How To Support Someone Who Is Grieving Their Child

October 12, 2016

Let’s be honest.
Loving someone who is grieving the loss of their child (or anyone they love) isn’t always easy.

It’s hard to see those we love be in pain and not be able to do anything about it. We want them to feel better, to smile, to laugh, and to be okay again. Feeling better sooner rather than later would be even better.

As humans, we are problems solvers. We want to fix things, to find ways to get past problems or challenges faster and easier. We like things to be neat and orderly and fit nicely into boxes and categories.

The loss of a child is none of those things.  Grief is none of these things. It’s not fixable. We can’t rush it or make to move through faster. Nothing will ever bring our children back. It is anything but neat and orderly or easily categorized.

Grief is messy. Grief is painful. Grief is confusing. Grief is complex. Grief is not going to go away overnight. Grief is always going to be part of our lives.

I get it. I’ve been on both sides of the situation – the griever and the one sitting with the grieving.

We can feel helpless and overwhelmed and lost on either side.

So, if we can’t fix things for those we love when they are grieving or make them feel better or make the grief go away faster, how we do help?

Be Present

Be there with them in it. Instead of pulling away or trying to gloss over the pain and the heartbreak, lean into it with them.

Ask them how they are doing.
Sit with them in silence.
Give them a hug or just sit beside them.
Bring them food (or grocery gift cards) or take care of household chores so they have one less thing to try to figure out in the heaviness and disorientation of grief.
Send them cards, texts, emails to let them know you are thinking of them.
Remember them on holidays or the anniversaries of birthdays or death days – then let them know you remember too.
Speak their beautiful child’s names.
Share memories.
Tell them you miss their child too – or that you wish you could have known them.

Related: Four Reasons Sisters-In-Loss Rock

However you decide to share your presence, Be Proactive.

Don’t wait for them to reach out to you.

Grief is overwhelming and too often those living with it feel burdensome or hesitant to ask for support.

Instead of waiting for them to ask for support, reach out to them and offer ways to help.

Can I get your groceries for you this week?
Do you want some company? We can do whatever you need.
How about I take care of your lawn this week so you don’t have to worry about it.
I know _______’s birthday is coming up, do you want to do anything to honor it?
Would you like to go for a walk together? We can talk or not talk, whatever you need.

Send books you have found or see that could offer comfort.
Send them notes to let you know you’re thinking of them.
If something reminds you of the one they’ve lost, send them a message telling them about it.

Do something. Reaching out, even if imperfectly, is almost always infinitely better than not. Grief can feel so very lonely and isolating. Sometimes people think they are helping by giving space or not reaching out – but that usually just increases that sense of isolation.

Also, reach out and continue to reach out even if they don’t respond or respond with no for a while. Your act of reaching out still helps. Don’t give up too soon.

Remember, support is different than fixing.

Your support helps. It comforts. It helps us know we aren’t alone. It brings a little light into the darkness.

It doesn’t fix our grief. Nothing can. Nothing save our children returning to us from the grave will ever fix this.

Be patient with us. This thing called grief will last far longer than either of us want. In fact, we will have grief and miss our children until the day we join them in whatever comes next.

This pain and this longing and this emptiness that we are feeling is a natural part of losing the child we loved so very much. The greater the love, the greater the grief.

This pain doesn’t need to be fixed – nor can it be. It does need to be acknowledged, recognized, and allowed. Chances are, you will tire of this grief long before it eases or lightens for us. So will we.

It cannot be fixed and it cannot be rushed. It must simply be felt and lived through.

Your support does make the load a little easier to bear.

At some point, it’s highly likely our grief will make you very uncomfortable. Perhaps it will bring up your fears around loss or remind you of old grief of your own. Or perhaps it will seem so foreign and unfamiliar to you that it will scare you.

Related: Circles of Support

Either way, please, lean into that discomfort and leave the platitudes and cliques left unsaid.

Telling us that, “Time heals all wounds” or, “He/she is in a better place now” or, “It just wasn’t meant to be” or, “Everything happens for a reason” or any of the thousand other well-worn platitudes does not help.

Whether any of these sayings are true or not does not matter in the least (let’s face it, truth varies widely across belief systems and people). Besides, true or not true, in the face of grief they simply aren’t helpful or useful.

They are an attempt to fix our grief and to ease your discomfort.

And if you’d said such things before, don’t worry – we’ve all said them a time or two in our lives. Even those of us most familiar with grief.

We’re human and we make mistakes. It’s more important to forgive ourselves and make a point to find other ways to handle our discomfort in the future. It never hurts for us to take a good look at why loss makes us feel so uncomfortable or afraid – if fact, if we all did, our world might be a more peaceful and loving place.

In the end, it comes down to this:

If in doubt, simply acknowledge or ask.

If you aren’t sure if what you are offering for support is helpful or not – ask.
If you aren’t sure what they might need or want from you – ask.
If you don’t know what to say – acknowledge that and just say that.
If you are afraid, as many are, that bring up their child will hurt them more, ask them if they want you to talk about them or say their name. (FYI, 99% of the time, they’ll say yes.)

Connection and compassion require far less than we tend to think they do.

Be present.
Be proactive and reach out.
Offer support instead of fixing.
Embrace your own discomfort.
Simply acknowledge or ask.

But most of all, love. In the end, all any of us really want is to feel seen, heard, and loved.

So, love.

It’s as simple as that.

*The original version of this article was posted here on Emily’s website.

  • Emily Long

    Emily Long is the mama of two daughters gone too soon, a Life Archaeologist, coffee shop writer, consumer of bagels and hot cocoa, endless reader, lover of travel, and occasional hermit. Emily is committed to supporting families who experience the death of a child and writes frequently on the topic of pregnancy and infant loss. She speaks nationally advocating for the voice of grieving parents and families. Emily provides local and distance counseling services for grief and loss, trauma, anxiety, and other painful life stuff. In her downtime, you can usually find her in her hermit house re-reading Harry Potter (again).

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