of the child are the ones grieving, but there are extended family members that you, personally, may be closer to, such as the siblings, grandparents, or uncles and aunts. There may also be other people to be considered like god-parents, and other relatives. Each person has their own grief profile related to the loss of this child.

Added to this complicated mixed bag of emotions are cultural beliefs, family dynamics, and the specific reasons surrounding the death of the child that create such a diverse set of grief behaviors that there cannot be one blanket solution for dealing with this tragedy or helping those with their loss of a child. Additionally, each person may also have their own coping strategy for that grief that others may not understand or that may conflict to what other family members believe is acceptable.

This is the time to let everyone grieve in their own way. If there is concern that the coping strategy is somehow not healthy, it’s probably not your business. However, when there is something that is dangerous to the person themselves, then there can be some intervention in their grieving process to see how you might provide more support for them.

Overall Ways to Support Grieving Parents

While you may be at a loss as to what to do and say to help those grieving for a child, here are some suggestions that may provide the support that you are trying to extend to them despite your own lack of understanding or shock about what has happened:

Space and Time

Give parents the space and time they need before they can start to express their feelings. I have personally found that it is best to show up immediately and say you are sorry and please let you help when they are ready. Then leave. I show up the next day and say the same thing.

I have found sweets and heavy food is not beneficial — however I have yet to have someone not be able to eat a little really light, brothy-type soup. Maybe a little homemade (from the store) bread. Just stay out of the way while the relatives are there unless they ask you.

Opinions

Don’t impose your views on what type of feelings they should have about their loss. Don’t say, “Aren’t you glad we will see them again” if you believe in an afterlife. Frankly, NO, it doesn’t make you feel glad.

Memories

Share memories and experiences about the child if it helps them work through the grieving process. Be watchful of their face. Maybe they don’t want the name spoken. You’ll know immediately if the parent can’t take the name said, if you are watching.

Support

Show support by attending the funeral or memorial and find other ways to show your personal feelings about the loss. Sometimes a note is great later because the parent can read the note in private without anyone witnessing their very personal grief.

Offer to help by taking the other children for an outing or helping out with errands or other things the parents are struggling to do while they are grieving.

Look around. Lawn needs mowing. Show up with your mower and do it. Weeding — that can be done in the dark. Do it and leave. Someone, I don’t know who, planted my whole yard with flowers. Look around, has the house been vacuumed? If the vacuum is sitting there, someone tried to vacuum and couldn’t do it. Laundry sitting everywhere?

Dishes not loaded in the dishwasher? If you just start doing the task, you will know immediately if they don’t want you to do it. If not, stop. If they want help, do it and leave. Brief is usually a rule of thumb. Contact often, but be brief. You don’t even have to talk most of the time. Load dishes, leave. Pick up the towels to wash. Leave. Bring back towels tomorrow, set towels down, leave.

No Schedule or Timeline

Lastly, remember that grief doesn’t have a schedule or timeline. You’re more than likely (and hopefully) have not experienced this type of grief so you will not completely understand what the parents are feeling. Let parents grieve and support them for as long as necessary. Even if they can’t express what they need from you for a while, just being there can make an incredible difference during such a difficult time. Just be sensitive.

 

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Gloria Horsley

Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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