When my son died, I didn't get a manual on what to do. I didn't get an orientation into how to be a grieving parent. So when some people asked how they could help me and my family, I really didn't know.
A comment repeated often by bereaved parents is, "Please don't use the phrase, 'let me know if there is anything I can do', people mean well, but this is unhelpful."
Another mom put it this way, "There are too many meanings to this phrase. It can mean anywhere from, 'I really want to help' to 'I don't know what to say so I'll say this but I don't really want you to ask'. Also it's so hard to make any decisions-trying to figure out what you might want or be able to do is overwhelming. Instead, offer specific things you can do and make plans to do them."
For those that want to help, here is a list of 31 ways you can provide practical and timely help to grieving parents:
- Show up and answer phones, open the door to visitors, find room for food they bring. Act as a buffer zone for the parents.
Consider donating PTO, sick leave or vacation days to a bereaved parent if your employer allows it. Many employers allow three (3) days leave for a death in the family with no special consideration for the death of a child. Three days is not long enough and many parents can't afford to stay home without pay. Donate sky miles, rental car points, hotel points or other loyalty points to the parents or family members that need to travel. There are many expenses associated with burial and the family may not have extra money for travel. Pick up family members from the airport that are coming for services. Offer to accompany the parents to the funeral home as they make arrangements. Donate a burial plot. Few people have one picked out for their child. With the family's permission, set up an account to take donations to help with burial expenses or the medical bills that will be arriving soon. Offer an extra bedroom to out-of-town family members or friends. Not every home can accomodate extra guests and the parents need some space of their own. Bring folding tables and chairs to the home-they are easy to set up and take down as needed to accomodate extra people in the house. Respect a grieving parent's need for some private time and space. If we retreat to a back room, let us. Check on us quietly and gently, but don't follow us around asking, "Are you OK?" No, we are not. And being asked over and over is stressful. It is always helpful to bring food. Set up a meal schedule on Takethemameal.com. There is a way to note any special dietary restrictions. When people sign up, they can see what others are bringing/have brought. Driving directions are available on the site and the family can ask that meals be brought at a standard time so there is someone home to receive them. Bring ice in an ice chest for drinks. If a parent has a chronic health condition like diabetes or heart problems, check in with them regularly to see if they are taking their medication and if they are experiencing new symptoms. Offer to drive grieving parents where they need to go. Deep grief can impair driving as much as or more than alcohol or drugs. Be willing to sit in the lobby or parking lot-we may not want company finalizing arrangements or speaking with our pastor. Clean the house. And don't allow your intimate glimpse to become a source of gossip. Don't turn on the television or radio unless the family asks you to or does it themselves. If you want to know the score, check your phone or go to your car. Mow the yard, tidy flower beds, sweep, rake leaves. Bring toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates and napkins. If one or both of the bereaved parents are caregivers to an elderly relative, offer to take over that responsibility for awhile. (Only if you are willing and competent to do so.) Take surviving younger children for a walk in the park, to get ice cream or a hamburger. Not all childrenwill be comfortable leaving their parents. Even if they don't understand what is going on, they may feel insecure and upset. Sit with and minister to surviving older children. We are concerned about our surviving children as well as the child we lost. Knowing someone is loving on our kids is a great comfort. Clean the family's car before the funeral. Make sure there are bottles of water and maybe a snack in the car for afterwards-often family members can't eat and forget to drink before the day of the funeral. Begin assembling electronic photos from friends for a slideshow at the funeral, if the family requests one. Make sure you run choices by the parents before you flash them on a screen. Make a list of appropriate songs that might help the family choose. Don't be hurt or offended if we use other songs instead-your list may very well have nudged our memory and been helpful. Offer to drive the family to the funeral and burial. Attend the funeral. We want to know our child mattered. We need to know you care. If your church provides a meal for the family after burial, and you are asked to bring a dish, bring one. Offer to help pack up a child's dorm room or apartment. We may welcome the help or we may want to do it alone-it has nothing to do with you. Many grieving mamas want something that smells like their child. If you are helping to clean in the first hours or days, don't wash all the child's clothing. Put a few worn items in a ziploc bag for her to have later.Don't abandon the family after service. There is such a sense of finality when the coffin is lowered or the memorial over. Usually lots of people are around and then we go back to the house and quiet overwhelms us. If you are close to the family, consider joining them for a little while when they first get home
"Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup--where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?"
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.