Someone who loses a spouse is a widow(er). Someone who loses a parent is an orphan. But losing a child is so unimaginable, there is no English word for it. (Maybe the Germans have one? They have so many great words for indescribable feelings.)
Our culture is fairly grief-illiterate in general, therefore, most of us feel powerless to support a friend whose child died. From my own experience, here are some things you can do to help a friend who suffered the shattering loss of a child.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE LOSS
- LISTEN. You don’t need to know the right words to say; there aren’t any. Asking the parents what they need may be futile, because they may be too overwhelmed to identify their needs. Simply making yourself available to listen and provide a shoulder is healing. Offer to listen. And then REALLY listen. Do not offer advice. Do not proselytize. Do not tell them what to do or how to handle it. Do not flinch if they cry or curse the heavens. Do not offer similar experiences or share horror stories of other bereaved parents you know. Just listen. By listening, you will learn what is overwhelming the bereaved and will certainly come up with many ideas of how to help. For instance, the week after Alice died, we had a major trash problem. So many people had been through our home, there was far more trash than trash cans. My friend Deanna overheard someone fretting about this, put the trash in her car, and took it to the dump. That’s walking your talk when you say, “I’m here for anything you need.” The day after Alice died my house was full of people. My friend Kristen noticed we were running low on paper products of all kinds and came back with a giant bag of paper products. If you look and listen, you’ll find many ways to help.
- SAY THEIR NAME. I hear many people say, “I am afraid to say her name because I don’t want to remind you and make you sad.” The bereaved parent did not forget. You can’t make them sad. Their child dying makes them sad, and legitimately so. I wrote “I Did Not Forget Her” about this phenomenon. Having spoken to hundreds of bereaved parents, I have yet to meet one who does not wish to hear their child’s name. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It just means the vast majority of bereaved parents I’ve met are ACHING to hear their child’s name. I am blessed to have several friends who ask/ed me to tell stories about Alice – and didn’t falter when I cried—which helped more than I can express.
- FOOD. Food is great. Food is necessary. But some days the bereaved will need more food than other days depending on how many out-of-town guests will be arriving, where the service will be held etc. If possible, find out when they might need extra food and send it then. If you drop off food, send it in containers you don’t need back; the bereaved will be overwhelmed and won’t be able to keep track of it all. Offer to set up a Meal Train or GiveInKind for the weeks and months after the loss. Make sure everyone who brings food knows to bring it in disposable containers or in containers they don’t need back.
- HELP ORGANIZE. ELECT POINT PEOPLE. The bereaved are overwhelmed, and if the death was unexpected, their brain is truly broken. If you are close to the bereaved and have experience planning funerals, offer to help. I had a core group of dear friends – led by my dear friends Bubba, Rey, and Stacy—who did this for me. Their contribution was priceless. My friend Janet elected herself to be the food point person. Her husband Mark brought folding tables and lawn chairs to accommodate all the visitors. So much food was sent, but it was overwhelming to know how much to have out and when and even where to put it. Janet took stock of what was best to serve at what times, found neighbors to store what we couldn’t fit in our fridge, had people bring coolers to store beverages…and then made sure they all communicated with her so I could focus on the big issues. My friends Clara and Fran became the point people for my health and arranged a sleepover schedule so I had one dear friend spend the night every night for the first week or so. My friend Meleva became the point person for my elder daughter, Grace. Someone else blew up photos for the memorial service. Having point people DRASTICALLY reduced the number of questions about minutia coming my way and allowed me to focus on the big decisions only I could make. It was a priceless gift.
