A child has died. You’re at a loss. You don’t know what to say to the grieving parents. You don’t know what to do, but you feel that you must do something to support them. You want to send a gift, but you’re unsure what would be appreciated and what might cause unintended hurt. So first and foremost:
THANK YOU. Thank you for acknowledging our loss. Thank you for taking time to send a remembrance of our beloved child. Thank you for mourning with us. Nothing you send could be anything but appreciated.
That said, here are some things that were difficult for me to receive after our son’s death (and some alternative solutions):
- Living items such as plants or trees. In the aftermath of a child’s death, the thought of even caring for ourselves is difficult. I remember reading the planting instructions for a tree that I received and feeling completely overwhelmed. Here was a living, beautiful thing for which I was responsible. I couldn’t keep my son alive. Why would I be able to keep a tree alive? For months, this and several other trees languished in pots while I agonized over where to put them and whether they would live or die. Instead of a tree (or plant), consider having a tree planted in a national forest. This can be done all over the world. You can go to the US Forest Service site for more information.
- Items that are particularly religious or refer to the deceased child as an angel. Some people take great comfort in religious beliefs, while others do not and can be offended by these ideas. If you don’t know the person well, do not make assumptions about personal beliefs. Instead, consider lighting a candle or dedicating a mass or religious service in honor of the child.
- Donations to your personal causes. Without knowing if the parents support the cause, it could be unintentionally hurtful. Instead, consider donating to a cause near and dear to the bereaved parents’ hearts. If the child was stillborn, consider making a donation to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a non-profit that creates beautiful photos of stillborn children. If the child died from SIDS, consider a donation to the American SIDS Institute. If in doubt, ask the parent.
- Overly inspirational posters, cards, or books. At some point, it is good to know that we will be able to go an entire day without crying and to know that we will survive this devastating loss. At some point, we will recognize and acknowledge our strength in the face of the impossible. In the early stages of grief, however, we are not ready to see the silver lining of our loss. We are not ready to acknowledge that yes, life will go on. We need time to grieve. Instead, consider a book about grief such as Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore, You Are the Mother of All Mothers , or It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok by Megan Devine.
- Don’t forget the father and grieving siblings; they are frequently overlooked. When sending something, address it to the family. Include something specific to the father, such as the book Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back or something a father can wear in remembrance of his child like this leather bracelet. For children, consider the books Something Happened, I Miss You, or Lifetimes. Crayons, markers, and coloring books on how to deal with death are also excellent ideas. When in doubt, most kids love Play-Doh.
Most importantly, remember that the most helpful things for a grieving family aren’t things at all. They are gestures, words spoken from the heart, and support. Meal cards and delivery, grocery shopping for the family, house cleaning services, heartfelt cards, and phone calls help break down the wall of isolation. Don’t be afraid to reach out. We may not respond to you right away – the messages or phone calls may go unanswered for a while – maybe forever.
Have no doubt though, we are there, on the other end, reading them, grateful that someone is reaching through the dark to offer a glimmer of hope.