On rare occasions, I had ‘friends’ tell me versions of: “Wouldn’t it be time to move on?” or “You’ve got such a beautiful daughter, don’t you think it would be better for her to stop mentioning her twin sister or the topic of grief and loss?” Who hasn’t heard some version of the above? Have you?
I find it hard when people tell me to change the way I feel. Especially when it’s people that haven’t experienced what I have.
Every person surrounding us has their version of what healing after loss looks like. My version is called healthy grieving: I believe in integrating loss into my life, which allows for joy and sadness, reminiscing in the past and full present day laughter, remembering with mindfulness and gratitude.
There are lots of words written about what not to say in response to grief but not enough about how to respond to grief. As part of the book Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple I have made it a priority and my heartfelt intent to help supporters understand how to be with the bereaved. If you find it helpful, feel free to share it with your family, friends and supporters. Remember that this always needs to be applied with respect to the person’s culture and traditions. If something has really helped you, let me know in the comment section, as well as if something does not feel right for you.
The “5 Star Grief Support Guide”, which you’ll receive upon signing up for updates on the Grieving Parents Support Network summarises what I wrote here below:
Things to say or do
Things that made most difference: dropping food at our door, taking Harry out to play… just being ok with how we were.
~ Gavin Blue, President of Heartfelt Australia
First and foremost bereaved parents have shared with me that supporters should not feel obligated to say anything. What some call the “Art of Presence”, being there is all that is needed.
However, should you feel compelled to say something, here are the three simplest things to say:
- I am sorry for your loss.
- I am here for you.
- I don’t know what to say, I’m at a loss for words.
Whatever you do or say, remember these things:
- Acknowledge the parents
- Listen but do not try to fix
- Encourage and give them hope
- Practice the Art of Presence.
The following points are an excerpt of my blog I wrote twenty months after Amya’s death. These are suggestions that help to acknowledge the grieving parents’ pain, journey, and responses. Use your own words or way of saying things.
Inquire how I’m doing, what I’m feeling. Don’t tell me “it must be hard” or “you must feel so awful.” Ask me, but don’t tell me. Ask again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Be gentle when asking, it needn’t be an interrogation.
- How are you coping?
- What kind of help would be supportive for you? (Make a couple of suggestions)
- May I bring some food over tonight?
- Would you like me to just be there with you?
- What did the doctor say?
- Do you have anyone you can talk to?
I’m so sorry
This is the simplest and most appropriate sentence. It bridges any “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m lost for words” moment, any awkward silence that you might be tempted to fill with clichés. Don’t. Just say, “I’m sorry for your loss”.
Show you care
The little messages “I’m thinking of you” on the anniversary of my daughter’s or my mother’s death mean a lot.
- I hear you
- I’ve been thinking of you
- You are not alone – I am here for you
- I read your blog
- My heart goes out to you.
Recently I received a touching message from someone I don’t even know who told me how much my blog touched her. She was a 38-year-old identical twin who had lost her twin sister when they were 10 days old. I would have never known whom my writing touches if she hadn’t told me.
Continue to interact
I must have stunned many people into silence with my grief spell. It is okay to be contacting me again and again, even if I might not have the energy to hold long conversations. Social interactions are more tiring, yet I still crave to be with people. I am no longer the person I was pre “date with death” and as much as I sometimes want that person back, I have to deal with the New Me. Please try to do so, too.
It’s hard enough to be sad and depressed. I am learning to accept being what I am in any moment. If you can accept that too, you won’t need to make me feel better, offer me advice, solutions, or try to tickle me with humour. Please accept me as I am.
Be with me
There doesn’t need to be much talking. Knowing that you are not afraid of being in my presence, no matter what, counts. Offer your presence even if by just holding my hand.
Respect my space and my beliefs
You might believe in God or that, “It was meant to be this way.” Whatever it is, keep it to yourself. You cannot know where I stand in relation to your beliefs. Leave me with mine. Respect where I am with regard to what I believe or even where I might have lost any faith and trust.
Acknowledge the dead person
I do understand that you might fear my reaction if you speak about my baby or my mother. Do trust that by acknowledging or talking about them you honour their memory. Say their names.
Respect that I won’t get over it
I didn’t really understand the depth of grief before my personal experience. You do not need to understand it to accept and respect that holding my child in my arms as she passed isn’t something that I will get over. I am learning to live with it, whatever that means. Anything can and will trigger the grief and I don’t always know when or why…
Tact and respect
By all means tell me about what is going on your life, no matter how trivial or devastating it might be. I can handle it if you handle my response with tact and respect. What I do not need at this moment are trivializations of women who got pregnant and didn’t even want to have another child or mothers who abort their baby because of its gender.
