Do's and Don'ts To Help A Grieving Loved One
If you are reading in an effort to better understand and support someone you care about who has lost a child, it is hopeful that the following will aid you to become better informed about their needs.
DO accept the simple fact that it is not possible for you to say things that will make the bereaved parent feel better. This acceptance will enable you to stop when you become tempted to utter cliches that you have heard all of your life that are intended to comfort, but in reality they don't accomplish this. Do know that when you make the initial call, the bereaved parent does not expect you to be able to take their hurt away, or to fully understand the depth of their despair and pain.
DON'T say "I know how you feel" unless you, yourself, have experienced the loss of a child. Though it is possible for you to empathize with them, the death of their child cannot be compared to the loss of your parents, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandfather, grandmother or dog. This is not to say you haven't experienced pain with these losses, but they are different losses. Bereaved parents have trouble accepting "I know how you feel" from anyone other than another bereaved parent.
DO feel free to touch them, to hug and cry with them if these expressions are appropriate to your relationship with the parent. Tell them that you care about their pain and that you are sorry their child died. A simple hug can say more than a thousand words.
DON'T impose your personal religious beliefs, nor offer as solace "this was God's will". You should be careful how you represent God, His wishes and plans when dealing with the bereaved. Some parents accept the loss of their child as being the will of God. This belief is right for them. It comforts and enables them to better cope with their loss. Other bereaved parents, even though they have had faith over the years that has been a source of strength, may now have trouble with their relationship with God. They might be in the process of reevaluation how they feel about some aspects of their religious beliefs. They might be troubled now because they did have such a strong faith and relied on God to keep their loved ones safe. They might be deeply angry with God for having failed them, for allowing this death to happen. It might take a long time to work through this anger to sort out their emotions. Parents need to be able to admit and express their anger at God if it is there, without being judged. They need the time and freedom to decide what they now believe. What you believe is not important. How they feel and their right to feel that way is important.
DO tell them that you don't understand the WHY of it either. Those "Why's" especially the unanswerable ones, are difficult for many parents to deal with. They need to be able to ask WHY, and to have time to accept there might never be an answer.
DON'T think you are complimenting them by telling them "how well" they're doing a few months down the road. They're not doing well. Their child has died and inside they feel they are dying too. You would feel the same if it were your child. You may feel more comfortable dealing with them if they're "doing well", but trying to rush them through the grief process doesn't work and it angers them to sense that you don't understand their pain, the length and depth of it, and are expecting more from them then they're capable of early in their grief.
DO allow the grieving parent to express their feelings, if they have that need. The pain involved in letting go, the anger, frustration and guilt are all a part of the normal grieving process, leaving them empty and without purpose for a long time. Allow them to tell you how they feel. Don't tell them how you think they should feel. They just need you to listen. You aren't expected to be able to take away the hurt or to have all the answers. Talking and crying about the loss are the first steps toward recovery for some. After they have cried and talked about their loss enough, they are then free to go on to the next step in the recovery process. Your willingness to listen helps them, and isn't that your ultimate goal? Encourage them to be patient with themselves when they grow discouraged with their slow progress.
DON'T impose "shoulds" or "should nots". There are no rules and regulations, nor are there right and wrong ways to grieve. There is your way and my way, and though they may be totally different, neither is wrong. Society, over the years has tried to impose its own rules, rules often drawn to make it easier for society to cope with the threat of someone else's loss. You may think you know exactly how you would react if your child should die, but you would be amazed to find that the rules that once seemed so appropriate no longer apply. There are as many ways of expressing grief as there are people expressing it.
DON'T impose time limits on their grief. "Isn't it time you were getting over this and going on with your life" can be one of the most painful questions a grieving person can hear. Depending upon the relationship, it takes not weeks and months to adjust, but sometimes years. You need to know and understand this. "It may threaten you to learn that the hurt goes on for such a long time, but you offend the bereaved even more when you insinuate they have a choice. The truth of the matter is, no one "gets over" the loss of a child. They try to adjust and live with the loss. Parents who go through the trauma of having a child die do not come through the experience without having changed in many ways. A part of them died when their child died, and it might take years for them to recognize some of these changes. Their new reactions to old situations take them totally by surprise. Each person has his own time frame for recovery. Allow them that freedom.
