Supporting Grieving Parents
It is very hard to be the loved one of a parent who has experienced the death of a child. There are no good guidebooks about what to do or what to say, and so we feel awkward and unsure. We want to be supportive and we want to understand, but we are just not sure how. This brief article is written just to address those uncertainties, and help you express the loving, good intentions that are in your heart.
Grief is not a "one size fits all" kind of thing and so I want to begin by saying that not every bereaved parent feels the same way or wants the same kind of support. But there are some things that I hear over and over, and it is those things that I want to share with you.
Let me begin by saying that it is my belief that there is no greater loss than the death of a child. It does not compare with anything else that happens in this life - it is devastating beyond what words can express. All of us experience loss, but nothing levels a person or a family like the death of a child.
It is hurtful to a bereaved parent when we try to compare experiences, or suggest that we somehow know how s/he is feeling. The truth is that even if we have had a similar loss, there is no way we can ever know how another person is feeling. Telling someone, "I know how you feel" is not helpful and in fact, is very hurtful to many parents. We should not tell a parent that we already know how s/he is feeling because we don't, and because it shuts down communication that can be so desperately needed; instead, invite the bereaved parent to talk about what s/he is feeling and experiencing.
Please know there are no stages in the grief process - there is just emotional, spiritual physical and social chaos. The experience of grief is not orderly or linear but rather it is a swirling chaos that feels out of control. One minute the person is furious and the next there is overwhelming sorrow, and then there is the despair. There are few emotions that are not part of the chaos of grief, and this is normal.
Grief is physical as well. Bereaved parents may be tired all the time, have stomachaches, headaches, and other very real, physical symptoms. It is normal for bereaved parents to question their religious beliefs, and/or to be very angry with God. And bereaved parents often prefer to avoid social gatherings, where people talk as if everything is normal and there are healthy, living children to remind them of their own loss.
All of these things are normal. We can help bereaved parents by being patient and understanding with their emotional chaos, and being extra helpful when their energy level is low. Family members can panic about the loss of faith that a bereaved parent may experience, but remember that the journey is theirs and not yours; we help most by being patient and undemanding.
Being supportive of a bereaved mother may mean NOT inviting her to a baby shower, but rather privately asking her if she feels up to coming. We need to be understanding about a bereaved parent's desire to avoid social situations, including family parties. It is very hard to see normal life go on for others as if nothing has happened, when for the bereaved parent the world as s/he has known it is gone and nothing seems normal or ordinary any more. Family parties are consistently mentioned as challenging for bereaved parents, so we can be supportive by not pressuring these parents to come back to such gatherings until they are ready.
It seems to me that family and friends (and even bereaved parents) have an unrealistic idea about how long this grief will last. The answer is that it will last forever - a bereaved parent grieves for his or her child for a lifetime. But it should get easier with the passage of time, but not as quickly as you probably think it should.
The whole first year is likely to pass as a blur for a bereaved parent. There are all those painful "firsts" - first birthday, first holiday, first anniversary, etc. But the second year is also reported to be a very challenging one, and so we should not assume that after a year the bereaved parent will be back to normal - there is no normal anymore. The process of grief involves creating a "new normal" and that is a big challenge for people who find taking a shower to be a lot of work most mornings.
It is very important to respect the personal grief timetable of the bereaved parent. I cannot give you an exact date at which s/he will seem to get to their "new normal" but I can assure you that it will take longer than you think it should, and that is normal. It is not helpful or even possible to hurry the process; all you will do by pushing is further the hurt and isolation that a bereaved parent feels.
Sometimes people think that they should not talk about the child who has died because it will upset the parent - this is wrong! Parents typically appreciate knowing that their child has not been forgotten, and when nobody mentions that child's name, it is hurtful. Yes, a parent might cry when you bring up a favorite memory but that is okay - tears are an expected and normal part of grief, and what a gift you give when you bring that child to life with words and memories.
Working with bereaved parents has taught me how to co-exist with a sense of helplessness. I do understand how much we just want to make it better for these parents, but we can't. It is hard to feel helpless, but what they need from us is to just be there as they walk their own particular dark path of grief. Our answers are not their answers, and so we show our love most by letting them find their own way and make their own meaning out of the terrible thing that has happened.
You have also lost someone you love very much, and you also now see people you care about in deep pain. It is very, very hard to be in the presence of such sorrow and grief, but staying present is indeed what those parents need. Don't push, but rather walk with them at their pace, offering love and support through your gentle and patient presence.
I am sorry for the terrible loss that has happened to you and to people you love. I want to leave you with one final thought - hope. After many years of working with bereaved families, I have learned that there is hope and that things can and do get better. It takes longer than we think it should, and it is a hard and painful journey, but bereaved parents do find that new normal. The sorrow never completely goes away, but joy returns.
Thank you for caring for these parents.Next Article