When a child dies, the shock is often great and we don’t know how to respond when such a tragedy befalls our community. Thinking through such a devastating situation is almost unimaginable and we put such thoughts out of our minds. Unfortunately, there are times when we are faced with these darkest of hours. We feel pain and wonder what the parents must be going through. And for a moment we can’t help but put ourselves in their shoes, hug our children a little tighter, and cry for their unbearable loss. We wonder how we can help. What do we do? What do we say?
My community recently had the tragic unexpected death of a toddler, a beautiful little girl whose life was cut inexplicably far too short. The parents have been left to suffer immeasurably, their closest friends and family were reeling, the community in shock. As a therapist I was involved with helping the family but through it was sought out by many in the community wanting to know what they could do.
How can you help? Here are some ways from my experiences as a counsellor and information provided by brave parents who have gone through the loss of a child and reached out and shared.
There are obvious and less obvious ways to help a family. In our community help came from workplaces, friends and all corners to meet practical the needs of meals, rides, phone calls, places to stay, flights for supportive family to come in, and help with other complicated logistics. This is a great place to start. What practical things could the family use? Think day to day, think practical, and ask the family, they will likely need something you wouldn’t expect.
Think Future Assistance
Also think a few weeks out. How can we organize and spread out the support so as not to overwhelm? Initially the event is on everyone’s mind but time will pass, people get busy, so be mindful of this and check in in three weeks, three months and on to see what practical needs might be needed at that time. Grief is a long journey.
Help Preserve Memories
One mom who lost her infant son talked about gathering memories and how important it will be to print the pictures that you might have of their child, help them back up the pictures they have, create photo albums, and write out quotes their child has said or special interests. Also, ask to see the pictures. This same mom said she was longing to share her son and to keep talking about him, so offer to sit with them and learn about the child and the background of the picture. If you are thinking about giving a support gifts consider keepsakes, lockets, plants to plant, and engraved items.
Ask About the Child and Grief Specifically
Check in with the parent directly about the grief. Are you okay? Is rhetorical as they aren’t, nor will be for some time, perhaps ever. Try “how are you managing your grief around *use child’s name* today?" Obviously you can take your cue from the parent on how open they are feeing at that time, but as I have learned through the years, bereaved parents find people avoid talking about their child that died and avoid even saying the name as they are afraid to upset them. As one parent said, “We are always thinking about our child; you won't have reminded us of something we can never forget!”, and she also added that hearing your child’s name is music to the ears of a bereaved parent, they feel comfort that the child is not forgotten by others.
Remember Important Dates
Families are often touched by people remembering occasions like a birthday, holidays and the anniversary of their child’s death, so reach out and ask. Again, they are already thinking about the loss so be there to think and remember with them.
Just Be There
Sit with them, walk with them, and help create a safe space to feel feelings and process events. It truly is the bulk of what I do as a counsellor in these situations. It is okay to say you don’t know what to say. You can listen. Sometimes this means simply sitting in silence. I find that a lot of people are uncomfortable with silence, but allow it to happen and let go. Avoiding the family because you don’t have the words can be very hurtful, so be as present as you can be. You might say the wrong thing, and it happens, and you can apologize, but avoiding the situation all together is felt harder.
Don’t Try to Fix it
You can’t:. A colleague of mine who lost her mother in a tragic car accident said that the only fixing is resurrecting, so let that go. This also means letting go of trying to cheer up or lighten up the moment. There might not be any foreseen ups, and finding them is not your job. It is better to sit quietly and patiently with them in the downs.
It is okay to cry. The situation Is devastating and you are allowed your feelings. Just make sure to use the comfort in/dump out approach.
If you aren’t sure about a scenario or if something you said was wrong, ask, I can’t stress this enough. For example, if you aren’t sure if they want to be around your kids say “I am wondering if you want to come by the house but wondered how you would feel if my kids were present?” Let them tell you. They might want to be surrounded by people and children or might need a break from certain reminders; they will let you know.
There are things you can do to help a family facing loss. Think practically and supportively to figure out how you can best help.
A special thank you to the parents in our community who have lost children who were able to provide many of these ideas, to my colleagues that have helped me think through my support in many situations over the years, and the many educators who write about grief and loss and provide lifelines for parents experiencing this pain.