The loss of a child, born or unborn, a few years into life or just after conception, is one of the most difficult things to bear.
I am often asked by friends and sometimes people I don’t know, what to do when a friend or a family member loses a child. How can they help?
We tend to freeze when we hear the news. It brings up our own fears of death and we don’t know quite what to do or say. Even people who have been through grief can be struck dumb or fall into platitudes that are comfortable. “He’s in a better place,” or “You can always have another,” are the last things a grieving parent wants to hear.
Since the beginning of time people have had to deal with losing children. With modern medicine and better sanitation and safety measures, young children die less often then they did a hundred or two hundred years ago. But there have always been infertility, miscarriage, still birth, infant death, accidents and diseases. No one is immune and when it happens, it is no reflection on the parents. Death is not contagious, though the way people stay away from the bereaved, you might think it was.
So when it happens to a friend or family member, what can we do to help? Realize that others may be backing away, so step forward and offer support. This is what anyone who has lost a child needs most. And support can take any form. Whatever feels comfortable for you or the person in pain is what’s best. Don’t worry about what you “should” do. There are no rules.
Support can simply be love in the form of affection or frequent calls to check in. Bringing food is a gesture of compassion and practical support. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone who is grieving is your ear. Listening patiently and with your heart open is very healing for the person in pain. Let them tell you the story of what happened and really listen. You don’t need to offer any advice, and honestly, it is easy to offend someone who is grieving with comments or questions that miss the mark. If they want to give details, they will, but hold off on questions about why things went they way they did. The best thing is always just to listen, let the person know you care and try to really be there for them. If it’s someone you don’t know very well, it’s fine to simply send a card or other gesture of love. But if you want to do more, even if you are not a close friend, you can keep checking in with them, and listening some more.
When death steals a child, it is the loss of all that love that hurts most. All the love we had for them and that they reflected back to us. But it is also the loss of our own expectations, our aspirations and dreams for our children that makes it so hard to let go. In them we saw our life going a certain way and suddenly, we realize with great disappointment, that the shape of our family is not up to us. We can plan it all we want, but ultimately we are not in control. We do our best to fulfill our primary purpose as parents, to protect them, yet what happens to them is often out of our hands.
What we choose to do with this reality is up to us. But what I try to do, as much as I can, is enjoy what I have. Two beautiful girls. Alive and healthy, I hope for a very long time. I try not to worry too much, because that just gets in the way of enjoying them for who they are, today.