Ten Ways to Support a Bereaved Parent

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Following the Sandy Hook shootings, the nation sent enough teddy bears to fill a warehouse. While well-intentioned, what will a family do with yet one more anonymous teddy bear?

Most of the time, when a parent loses a child, it does not make the evening news. There is no outpouring of national support. Instead, we suffer in silence, hoping - at most - for the support of our family, friends, and community to carry us forward. But this pressure proves daunting to many who want desperately to help, but fear they will say or do the wrong thing.

And so it follows that we, instead, look past these hardships. We tell ourselves we will reach out when the time feels right. Months later, we think our gestures will seem irrelevant, so we tell ourselves the family is already moving forward. Yet, this is not often the case. Families are not fine, and their loss tends to be the tip of the iceberg with a glacier of change happening just underneath the surface.

The good news for those who suffer - and the family and friends who want to do something - is that you CAN help, and it is not as hard as you might imagine. Research and personal experience shows that simple actions and reminders may become the buoys that keep a family afloat. Consider these ten simple ways to show your support:

1. Say something. Offering a sincere expression of sorrow is often the best way to convey your feelings and let families know they are not suffering in isolation. Simply saying, “I’m sorry” is far more effective than personal anecdotes (however well intentioned) or platitudes like “God only gives you what you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Do not force families to help you make sense of your own grief, they have enough to carry.

2. Listen. Giving families the space to talk or not talk can be a tremendous relief. No one is looking for you to “solve” their crisis or say magical words that will make them feel less pain. There are a number of overwhelming changes underway and families need the space to process in their own way. This is their time, their process, their loss. Respect their story and listen unconditionally.

3. Be consistent. Showing up in predictable ways and at regular times can help a family during a chaotic time. It could be as simple as delivering ice cream every Tuesday at 4pm or as elaborate as bringing a full meal and staying to keep them company and do the dishes. A family should not feel the need to entertain anyone or be kind to unannounced visitors arriving unexpectedly at their doorstep. Arrange a time to visit that is convenient and easy for them, then be consistent.

4. Keepsakes. Working with the family to find ways to commemorate the life of their child gives parents an outlet that can help them avoid falling into deeper grief. While the child may be physically gone from a family’s life, he or she is still very present and “with them” everyday. Consider helping them create an ornament, planting a tree, or framing a meaningful letter or piece of artwork.

5. Birthdays. Celebrating birthdays are a wonderful way to continue to honor the life of a child. Look for ways to draw the family together to remember the child’s legacy and their influence on the family. If the child enjoyed music, you might attend a concert together. If he or she had a favorite restaurant, you might treat the family to a meal there.

6. Holiday celebrations. Working with families to incorporate new traditions that include their child in a meaningful ways during the holiday season can reinforce that their child still matters, and while they may be gone, they are not forgotten. Be aware that the fall,- from Thanksgiving to New Year’s - tends to be a universally difficult time of year for families. Traditions make them painfully aware of the absence. Incorporating the child into the season’s celebrations can help prevent deeper grief from setting in.

7. Chores. Remembering to eat or shower can be overwhelming, especially in the early days. Many regular household chores fall by the wayside. Things that once mattered may no longer be a priority. Help a family by raking their leaves, cleaning their kitchen or bathroom, mowing their grass, or taking any other mundane task off their plate.

8. Siblings. Parenting surviving sibling(s) - especially young children who require a great deal of immediate attention and energy - is often challenging for parents. Consider taking the sibling(s) to a park or other energy-intensive outing or simply invite them over to make cookies or an art project. Surviving children, regardless of age, tend to suffer in silence and repress their feelings in an effort to protect their parents. They need support too, do not forget them.

9. Anniversaries. Slipping into deep grief, becoming isolated or easily irritated are common reactions near and during “anniversaries” (i.e., the anniversary of the child’s death date). These days tend to be especially difficult for families for many years. Looking for opportunities to help parents honor the child in their own, often very personal and private ways, are best. It is not uncommon for parents to write an annual heartfelt remembrance letter, plant a garden, or simply experience nature through hiking, watching the sunrise, or sitting next to the ocean. Often, nature offers families a continued connection and conversation with their child long after they have passed.

10. Remember. Losing a child is forever. While time will pass for you, a family who has lost a child will carry their memory every minute of every day for the rest of their lives. Many families look for opportunities to talk about their child in a safe and supportive environment. Using the child’s name and not being afraid to enter into a discussion about them may be a welcome conversation. Openly wondering what grade the child might be in, what career path their life could have taken, and how their life could have positively influenced our world or society, are all ways to acknowledge and remember what we have all lost.

While it is easier to keep your distance and stay quiet during this busy season, try one of these simple gestures next time you encounter someone who is suffering. We are all searching for a connection, hoping for remembrance, seeking a semblance of our lost one. Following the death of his second daughter, Mark Twain wrote “About three in the morning, while wandering about the house in the deep silences, as one does in times like these, when there was a dumb sense that something had been lost that will never be found again, yet must be sought.” Bereaved parents know this search all too well. It does not abate as time continues; it lingers within us and we welcome your kindness.

As Ronald Reagan once said, “we can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” For me, that person was my neighbors Stacy and Bob. After several long, hard fought months with a sick child, our daughter died just before Halloween.

Stacy and Bob came over and took our other children to the pumpkin patch. They each chose a pumpkin, carved them with the kids, and enjoyed a fall snack. Thank you Stacy and Bob, for being present when we were lost.