Last Friday I wrote about how to be a good friend to someone who has lost a child in the first few days and weeks after the loss. Thank you so much to those who left comments from their own experience with this agonizing grief. Every small detail can be huge in its impact. The central thing to understand about the grief for a child is that it doesn't ever vanish. Even the most severe edge of grief can linger far past what you might imagine. Your friends will not "get better" in a quick or even moderately fast time frame. So here are some things that might help as you stand by those you love who have experienced this horrible loss.
These points are for the long haul period after the immediate shock. Remember, I am not a doctor or a therapist. This and the prior column is advice "from the soul trenches", meant to address the spiritual side of such loss only.
First, do not think that the family should be recovering, or moving right along, or over it, or doing well in a matter of weeks or months.
Many parents are told they are indulging themselves, or courting their own grief when the grief lasts long enough to make someone else uncomfortable. There is no timetable for dealing with the loss of a child. This grief does not go away. It changes. It does not go away. Stay away from phrases such as "Time will heal this wound." It won't. Your friends have every right to express their grief. And they may need to express it over and over and over. Even if your friends present a brave face to the world fairly quickly, that does not mean they are doing well. (In the severest instance, if either of the parents begin to talk seriously about suicide, take it seriously, as seriously as you would under any other circumstance.)
Second, there is no "right thing" to do with the child's room or the child's clothing and toys.
Well-meaning people offering to "help clear out your child's things", often are inflicting added pain. How long the family needs to hold on to the "stuff" of memory is up to them. It is their grief, and (honestly) their business. It is not unusual for parents to hold on to the childhood toys of living children even when their children grow up. Why would it not be OK for a parent to hold on to the toys of a child who had passed away? They may bring comfort, memories that console.
Third, If you ask, "How Are You?" please be ready to listen. If the parent says "fine", ask gently again, letting them know that you really do want to hear.
Many bereaved parents are asked that question when the asker really doesn't want the answer. In the months after the loss, the parent is still going to be in pain. Their answer may not be pretty or tidy. Just listen. Cry with them if that feels right. If you are not ready to hear the truth, do not ask the question. It is very painful to be asked, and then realize part way through the answer that the asker really didn't want to hear the real story. They just wanted the bereaved parent to reassure them that all is "fine".
Fourth, do not expect the parent to erase the child from their life.
My friend Chris and his wife carry wallet photo shots of their son that were in their wallets when he died. Their fireplace mantle still has a picture of them with their son. If their son had been a war hero, people would understand that. But somehow some people expect that a younger child should be erased when they die. It is perfectly healthy for parents to have visible acknowledgments that they once had a child. Do not be uncomfortable with such natural mementos.
Fifth- be aware that the family is under unbelievable stress.
Men and women can grieve differently, and adding that to the sudden absence of a beloved child can cripple the bravest and best of us. Every minute, for a long time, will contain elements of grief. Every minute. Whatever you can do to help relieve the burden of that long-term stress is good. Even if you just show up to mow the lawn a few times, or shovel the snow -- it can be helpful.
Sixth, ask to share memories of the child by name with the parents.
Discussing wonderful times that you recall about the child can feel like a cool balm on a wound. "You know, I had a lovely memory about Sally yesterday -- do you want to hear it?"
Seventh, support the parents in seeking qualified help.
As time passes, the parents may move from the position of "no one understands this grief" to needing to be around people who do understand. Perhaps a counselor, or a clergyperson. Or, a group. My friends Chris and Jane credit the organization "Compassionate Friends" with being their life raft though these times. This is a free, nationwide program. I will let the organization describe themselves. This is their homepage text:
“The Compassionate Friends is about transforming the pain of grief into the elixir of hope. It takes people out of the isolation society imposes on the bereaved and lets them express their grief naturally. With the shedding of tears, healing comes. And the newly bereaved get to see people who have survived and are learning to live and love again.”
—Simon Stephens, founder of The Compassionate Friends
The words of TCF’s Founder, Simon Stephens resonate with those who have come to The Compassionate Friends hoping to find a purpose in a life that suddenly seems so empty.
Whether your family has had a child die (at any age from any cause) or you are trying to help those who have gone through this life altering experience, The Compassionate Friends exists to provide friendship, understanding, and hope to those going through the natural grieving process. Through a network of more than 600 chapters with locations in all 50 states, as well as Washington DC and Puerto Rico, The Compassionate Friends has been supporting bereaved families after the death of a child for nearly four decades.
The National Office and its staff also provide many levels of support to our chapters, as well as individual responses to those who call on the phone, contact us through our website, or send an e-mail that simply says, “My child has died. Help me!” We will be here as long as you need us. That is our commitment to you.
Time has proven that in caring and sharing comes healing. We welcome you to The Compassionate Friends—“Supporting Family After a Child Dies.”
It may take time for your loved ones to be ready for a group. You can always send a link or make a copy of some salient pages for them, or provide brochures.
You can help your friends. Be aware that it is a commitment over time to stand by them and to listen. As my friend Chris said, it took about 6-8 months for the worst to sink in, for him and for Jane to "hit bottom". "That was a lonely time," he said. "By then even the best of friends have moved on and away into their own lives."
He added, "That is why I sometimes wait weeks to send a sympathy card and sympathy letter when someone dies. I want the bereaved to know that caring is still out there for them."
Eighth, be patient. Then be patient some more.
Ninth, remember that the family will notice the anniversary of their loss, and the birthday of their child.
It is OK, and helpful to mention something about that on those occasions. Holidays will also be rough. These are good times for the sincere question, "How are you doing?"
You are not going to be the flawless friend, no one can be -- and these hints are not meant to feel overwhelming or restrictive. They are meant to be helpful hints to assist you in being a real support to a family overcome with loss. You cannot do this alone. But what you can do, can be very meaningful.
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Crys in her blog remembers Alexa, her daughter, and has comments on her first meeting with Compassionate Friends.
I felt immediately at home in the group and although it was hard to even introduce myself and tell about Alexa, it was extremely cathartic, healing and very much what I needed. I have a feeling I will be a part of this group for a LONG time. The facilitators were those whose child had been gone for a number of years and in turn they are helping the newly grieving through the process. It is a wonderful group and I highly recommend it for anyone who has lost their child.
Barbara speaks of the annual remembrance of loss.
Well I belong to that “club” …for the last 26 years…
That club…those who have lost a child….
For me …every year without even thinking about it…it overcomes me…
it’s something deep within your soul…that must be like a dormant alarm clock…your own personal..”Ground Hog Day”…the movie..where you wake up to the same day over and over again…thankfully over the years…there is the “kindness” of it occurring yearly instead of daily….
It starts on March 30th….and continues to gnaw away until April 2nd…no matter where I am in my life…location…involvement…no matter what…
Jensen lists things that she found both helpful and hurtful as her friends and family tried to help. She begins by saying:
Once in a while someone will ask me if we're going to try to have children again. Others even encourage it. Mostly it's people that don't have children. I cannot tell you how insensitive this is. I know that everyone is thinking it, but to say it to my face. I wish there were more people that understood what my mom does - you don't have to say anything to support me, just to sit quietly and be there is all I need sometimes.
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