DO mention their child by name. It is comforting for bereaved parents to know that others remember their child, too. Some people avoid mentioning the child's name for fear it will remind the parent of their loss. For a long time the parents can think of nothing but their loss, so that shouldn't be a worry for you. If tears come, then they needed to cry, and the tears may be tears of gratitude that you have given them the opportunity to share their child with you. If you have a good memory of their child, share it. It will make their day. A parent's greatest fear is that no one will remember their child, and if the child's name is never mentioned, or the subject avoided, it is a natural conclusion. Why should you , whose children are alive, have the right to reminisce about the past, while those, whose child is dead, are denied that right? Memories are all that parents have left and those memories did not die with their child.
DON'T turn away if you unexpectedly come upon the parents. Most parents are aware you have chosen not to "see" them. Can you imagine going to the grocery store, as painful as that already is, and having several people pretend they don't see you? Can you imagine how distressing this would be? Why not, instead, approach them openly, tell them that you have been thinking of them and ask them how they are doing. Acknowledge their loss, don't pretend it didn't happen.
DON'T try to find something positive about their child's death. If there is anything positive about the death, the parents will have to find it in their own time. If you are tempted to point out such things as "closer family ties," or their child is "in a better place", or "it will make the marriage stronger", don't do it. Parents hear this time and time again. It doesn't help, and instead may cause bitterness. Many marriages do not make it through the loss of a child and closer family ties are not always the outcome.
DON'T remind them that they should be grateful they have other children. Children are not interchangeable. Each has his own special place, and no one child can fill the void left by another's death. You need to be aware that for a while, the parents sometimes lose their ability to nurture their surviving children. You can help by giving these children a little extra attention until life at home is on a more even keel. Siblings often feel very much alone and bewildered when the structure of their family has fallen apart.
DO know that it is difficult for the newly bereaved to reach out to you for help. Grieving is emotionally and physically draining. Just getting through the day might take more energy then they have. Let the family know you are available to be with them if it would be comforting. Conversely, when you invite the parents over, be sure to give a specific date, instead of leaving the initiative up to them. Being at ease in large crowds may take time, so plan only small gatherings, leaving them free to leave whenever the moment is right for them. If the first invitation is refused, offer another at a specific date later on. Being at parties and with other people is not going to take their mind off their loss and make them have a good time. The thought of it may make them feel guilty and be an affront to them.
DON'T suggest to younger parents "but you can have other children". They may or may not be ale to have another child, but it is not appropriate for you offer comfort with the thought of another child. You see, they wanted this child.
DO know that there will be certain days that are more painful for parents, such as birth and death dates, as well as holidays. Anticipation of these special days causes periods of depression and anxiety a long time before and the actual date. These special family oriented times are an opportunity for you to be in touch to give some support and attention. Let them know you are aware and that you care.
DO know that it is not abnormal for some parents to spend a good deal of time at the cemetery. How often they visit the cemetery or whether they go at all, has no bearing on the intensity of their grief or the length of it. Each person handles this in their own distinct way. Don't make it a problem for them.
DO know that for some parents having many pictures of their child around the home is comfort. For others, photographs on display are to painful. You may find it makes you feel uncomfortable having the photographs around, but for you to suggest they should be put away pains the parent deeply. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground on this subject. Each individual's need is valid and should be recognized.
DON'T rush in and remove their child's belongings, or change their room unless the parent specifically asks you to. It takes some parents many months before they are ready to change anything. It is their right to decide what they want to keep and what they would like to share with others. You may feel they will recover faster if they face this sad task immediately, but that is not necessarily the case. Leave them alone until the time is right for them, and then help them only if they ask you to. Don't make it an issue. They have enough problems.
DO reassure the parents they did everything they could for their child, both emotionally and medically. Many feel failure and guilt because they weren't able to keep their child from harm. Small omissions or commissions loom large. It is important that you not add to these feelings of guilt by suggesting that the care given the child either at home, at the hospital or wherever, was inadequate. This only adds to their burden.
DO show your concern, do be there over the months to come on a regular basis. Allow them to tell you how they feel, and listen when they tell you. Don't tell them what you think they should be feeling. Leave them free to express anger and guilt. If you know a certain time of day is particularly difficult, do try to plan your visits to coincide with that time. Do be patient. Allow them to grieve in their own way and at their own pace. Avoid judgments and try to be accepting of the different ways in which grief can be manifested. Remember, it is better to touch and cry than to stand back and offer cliches. When all is said and done, you will be remembered not only for having been there when the need was great, but also for having known the right thing to say and do.
By Mary Cleckley, Atlanta, Ga Copyright 1981