A question that we are often asked is “How can I support my friend/family member after the death of their child?”
Many friends and family desperately want to help but worry that they will say or do the wrong thing and so may end up saying or doing nothing instead. Support from friends and family plays a huge role in helping parents along their grief journey.
Simple meaningful gestures will mean the world to the bereaved family and help them to feel loved and supported.
Simple gestures include:
Say something sincere when you first see the parents after their loss. Silence or not acknowledging the death of the child is extremely hard for bereaved parents to understand. Friends and family may say nothing because they feel uncomfortable but this is nothing compared to how the bereaved family are feeling. Put aside your own fears and doubts and offer a sincere expression of sorrow. If you don’t know what to say, “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know what to say” are all that is needed.
If you are spending time with the bereaved parents further along their grief journey just sitting in silence with them may be all that is needed. Be guided by the parent.
Listen to the bereaved family and give them space to talk or not to talk. A bereaved parent doesn’t expect you to take away their pain with a solution. Be that ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. Bereaved parents often find the need to go over their story again and again. Let them do this without judgement. Bereaved parents need space and time to process what has happened. Respect their story and listen to hear not to answer.
Be consistent. After a loss a bereaved parents life can feel very chaotic and out of control, so be the one thing they can rely on. Ask before visiting and then visit when you say you will. If you are providing meals or helping with other household chores be consistent.
Be understanding. Grief can make people forgetful and unorganised so try to be understanding if they miss an appointment or forget a catch up. Grieving parents may be emotional or angry. If they say something out of character try not to take it to heart
Be thoughtful. Remember their child’s birthday and anniversary and be mindful of other significant days in the year such as Easter, Mothers and Father’s day and Christmas.
Consider the surviving sibling(s). Parenting other children after a loss can be particularly challenging. Perhaps offer to spend some time with the sibling(s) or offer to do the kindy or school pick up or drop off. Depending on their age, surviving children will also need support – can you be that person?
Speak their child’s name. Once a child dies a parent doesn’t get to hear or see their child name as often anymore so any time that a person speaks their child’s name it is an acknowledgement that their child has not been forgotten and this is a wonderful gift to give. Losing a child is forever and many families look for the opportunity to talk about their child in a supportive environment so if possible be that supportive environment.
The journey of grief ebbs and flows and can vary in intensity. Grief can be particularly difficult to cope with at certain times of the year – one of those times being Christmas. What was a happy, joyous time is now one filled with heartache and longing to see and hold your child again.
So how can a bereaved parent survive Christmas?
Be gentle on yourself and don’t expect too much of yourself. Go at your own pace and try not to get pushed or rushed into doing things before you feel ready. Accept that you might accept an invitation but may not feel up to attending on the day and have to cancel. This is OK. Also remember it is OK to say NO to invitations.
Don’t feel pressured to entertain, take part or volunteer, if its more that you feel you can handle.
Accept offers of help, whether it be help with household chores, accepting meals or offers to look after other children, or if you have other children let loved ones and friends help with Christmas preparations (decorating the tree or purchasing presents for your other children) if you don’t feel up to it.
Accept that some Christmas traditions may be missed this year and new traditions may be started.
If you don’t feel up to it don’t open Christmas cards that you may have received. Set them aside to read at a later date.
Find time for active grieving. Try not to pack your days with lots of activities in the hope of keeping busy. Packing days full can lead to a build-up of emotions which can have a pressure cooker effect.
Take time out from your grief. Try to find something that will allow you to switch off from the day to day hardships of dealing with grief. Do something that will allow you to lose yourself if only for a few minutes. Listening to a piece of music, drawing or meditation may allow you to do this.
Look after yourself both physically and emotionally as grief is exhausting.
If you are religious, visit a church or speak with your clergy. Many people find comfort in their faith.
Remember that it is OK to smile, laugh or find joy in Christmas without feeling guilty.
Start a journal. Getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper can be hugely beneficial in helping to deal with your grief.
Speak with a professional counsellor. SIDS and Kids SA offer free professional bereavement support for any sudden unexpected loss of a child from conception to 6 years of age.
It is important for a bereaved parent to understand there is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no right and wrong way to survive Christmas. Be guided by how you feel.