HELPING BEREAVED PARENTS
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO LEND SUPPORT
NOTE: This piece is taken from our book, “ Farewell, My
Child“ (2nd Edition), published in 2012. The full text of the book is readable
online – click here.
Or if you wish to receive a copy please
It is very difficult to see someone you love in extreme pain
– even more so when you can in no way ‘fix’ the problem and
the only thing you can do is just hang in there for as long as it takes (which
is a very long time), patiently listening to the same things over and over
again, allowing the grieving person to cry, get angry, stay silent, feel self
pity or even express suicidal emotions. In the face of such overwhelming
pain and sorrow, friends and family often don’t know what to do or say,
afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, and are likely to feel quite
powerless as a source of support.
It must be particularly difficult if you too are grieving – if you have
lost a grandchild, niece, or godchild.
I think that one of the most important things is to be patient – allow the grieving parent as much time as they need to work through the grief process. No one can say how long it ‘should’ take – no one should ever say to a grieving parent that ‘It is time to get over it’ or ‘You must pull yourself together now’.
Nothing can bring back the dead child – so
nothing can ‘fix’ the situation. Everyone feels powerless in
the face of the death of a child. You have to accept that you ARE
powerless – that your role is not to come up with some kind of solution
but rather just to be there. Being a support through the pain means being
both witness and validator. Do not be afraid to show a bereaved parent
that the loss has affected you deeply as well – parents appreciate
knowing that others are saddened by the death of their beloved child. It
helps parents to know that others know they have suffered a tragic, unbearable
loss that can neither be replaced nor repaired.
In a well meant attempt to make a bereaved parent
feel better, it can be all too easy to say something that would appear to
trivialise the loss, which can really rub salt into a parent’s wounds
when they feel that they are facing the most enormous, overwhelming
tragedy. Many of us in our group have been stung with, ‘Never
mind, you can always have another baby’. Please never say this to a
bereaved parent, it really hurts! A child that has died can never be
replaced like some commodity; and for all you know the couple may not be able
to conceive again; or the baby who died may have been born only after a long
struggle to conceive. So, whatever you say, please appreciate and
acknowledge the enormity of the bereaved parent’s loss and grief –
don’t refer to such loss as a ‘mishap’ as one unthinking
doctor did to Grace’s mother Trish. And please don’t ever say
to a bereaved parent, as someone told Sascha’s mother Kendra, ‘I
know just how you feel, my pet died last year.’
The dead child will always be an important part
of his parents’ lives. Friends may forget, may in time adjust to
seeing the parents without that child, and it might seem easier just to
‘move on’ and see the dead child as a past chapter. But for
the parents he will always be their child, and they will appreciate anyone
remembering that child, acknowledging his life, talking about him as a person,
using the child’s name without fear or discomfort. This reaffirms
for them the fact that the child lived and was loved dearly by those around
In the early days after a child’s death there are many practical things that loving friends and family can do to help. The parents may well be so dazed and in such a state of shock that they are unable to perform even the most mundane tasks. Being there to make cups of tea, provide food, clean up, help with routine household chores – these can all be a great help. Mothers from the St. George’s playgroups organised a rota and delivered cooked meals to Max’s family for a while, thoughtfully leaving them anonymously and discreetly so that they didn’t feel obliged to talk to anyone or have their privacy invaded. Max’s grandparents took on the horrendous job of sorting through his clothes and toys, cleaning, folding, sorting and packing everything. And his parents’ two sets of closest friends filtered out the rest of the world for them so that they didn’t have to face anyone – ensuring that the news was told to everyone who needed to know, helping with funeral arrangements and administrative necessities.
Even harder than being there in those whirlwind early days is
to stay the course and continue to be there as a support to the bereaved
parents. Many parents recount how it all seems to get even harder after
the initial flurry of activity, when the funeral is over and there is nothing
more to be done. When friends have gone back to their normal lives and
the house is quiet again, the hard job of learning to cope with a shattered
life and overwhelming grief only just begins. Alexandra’s mother
Marina says, ‘The friends that made a difference to me (a BIG difference)
were those few who stayed the course and persisted and persisted with me.