- FILTER INFORMATION. If you are a point person, try to handle as much as possible without asking the bereaved. The bereaved will have to make many, many decisions— all of which are horrid. As much as possible, try to minimize how many questions are lobbed at the bereaved so they can focus on the big decisions. My friend Bubba did this for me and I would literally take a bullet for him because of it. If you aren’t a point person, find out who is and ask them what is needed. This goes for information going OUT as well. The bereaved will not be able to give details about the death or memorial service to hundreds of people individually. Figure out the best way to disseminate information and find people to help do so. And if you are not next-of-kin or a point person, DO NOT EVER take it upon yourself to announce details on social media. This was a huge problem for us and so many other families I know. We were still trying to personally contact family and Alice’s caretakers while peripheral folks were spreading our news on social media. I really didn’t want Alice’s godmother to find out on social media… from someone we barely knew.
- SEND PHOTOS OF THE CHILD IF YOU HAVE THEM. Generally, there will be photos of the deceased child placed at the services. You may have photos the parents never saw. If so, send the photos to the parents or a point person. You may have a treasure for them.
- OFFER TO DRIVE THE BEREAVED. This is especially important if the death is unexpected or traumatic. Ideally, the bereaved aren’t driving themselves anywhere for several days nor should they need to rely on Uber or public transportation. Find someone to drive them to the service or anywhere else they must go for those first few days. I drove myself to yoga class a week after Alice died. I needed the yoga class, but I absolutely should not have driven. Someone gassed up our car before Alice’s service and left tissues and bottles of water in the cup holders which was thoughtful. Offer to go to the store or run errands or anything you can do to reduce the bereaved’s need to drive.
AFTER THE AFTERMATH
- TOUCH BASE AT RANDOM TIMES IN THE WEEKS, MONTHS, YEARS AFTER. I had several friends reach out to me weeks or months later, all of whom apologized profusely for not reaching out earlier. But for me, this was great. Because in the beginning, so many people reach out, you cannot possibly reply to them although you desperately need support. But the bereaved need support long after the lasagnas are gone—perhaps even more so. It gets VERY QUIET after those first few weeks. If you aren’t “inner circle” but want to support, put alerts on your phone to reach a few weeks after. And then a few months after. A mom I didn’t know well made a schedule for folks to “adopt me” weekly for months after Alice died. That person would check in with me on Monday, see how I was doing/what I needed and then would either take me to lunch/yoga/massage/hike etc., come to visit me, babysit my other child so I could go to an appointment, help me clean the house, or whatever was needed. This was brilliant and made me feel supported for months after.
- REMEMBER THE CHILD’S BIRTHDAY, DEATH ANNIVERSARY, AND OTHER IMPORTANT DAYS. It’s also helpful to have folks that reach out in the days before or after the “big” days; you don’t always tank ON those days. Sometimes eight days before is the day that levels you. Sometimes it’s five days after. So, if you can’t reach out ON those days, that’s OK. Reaching our AROUND those days is also helpful. And when you do reach out, SAY THEIR NAME. I have friends who send flowers every year on Alice’s death anniversary. I have friends who check in a couple of weeks before to ask if I need company. All of it helps.
- DONATE OR PARTICIPATE IN FUNDRAISING EFFORTS IN THEIR CHILD’S MEMORY. If the bereaved raises money or awareness for causes in their child’s memory, participate. If you can’t afford to donate money, see if you can donate time or services. If you can’t do either, spread the word by re-posting the information or event details. All of this helps the bereaved feel supported and know their child is remembered and honored. You can also do things in their child’s memory like plant a tree, name a star, or use your artistic skills to make art in honor of their child. My friend Kriss wrote a song about Alice and donates the proceeds to the sliding-scale counseling center we support in her memory. I have friends who sent me “Miss Alice” rose bushes from David Austin Roses. I have another friend who sent “Grace” rose bushes so Grace wouldn’t feel left out. Every time I water those bushes, I am able to remember my girls and the beautiful support of my friends.
There are endless ways to support a bereaved parent, none of which require you to “say the right thing.” Listening and acting on the information you glean from listening will always enable you to provide beautiful, necessary, and personalized support.
I applaud you for taking the time to learn how to support bereaved parents. Attending to our friends’ grief is noble and commendable work. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.