On the eve of my daughter’s Angel Day, I feel the need to share a post I created on my Facebook page a few months ago. At that time, two little boys in my community had died in a horrible lake accident and it affected all of our lives dramatically. I was getting calls from a number of people who were paralyzed on what to say or how to act with the families. In response to those calls, I wrote this post. I hope that it helped people then, and I hope it helps others in the future who are facing this most devastating nightmare.
When A Child Dies
I’ve received a number of messages today, asking my advice on what to say to the families of the children who died this week. While I’m not a grief counselor, I am a mom whose child has died and am sharing this advice from that perspective only.
First, be aware of some dynamics that are occurring for the parents. When a child dies, it isn’t only a human spirit that goes missing…it is the story that is attached to that little soul. You see, from the moment the pregnancy stick turns positive, parents create stories…the first smile, step, word…the first day of kindergarten, first time at bat, first date and that walk across the stage receiving that precious diploma. There are stories created about other milestones… the walk down the aisle, the grandchildren that will come…so many stories, so many firsts, so much hope for the future linked to those 10 fingers and toes.
So when a child dies, it isn’t only the missing them that hurts…it is the mourning of each and every story that has suddenly and irreversible been stamped The End, much sooner than expected. I feel it too, many years later. My Brennan would be turning 20 this September…the story of that big 2-0 birthday bash is a story I will mourn on that day. It doesn’t end, but it can be accepted and peace can be found.
It is ok to be sad, I’m crying as I write this. Sadness is a beautiful emotion that allows us to understand the importance of something that is now gone. So embrace the sadness and do not attempt to resist it…it will knock on your door until you welcome it, it is a persistent little thing.
Now, with that said, here is my advice on how to support grieving families:
1. Do not tell them you know how they feel. It doesn’t matter if your own child has died; you can never know how they feel in that moment. Do not make the grief about you…it is about them. Honor them by simply telling them you love them and are keeping them in your heart and prayers. That is enough.
2. Do not tell them that their child is in a better place. In the heart of a parent, no matter their beliefs, the “better place” is with them. I had a lady say to me once “aren’t you glad she is in heaven?” When I said “no, I’m not” she began to argue with me on why I should be glad she was in that great place. I’m still triggered by that memory…don’t “should” on a parent who has lost their child. They are “shoulding” on themselves quite enough.
3. Allow them to share their stories of their child. You may instinctively find it uncomfortable to listen, but parents need to share those stories, to get those stories out of their bodies and into the universe. They need to mourn each and every one of them and giving them the space to do so is a gift. We are a “fix it” society. We want them to be better and mistakenly believe we are opening a wound by giving this space. That is true…you are opening a wound, a wound that will fester and rot if not given that lancing. Be with them and listen while that “blood” (their stories) flow…the wound will be better for it.
4. Do not try to alleviate the guilt the parents feel. Guilt is like a great white shark taking giant bites of our soul with every “should” and “should not.” Instead of telling them to not feel guilty for what they perceive they did or didn’t do…grief always is connected with guilt…remind them of what wonderful parents they were, how much their child loved them, how much they loved their child. Did you know that you can flip a shark on its back and it won’t bite, it almost become paralyzed and disabled, is calmed. In that position you could hold it and rub its belly, be in awe of the amazing creature it is. Same is with grief…don’t run from it or fight it…flip it over and smother it with love.
5. Just be there. You can’t fix it, speak it away but you can be there and hold a hand, give a hug and listen.
6. Just do it. With best intentions people ask “what can I do to help” and offer “let me know what you need.” A grieving brain doesn’t know how to answer those questions; it doesn’t know what it needs. Instead, do what needs to be done. Mow their lawn, water their plants, wash the dishes, bring healing and healthy food, lift the cup of water up to their mouth. Your own gut knows what needs to be done, follow those instincts and do it.
I’m sure there is much more I could add, but right now this feels like enough. I send my love to the families and friends of this beautiful children. You will be forever in my heart.