They would come and see me all the time, even in hospital, cook us dinner
weeks and weeks after Alex's death and never behave as if things were all back
to normal. Don't abandon a grieving parent - hang in there with
them.’ Ning’s mother Val says, ‘After the horror of the
first few weeks, check in on the bereaved couple, and perhaps create occasions
for them to just hang out with you and your family. It is always
heartwarming when friends offer time to spend with you. Some bereaved
couples appreciate having children around them, little friends of their lost
child, although not everyone can deal with it in the early days. Use your
intuition to decide how the couple feels.’ Friends of
Alistair’s parents continued to ask them to join in the social tennis at
their condo – and even if they didn’t always feel like it, they
appreciated the gesture. They also appreciated friends inviting them for
quiet dinners at their houses and not expecting them to talk much or stay long
– but just continuing to include them and care about them. Three
months after Sascha died, a close friend of the family came from far away to
stay for a while. She helped to pack his clothes away and spend time with
the other children. But she didn’t just come that one time, she
continued to write, express her concern for years, remembering death and birth
anniversaries, and visiting whenever possible. This is real friendship
and it makes a big difference.
Often friends will feel that they are treading on
eggshells, trying not to say the ‘wrong’ thing that might make the
grieving parent start to cry. But bereaved parents need friends who can
cope with their sorrow and not be afraid of their tears – it can be such
a support to be with someone who genuinely cares about you and with whom you
feel completely safe to open up and cry. The grief is not going to go
away – crying is not going to make it worse. Showing your own tears
is a way of showing solidarity and, in a strange way, it soothes the bereaved
parent to know that others are also deeply touched by their child’s
Friends would normally remember the birthday of a
child when he is alive – so please try to do the same after the child has
died. It can be a very touching gesture to the parent that their lost
child still ‘counts’ if a friend remembers his birthday, death
anniversary or other special date. Even when two, three, four or many
more years have passed, it is still comforting to know that others remember the
day your world changed forever. This is also an acknowledgement of the
fact that even years later, you will still be deeply affected by the fact of
your child’s birth and death.
Alistair’s school has not forgotten him: after he died
they set up an ‘Alistair Corner’ where children at the school could
write anything they wanted in a special big book. With sensitivity, the
school invited Anne and Helmut in to collect the book, and the things from
Alistair’s locker, during the school holidays when the place was
quieter. And a year after his death, the school arranged a tree-planting
ceremony in his honour.
(This was written by Kathy Mayo, a bereaved mother,
for the Child Bereavement Trust in the UK)
What do you say when a baby dies and someone says…
”At least you didn’t bring it home”.
What do you say when a baby is stillborn and someone says…
”At least it never lived”.
What do you say when a mother of three says…
”Think of all the time you’ll have”.
What do you say when so many say…
”You can always have another…”
“At least you never knew it…”
”You have your whole life ahead of you…”
”You have an angel in heaven…”
What do you say when someone says…nothing?
What do you say when someone says…
You say, with grateful tears and a warm embrace,
(This was written by Linda Sawley, a
nurse who had dealt with many bereaved parents, in the UK Nursing Times in
I won’t say I know how you feel – because I
I’ve lost parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends. But
I’ve never lost a child. I came close, once. I had a
miscarriage, but it’s not the same. So how can I say I know how you
I won’t say you’ll get over it – because you
Life will have to go on. The washing, the ironing, the cooking, the
cleaning, the common round. These chores will take your mind off your
loved one, but the hurt will still be there. A small corner of your heart
will grieve forever. Life carries on, but it will never be quite the
I won’t say “Never mind, your other children will be
a comfort to you – because they may not be.”
Many mothers I’ve talked to say that they easily lose their temper with
their remaining children. Some even feel resentful that they’re
alive and healthy, when the other child is not. Children can be cruel
too. They may not understand death.
I won’t say “Never mind, you’re young enough
to have another baby” – because that won’t help.
A new baby cannot replace the one you’ve lost. A new baby will fill
your hours, keep you busy, and give you sleepless nights. But it will not
be the one you’ve lost. And you mustn’t try to pretend it
You may hear all these and other platitudes from your friends
and relatives. They think they are helping. They don’t know
what else to say. You will find out who are your true friends at this
time. Many will avoid you because they can’t face you.
They’ll cross the road to avoid talking to you. Others will make
the effort to talk to you. They’ll talk about the weather, the
holidays, the school concert, but never about your child - never about you and
how you are coping.
So what will I say?
I will say I’m here. I care. Any time. Anywhere.
I’ll cry with you if need be.
I’ll talk about your loved one.
I won’t mind how long you grieve.
I won’t tell you to pull yourself together.
I’ll sit with you during birthdays and anniversaries.
No, I don’t know how you feel – but with sharing
perhaps I will learn a little of what you are going through. And perhaps
you will feel comfortable with me, and find your burden has eased.