For the parents and immediate family trying to live through this soul-destroying sadness, their grief is their own and no one else can possibly understand the pain they are experiencing unless they have suffered the same loss themselves. If it hasn’t happened to you, you simply can’t ‘know how they feel’ – even though you may be shattered yourself (by the way, it’s ok for you cry, too).
Directly knowing someone who has been affected by such tragedy renders you feeling utterly helpless. You want to take their pain away for them, but you don’t know how. Feeling awkward and uncomfortable is natural and understandable. What are the right words to say to them? It doesn’t matter too much (I’ll get to that bit in a minute), but please do say something. It’s very important to the devastated parents that you acknowledge their loss. The silence from a friend or loved one who doesn't make contact because they don't know what to say, or are worried they'll say the wrong thing, is positively deafening. If the thought of a face-to-face meeting or a phone call in the very early days is a little daunting, drop a card in the mail or write a short email at the very least.
What NOT to say:
"Be brave, don't cry"
"It was God's will"
"It was a blessing"
"Get on with your life – this isn't the end of the world"
"God needed another flower / angel"
"At least s/he wasn't older"
"You must be strong for the other children"
"You're doing so well"
"You're young, you'll get over it"
"Time will heal"
"At least you have their other children”
"You can always have another child”
"Give it time"
"This will make you stronger"
"Everything happens for a reason"
"S/he’s in a better place"
"Now you have an angel"
While there are no ‘right words’, there is a lot you can do.
How to show your support:
- Remember to ask, “How are you really doing?” but only if you’re willing to listen
- Listen with an open heart, sincere concern, respectfully and without judging, without giving advice and don’t try to give all the answers
- Be willing to listen to the same story over and overTreat the couple equally – fathers need as much support as mothers
- Be around… to listen, to run to the supermarket, to drive, help with the other kids, or whatever else seems needed at the time
- Give special attention to any brothers or sisters: at the funeral and in the following months. They hurt too, are confused and in need of attention which their Mum and Dad may not be able to give
- Write on your calendar the significant dates of the child’s birth/death and acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries (I call them “angelversaries”) in following year(s)
- Extend invitations to the bereaved but understand if they say no or change their minds at the last minute. Continue to call and visit
- Encourage them to be patient and not to expect too much of themselves
- Don’t be vague in your offers to help; a person in mourning won’t know how or when to ask. Be specific:
- I’m going to the shops - what do you need?
- Let me take the kids on Sunday afternoon.
- On Thursday I’m bringing over dinner for the family.
- I’ll come and baby-sit tomorrow evening to give you a break.
- Do you want to get out tonight to talk or walk?
- Congratulate the bereaved on good and happy news / events, while appreciating that they still carry a tremendous burden of grief
- Be sensitive that being around other babies or children a similar age to the deceased might make a bereaved parent uncomfortable
With generous thanks to M.I.S.S.(Mothers In Sympathy & Support) for some wonderful points on this list.
After we lost Jayden, I came across a great piece of writing that summed up my feelings as a bereaved parent perfectly (if anyone knows of it’s author, please contact me as I would love to give this person their due credit): The Wishes of an Angel's Mum and Dad.
As time moves on, talk with your friend or family member and look for the meaning in this loss. Together you can mull over some questions that might bring some clarity to what has happened. Through patience and gentleness, s/he will one day again have hope.