By Robin Farmer
Richmond (VT) Times-Dispatch
A relative, friend or co-worker has lost a child. You approach, unsure of what to say.
Here's what you may want to say but shouldn't:
"Your child is in a better place."
"I know how you feel."
"At least you have other children."
"The Lord has a plan."
Trying to comfort bereaved parents is a delicate matter. Their whole emotional immune system has been thrown out of whack. And the wrong words can send them reeling.
"So many people have been contaminated to say those kinds of things thinking they are helpful, but they are hurtful," said Alan D. Wolfelt, author, educator and grief counselor.
"When people say inappropriate things, they close the container of your heart. The heart is a well of reception. You don't need it closed," said Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado.
Avoid common responses such as "I know how you feel," said Donna Schuurman, an expert on grief counseling for children, teens and families. "No one knows really how anyone else feels. Avoid 'God wanted him or her.' That's like well, if God is so strong, why does he want them? The pat religious answers" sometimes aren't welcomed.
Schuurman, executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, OR, said people should avoid saying "anything that in any way suggests 'you need to put this behind you and move on.' There are a lot of different ways to say that. Anything that tells people what they need or should do [should be avoided], because the thing people need most is someone to listen, to care.
"And be present for them, a companion in their grief journey – people who will really just hang out with them and find little ways to help," Schuurman said.
Susie Nash of Henrico County agrees. "Just be there," said Nash, who lost her daughter, 12-year-old Tyler, after a long illness.
"People feel compelled to say things, and that's not always necessary," she said. "A hug is good, or pick up the phone and say, 'I'm thinking of you.' And don't give up! In the early days, I wouldn't answer the phone. I listened to the answering machine and felt very grateful they called, but I couldn't talk to them."
On the other hand, some experts and bereaved parents say it is better to say something, even if misguided but well-intended, than to keep your mouth shut.
"People are so awkward – they look the other way, get suddenly very interested in their shoes if someone talks about the death of their child," Schuurman said.
John and Gina Goodman of Montpelier said some people act as if they see a black cloud trailing them. They have walked in rooms and others have walked out. The Goodmans believe some folks see them coming and wonder, "Oh, oh, are they going to talk about their dead kid?"
Their son, Alex, died from a rare illness after 42 days. If Alex fits into a conversation, they bring him up even if those present prefer they didn't, the Goodmans said.
Parents are comforted by those who aren't afraid to talk about their child long after he or she has died.
"When you lose a child, her memory is never far from your mind," Nash said. "Pick up the phone if it's her birthday and say how you know it's her birthday. You want people to remember. I love stories about Tyler. I like when people say, 'I was somewhere and I thought of Tyler.' "
Other ways to support grieving parents:
- Encourage them to cry if they need to. Cry with them.
- Refrain from removing artwork, photos or other remembrances of their child from your home.
- Don't change the subject when they talk about their dead child.
- Use the child's name in conversation, and share your memories.
- Give special attention to the child's siblings at the funeral and in the months after.
- Don't rush their grief.
"If this country can grieve for Elvis Presley for 25 years, I can grieve for my child as long as I want to," said Carol Lowry of King and Queen County. She lost her 21 year-old son, "Chip," four years ago.
Child deaths often hit unexpectedly. Parents are rarely prepared. Families, many already dysfunctional, find themselves even more fractured after such a death, experts say. Sometimes there is finger pointing and second guessing about medical care. Everyone handles grief differently. And grief is exhausting for a parent, leaving little reserve to help other children or their spouse.
Parents coping with the death of a child need to accept their sorrow and work through it, experts said. "Don't move away from the grief," Wolfelt said. "Helen Keller was right: The only way to the other side is through."
Wolfelt wrote Healing A Parent's Grieving Heart – 100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies. Among his suggestions:
- Reach out to other grieving parents. More than 100,000 children die annually (not including miscarriages and stillbirths).
- Find ways to understand your guilt and limit it.
- Realize it is OK to feel angry, selfish or resentful.
- Be compassionate with your spouse and surviving children. Understand their grief and share yours.
- Remember others who had a special relationship with your child. Thank them.
- Establish a memorial fund in your child's name.
- Learn something new, such as a sport, or take a class. Or consider volunteering.
"I've heard some people say after a death you get a new address book because some people disappear and others show up you wouldn't expect," Schuurman said.
Support groups, bereavement classes and therapy help move parents and siblings toward healing. Mourning is the expression of grief, such as crying and talking, and is essential to healing. Support groups are good because members understand the loss and can guide newcomers during their grief, experts said.
Outside such circles, most people run into trouble because they want to alleviate the parent's suffering. But they can't.
"It's extremely difficult to be with people in that kind of pain," Schuurman said. "No, you can't fix it. We're a society that everything is resolved in a half-hour sitcom and we move on. Why would we tell someone to put this behind you? How could we possibly know their pain when they just buried a child?
"Whether their child is 3 hours old or 17 years old, it's still a part of them. We live in a society that says you should be over by it now. We don't give people a long time. But there is no ending," Schuurman said.
"You have all the dreams of what that child could have been all their life. If someone dies at 15 and five years later you see other 20-year-olds, you think about your child. That's an experience other people don't understand."
Compassionate Friends, an international nonprofit, self-help organization, offers monthly meetings, telephone support, a newsletter and an annual national conference. It has chapters in the Virginia cities of Richmond, Ashland, Mechanicsville and Hopewell. Members say they derive strength and comfort from having a safe place to talk, cry and laugh about their child.
Children need support, too, after losing a sibling or parent. Bereaved children without the benefit of a healthy support system have higher rates of depression, anxiety and behavioral problems, experts say. Comfort Zone Camp allows children to express their emotions with each other in a weekend camp setting.
Children can also attend 10-week sessions in age-appropriate groups. Parents may attend their own sessions at the same time, so the entire family works on healing.
How parents heal is often linked to their support from family and friends. If you are in doubt about how to approach parents, Schuurman has a suggestion.
"I've been in this work 17 years and I've heard hundreds of people say, 'I didn't know what to say, so I avoided them.'
"I just say, how hard is it to say, 'I'm thinking of you. I care and I'm sorry for your loss. I want to be supportive, but I'm not sure how?' "