by Barbara Fane, LCSW, BCD
It seems impossible. The death of a child is inconceivable to most.
The depth and width and height of that pain defy our imagination. And yet someone close to you is staggering through that agony. You know you want do something to help and yet …
Part of you is guiltily glad that the loss is theirs and not yours. You hug your children until they wriggle free and you try not to imagine.
Part of you wants to back away, put distance between your life and theirs, almost as though their loss could somehow infect you and your family.
Part of you can’t imagine anything that would make a difference. You fear making things worse for this person you care about, and you fear appearing foolish because you just
don’t know what to do.
Many people do opt for distance.
Any grieving parent will tell you how many friends and family members just vanished from their lives. But, you’re not going to be that person. You are going to summon the courage to step forward instead of back.
What can you do?
The following are a few suggestions; your relationship with the grieving parent may suggest more:
- Be there. You may have no idea at all what to say, but just seeing you at the door communicates a lot: “You’re not alone. Someone cares. Your loss matters.”
- Admit that you’re at a loss. Neither of you has been through something like this before (please let that be so). You’re both stunned by pain. Your loved one needs your caring presence, not a smooth response.
- Talk about what happened. When someone has suffered a physical wound, our instinct is to avoid prodding that area, but this emotional wound is all encompassing. The only way to avoid it is to avoid your loved one, and that’s the last thing she needs. Talk and let her talk.
- Show your feelings. Don’t stifle your emotions. Showing your own tears, anger, confusion, and fear reassures the grieving parent that whatever they’re feeling is acceptable and normal. Careful, though – this isn’t about you and you need to maintain enough control to look out for your loved one.
- Let the parents grieve in their own way. People handle immense pain in individual ways. Short of harming himself or someone else, your loved one needs the freedom to find his own way. There is no timeline, there are no rules about what’s said or what span of emotions roll through her.
- Keep an eye on the parents. While all grief is individual and takes as long as it takes, you can do your loved one a great kindness by monitoring her progress. Great grief can cross into chronic depression. If you suspect that’s what’s happening, say so to whoever can get help for them.
- Give practical help. Even in the midst of death, life goes on. The dog needs to be walked. Meals must be prepared. Laundry, house cleaning, lawn mowing – the list of practical help goes on and on. Your loved one may not be able to come up with a list, but you can.
- Remember the child. Talk with the parents about their child. Collect cards in a scrapbook for later. Create a website about their child (other friends and family will appreciate having a place to go for information about the child and the funeral arrangements).
- Find a therapist. They may not be ready to consider therapy, but you can do the research for them. Find a great grief counselor or support group in your community so that when your loved one mentions seeking help they will have the information.
- Be there for the long haul. The loss of a child doesn’t go away. Your loved one will suffer this for life. Holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and missed life events will renew the pain and your loving presence will help ease it.
BARBARA FANE, LCSW, BCD
THERAPY and COUNSELING SERVICES