As parents, we talk about the best cold medications and if cherry cough syrup tastes better to kids than orange. We recommend preschools and sneakers. But the hardest part of parenting is the least often discussed. The roughest aspect of being a parent is losing a child.
If a friend has experienced the death of a child, we clam up. We don’t want to hear about it. We are threatened. If her child died, mine could, too. What can we do when parenting goes beyond the normal expectations? “What do I say?” friends ask me with a look of agony in their eyes. “I feel so helpless. I can’t empathize, I haven’t had a child die.”
You can help. You don’t have to stand there with a blank stare or excuse yourself from the conversation. You can be informed so that you will be able to reach out to a friend who has lost a child.
“Jump into the midst of things and do something,” says Ronald Knapp in his book, Beyond Endurance: When A Child Dies. Of course, there are sympathy cards and hot casseroles. But it doesn’t end there. That is only the beginning of reaching out to your friend or relative who has recently experienced the death of a child.
Here are 15 tips to make you an effective and compassionate friend to those in pain:
- Listen. When you ask your friend, “How are you doing today?” wait to hear the answer.
- Cry with her. She may cry also, but your tears don’t make her cry. She cries when no one else is around. She cries within her heart.
- Don’t use cliches. Avoid saying: “It will get better,” “Be grateful you have other children,” “You’re young, you can have another baby,” or “He was sick and it is good he is no longer suffering.” There will never be a phrase invented that makes a child’s death OK.
- Help with the care of the surviving children. Offer to take them to the park, your house for a meal, or to church. Say, “May I please take Billy to the park today? Is around four p.m. OK?” Don’t give the line, “If you need me, call me.” Your bereaved friend may not feel comfortable asking for help.
- Say your friend’s child’s name. Even if she cries, these are tears that heal. Acknowledging that the child lived and has not been forgotten is a wonderful balm to a broken heart.
- Give to the memorial fund. Find out what it is and give today, next year, and the next.
- Some mothers start to collect items that bring comfort after a child dies; find out what it is your friend is collecting and buy something for her. My son liked watermelons, and we have many stories of him with the fruit. As a result, my house now has assorted watermelon mementos — a teapot, a kitchen towel, and a soap dispenser. Many mothers find solace in rainbows, butterflies, and angels.
- Send a card (I’m thinking of you is fine) but stay away from sappy sympathy ones.
- Go to the grave. Take flowers, a balloon, or a toy. How honored your friend will be to see what you have left there the next time she visits the cemetery.
- Don’t use religion as a way to brush away the pain. Stay clear of words that don’t help like, “It was God’s will.”
- Don’t judge her. You don’t know what she is going through each day, you can’t know of the intense pain unless you have had a child die.
- Stay in touch. Call to hear how she is coping. Suggest getting together, but if she isn’t up for it, give her space.
- Read a book on grief, focusing on the parts that give you ideas on how to be a source of comfort for your bereaved friend.
- Know she has a hole in her heart, a piece missing due to the death of her child. Holes like these never heal; accept this truth and don’t expect her to “get over” the loss.
- Remember that with the death of her child, a part of her has died — old beliefs, ideals, etc. Her life has been forever changed. Let her know your love for her as well as God’s love for her is still the same.
Even as you participate in the suggestions above, you will still feel uncomfortable. It has been three years since the death of my four year-old, Daniel, and even now when I meet a newly-bereaved mother, I am uncomfortable. Talking about the untimely death of a child is never easy for anyone. However, avoiding reality does not bring healing.
You will provide many gifts of comfort along the way when you actively decide to help your grieving friend. When my friends and family acknowledge all four or my children, the three on this earth and the one in Heaven, I am honored. Each time they do, it’s as though a ray of warm sunlight has touched my soul.