How to be there when someone's child dies -- Part I: The first days
All grief differs. The loss of a mate is different from the loss of a parent. And how grief does or doesn't get handled depends on the person who is bereaved. But one thing is certain - the death of a child is among the most agonizing of all grief events. Much has been written for the parents. But little is written about what to do or not do as a friend or family member when someone you know or love loses a child.
I have very dear friends who lost their toddler-aged son in a freak accident over 20 years ago. The father, whom I will call Chris, spoke to me willingly when I asked if he would help me in writing this article. Many thanks go to him for the generosity of his heart. He spoke to me in hopes that it might help others be as compassionate as helpful as possible.
I asked what was most helpful immediately after the loss, and then later, after the funeral and the first few weeks. PART I of this article will be about the early days. PART II, which will be published next Tuesday, will be about support in the ongoing days and will list resources.
First, do not be afraid.
Acknowledge that your friend has been through a loss. Chris and his wife were surprised at the number of people who treated them as though they had some sort of contagious disease, staying away, keeping them at a distance. Perhaps, he surmised, they feared what it might feel like to lose their own child, or feared what it might feel like to be helpless in the face of such loss. Losing a child is every parent's worst fear. The upshot was, my friends had some missing persons in the roughest point in their lives.
Second, do not shrink from looking into the eyes of grief.
Maybe some people didn't know what to say. "I will never forget the man who just stayed with me for a day, " Chris said. "He didn't say much, and we were not deep friends. He just showed up and stayed with me. We talked when I wanted to, or could. It meant so much to me" There is no magic thing to do. And every one is different. Sometimes a simple "I am so sorry this happened," said from the heart, really touches someone. It doesn't have to be flowery. It just has to be real.
Thirdly, do what you can to help be part of a supportive effort.
"It was so helpful to have people say that they were praying for us, that we were being remembered in an ongoing way and being lifted up." Chris said. Remembrances such as mass cards, memorial donations, phone calls, letters, visible touchstones that were signs of caring all were welcomed. "I may have forgotten some of them, as those first weeks were and are still a blur, but I know what we appreciated."
Fourth, do not make the bereaved handle your discomfort.
If the loss of a child tears your heart apart, deal with it separately. Put it aside as much as you can so that you do not inhibit your expression of compassion for your friend.
Fifth, offer help with the small details by just diving in and helping. Drop off a casserole and a salad in disposable containers. The everyday chores and habits of life are going to be unsprung. Try to gently insert your help in whatever way is most sensible, just to keep the family moving through these first days of shock and anguish. To say "Call me if you need anything," probably means they won't call. Either they will not be able to articulate what they need, or they will be uncomfortable asking.
Sixth Remember that the whole family is grieving, not just the Mom, not just the parents.
What didn't help?
Chris talked a fair bit about his faith. I'll share what he said for those of you to whom faith is important. He pointed out the religious platitudes that people tossed out. "Oh, you know," he said, "remarks like 'I guess God just needed another angel.' or 'I am sure God did this for a purpose.' I have to believe that our son did not die either for God's pleasure or to enhance his plans. I do know, however, that God was with us as we walked through the darkest days. That was the real comfort."
Trying to give Chris and his wife answers that were supposed to make them feel better in the midst of the agony just made it harder. When Chris and I spoke, we agreed that this may be a person's way of putting the pain in a more manageable place for themselves, as opposed to for the bereaved. But the loss of a child is not "manageable".
Chris reminded me that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that faith is "living in the midst of ambiguity". Chris went on to say that he didn't know why his son died, or even if there is a why. He added that it doesn't help when people thought they should be content with those phrases as some sort of explanation that results in comfort. They just made him angry. He knew in retrospect that people were just trying to be helpful. But at the point of their worst grief in life, neither Chris now his wife had the strength to take on anyone else's limitations.
"It helped to be reminded that God was with us in the darkness of this time. I know that God grieved with me," he said. That is a deeper and much more powerful faith statement than much of what he heard. "If we say God is in charge of every detail of what happens in life, then we are much more likely to blame God," he added. We then spoke for some time about the idea that tragedy and loss can be random, blameless. And that the relationship God has to suffering is not that he inflicts it, but that God stands with us sharing the feeling with us, and upholding us through it.
"One of the least helpful things anyone could say is that they understand what you are going through," Chris said. People say they know how you feel. They don't. Every grief is unique to every person. I never felt, prior to the loss of my son, how important it is to experience a loss in order to understand it."
If there are other children in the family, it does not help to say, "Well, at least you still have Suzie and Bill."
If the child is young, or an infant, it does not help to say, "Well, you can always try again." Or, "You can always adopt."
Though the above two paragraphs should go without saying, it is stunning the number of times people will say things like that to grieving parents.
Towards the end of this part of our talk, Chris got very quiet and then said one of the most powerful things:
"You cannot walk in the shoes of the bereaved. Just stand with them and let them tell their story."
NEXT TUES: PART TWO - the months that follow the loss of a child
Listen to the story of loss as told by Louise.
part of you does not exist anymore and it is scary as hell.. that is why they say the loss of a child is like no other loss.. you cannot compare it to another loss, with other losses you grieve and you are of course sad, but when your child dies, a part of you ceases to exist, gone just like that, gone no warning, just gone. And the life that you knew, the things you always felt, the things in your life that made sense, that you held on to, that makes up who you are - are Gone!
Mrs Spit blogs about the loss of their son, Gabriel, and tells of looking at her husband's face while they were sleeping:
I looked at Mr. Spit's face the other night, in the light of our bedside lamps, and I saw a tiredness, a loneliness, more lines than before. I saw a face that looked not older, and not old, but careworn. A face that spoke of going through hell. Of being lost in the wilderness. Of feeling more pain than any person should have to bear. A face that was not weather-worn, but life-worn. I saw lines marked Gabriel and sorrow. Lines etched in when he held up his wife, as the world around us told him that he didn't matter, and fathers don't grieve their dead children. I saw lines that came from loving me beyond all comprehension, lines that came because he could not fix this sorrow that came upon us.
In a deeply moving post entitled "I am THAT Mom", Auds says:
There is one thing, one deep, scarring, tormenting aspect of my being that I will never be able to change…I am that mom, the one who has laid one of her own in the ground, to slumber forever.
I am that mom, the one who will forever wear this loss like some sort of morbid tattoo on her soul, on her being, and etched into her heart.
I am that mom, the one who will always have that piece of her soul, floating above her in the ether like so much ozone, there but yet not there.
I am that mom, who lost the child who first blessed her with the title of mommy, mom, mother, momma…
I am the mom who no other woman ever wants to be.
I am that mom; the one other moms look at with pity and something else…something harder to articulate. Other women, upon learning of my loss, hold their children close and thank God they’ve never experienced this pain, this horrible slow demise of the soul that is the death of a child. They are intact. I am not. They look at me with pity; I look at them with jealousy.
Mata H, CE for religion and Spirituality, blogs her soul out at Time's Fool