Physical contact – hugs
There are times when I am very sensitive and do not want to be touched. Please consider asking before you want to give me a hug.
The Art of Presence
Be there, not merely in the moment of crisis. Walk alongside me in the months and years to come. Allow me my process of healing. Sit with me in the moments of painful emotions and the darkness of depression. It is an illusion that in times of crisis people need space. Respect someone’s wish, if they tell you so. Otherwise, be present.
The “5 Star Grief Support Guide”, which you’ll receive upon signing up for updates on the Grieving Parents Support Network summarises the above.
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The things not to say or do
Even though other authors on Still Standing Magazine have already covered this topic, this is what I wrote in the book regarding things not to say or do.
It does not matter whether you allow the grieving parent more or less time than they need or make suggestions on what should be difficult or not – comments like those mentioned below are unhelpful as they lead to self-judgment or guilt about the situation experienced.
- Time heals all wounds.
- It will get better with time.
- The first year is the hardest.
- Take your time.
Any suggestion on where or how the baby is now or what his or her destiny should or shouldn’t be are wild guesses or assumptions. For any mother or father there is no better place for their child than in their arms now and for eternity.
- He is in a better place.
- She was not meant to suffer any longer.
- It was for the best.
- Better it happened now than in x amount of time (days, weeks, months, years).
Refrain from assuming you know how the grieving parent feels. You can’t know that. These comments cut like a knife. There is nothing that compares to parental grief.
- I know how you feel.
- It must be hard.
- You must feel terrible!
Beliefs and spirituality
Do not share your beliefs even if you think you follow the same religion or spiritual practices. The grieving parents might not be in a place to feel the same way about their religion or spirituality following the loss. Keep your religious beliefs, spiritual ideas, or ideologies to yourself.
- God needed a special angel.
- It was God’s plan.
- It was meant to be this way.
- It was his life’s plan.
- She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go.
How to grieve
Suggestions on how to grieve and/or heal are ill-considered. They are based on the assumption that you know better on how to deal with the grief than the parents. Even if you have lost a child yourself, remember that every parental grief is based on their individual story, the meanings, and beliefs they have.
- You just need to get back to your old self.
- Chin up!
- Distract yourself.
- You need to… (followed by any suggestion).
Each trauma needs to be respected in its uniqueness. Every parent’s loss needs to be heard as its own story and with full attention. There is nothing that compares to the loss of a child.
- I know how you feel, I lost my grandmother (or dad or pet).
- I can imagine how hard it must be.
Say nothing or “I don’t know what to say” instead of any platitude.
- Life goes on.
- It will be all right.
- There is a reason for everything.
- It’s all for the best.
References to what they should be happy about, think about, or do instead are uncalled for. Whether it is fact or not is unimportant. The fact is the parents are mourning the loss of their child.
- You have two other children.
- At least you had your child for x number of years.
- You should think about your husband.
Be mindful of what may slip out of your mouth without thinking. You might be shaking your head in disbelief at these statements below. Trust me, we have all heard them. Better to say nothing at all.
- How are things at home?
- Was she in pain?
- Have another baby!
- You can have other children!
- You’re kidding!
- That’s not good!
Over-interpreting, trying to make sense of the inexplicable or finding reasons why the baby or child has died are not helpful. Every parent experiences the why question looping in their mind. Don’t add your thoughts; leave them to
work on that.
- Maybe it was because… (filling in your reasons why).
Let me fix you
Please do not try to fix, or make suggestions on what to do. The grieving parent only knows what it means to lose a child and what they want or do not want to do or be at this specific time in their grieving journey.
- You need to keep yourself busy.
- Distract yourself!
- You need some time to yourself.
- You need to look after her (said to the husband).
Leave any silver linings out of conversations with parents. If the grieving parent speaks them, it is their prerogative. It is not yours.
- It’s all for the better.
- At least . . . did not suffer.
- You have 3 other beautiful children.
- You’re lucky it was early on (in case of a miscarriage).
- You are so strong.
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What is your version of healthy grieving?
What does it look like for you?
Share it with me, us, the world because the world need your story of healing.
Let’s start a tidal wave of
when you are ready…
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Nathalie Himmelrich is the author of a number of resource books for bereaved parents and the producer of the Podcast How to Deal With Grief and Trauma. As a relationship coach, grief recovery expert, and bereaved mother herself she believes that relationships (intimate and with other support people) are the foundation for a healthy grieving experience. She is also the founder of the Grieving Parents Support (GPS) Network and the May We All Heal peer support group.