The loss of a child is a loss like no other you can imagine, and in my experience, it is compassion and love that helps the most during the dark days, weeks, months and years that follow. This is a grief that does not ever end and is the loss of a dream. It is a grief that will last a lifetime – there is no “getting over it”.
For the family and friends, it is hard to know what to say and how to help. Below are a few ideas from my experience. Remember – everyone grieves differently so rather than trying to assume what they are going through or how they are feeling, just be an ear and a shoulder for them and keep the standard words of encouragement at bay because they can sometimes do more hard than good.
- Avoid phrases like “You can try again”, “God has a plan”, “It just wasn’t meant to be”, “Aren’t you glad you already have children”. May be helpful for some things in life – not this.
- In the beginning, there is really nothing that can be said that feels like enough. “I love you”, “I am here”, “I am praying for you”, “I am so sorry” are always good.
- Remember important dates – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the day/date of the loss of the child, the baby’s due date. For me, the 17th of each month and Fridays are hard. Acknowledging that with a text, card or phone call is very nice.
- Do not feel the need to eulogize or honor the child in some way. This was very personal for me. She was alive and died inside my body and I felt responsible for the way we decided to honor her and use her name. If you have an idea or want to send or do something, I would recommend running the idea past the parents first.
- Understand that your friend or family member will likely never, ever be the person you knew before they lost their child. They are forever changed.
- Check in and let them know you are thinking of them. Often. When you can, use the baby’s name.
- If you are a fellow mom of a little one, avoid complaining about late night feedings, fussiness or anything related to the trials of having a new baby. This may seem obvious, but hearing this is really, really painful for a mom who would give anything to be sleep deprived and overwhelmed.
- Offer to drop off a meal or better yet, leave one on their porch in a cooler with easy instructions to prepare. I felt like seeing no one in the days/weeks/months after we lost Madison. Having to entertain someone who dropped off a meal prevented me from accepting a lot of generous offers.
- Ask how you can best help – talking? not talking? screaming? praying? crying? Everyone grieves differently and every day along that path is different.
- Listen. Really, really listen when they talk to you. don’t feel the need to share your experience unless they ask. Don’t feel the need to advise or counsel. Just listen.
- Don’t ask how they feel or if they are “better”. This was a really tough one for me because it felt as though I should be at a different stage of grief or farther along – it felt like pressure and more often than not, I flat out lied.
- Try to be patient if they are rude or short. Anger is a huge part of this and sometimes that anger comes out at the wrong time and with the wrong people.
- Don’t make small talk. It’s so tempting to try and fill the empty space with current events, gossip, etc. It’s hard to explain, but this is so irrelevant to someone who has just lost a child and it is grueling to carry on a conversation about nothing.
- Birthday parties and events with lots of people and babies are hard. I want to be invited, but I may not come and if I do, I may not stay long. We had a full on meltdown at a pumpkin patch shortly after we lost Madison – I swear every baby I saw was a tiny, beautiful little girl. It’s impossible to see little babies and not think of her.
- Understand that everything we knew about life and all the plans we had made are changed, forever. There will always be a “what if” and the feeling that life is not quite complete.
- Don’t forget the Dads. I watched my husband use every bit of his strength to support and love me, all the while suffering himself – and having to leave the house everyday and face the sad faces of the world. The expectation is they keep it together even though they may be falling apart. They need you too.
- One of the kindest things said to me after the loss of Madison was “this does not mean you won’t have a happy life”. This was said to me by a very dear friend who lost her daughter as well. She told me you will never stop thinking of her, you will never stop missing her at Christmas, her birthday, but you will have happy days. This gave me so, so much hope.
My best advice is don’t stop reaching out – while you may try to seek the grandest of gestures to help your friend and honor their loss, kind silence with space for them to share, and a warm hug may be the greatest gift you can give.