How Can I Help … When a Child Dies?
A child has died. As a person wishing to give support, regardless of the child’s age or the circumstances of their death, you may feel helpless or inadequate and not know what to say or do. You may wonder how you can help ease the pain and mend the hurt.
What Can You Do to Help?
There are no easy answers, no standard approaches that are universally helpful. There are no magic formulas that will make the pain go away. It is natural to feel helpless when the child, sibling or grandchild of a friend or relative dies. Remember that showing your loving concern can be very comforting to a grieving family. Please don’t avoid them because you feel inadequate.
Grieving families who receive continuing support and understanding are better able to cope with their grief and loss. The following suggestions may help you provide that support:
- Don’t try to find magic words that will take away the pain. There aren’t any. A hug, a touch, a listening ear, and a simple “I’m so sorry” offer real comfort and support.
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Your tears are a tribute to both the loved one and the family. Yes, they may cry with you, but their tears can be a healthy release.
- Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” It is very difficult to comprehend the depth of the loss when a child, sibling or a grandchild dies, and to say you do may seem presumptuous.
- Avoid using, “They’re in a better place” and other clichés that attempt to minimize or explain the death. Don’t try to find something positive in the child’s death, such as, “At least you have other children or siblings or grandchildren.” There are no words that make it all right that their loved one has died.
- Listen to them express the anger, the questions, the pain, the disbelief, and the other roller-coaster ride of emotions that they may be experiencing. Understand that family members often have a need to talk about their loved one and the circumstances of their death over and over again. It may be helpful to encourage them to talk by asking a gentle question such as, “Can you tell me about it?”
- Avoid judgments of any kind. “You should . . .” or “You shouldn’t . . .” is not helpful. Decisions and behaviors related to displaying or removing photographs, reliving the death, idealizing the child, sibling or grandchild, or expressing anger, depression or guilt may appear extreme in many cases. These behavior patterns are normal, particularly in the first years following their loved ones’ death.
- Be aware that for families with religious convictions, the death may raise serious questions about their spiritual beliefs. Do not presume to offer answers. If they raise the issue, it would be better to listen and allow them to explore their own feelings. They will need to arrive at an individual philosophy about this.
- Be there. Run errands, help with household chores, provide child care, and help in whatever way is needed. Don’t say, “Call me if there is anything I can do.” That call will probably never come. Be aware of what needs to be done and offer to do specific tasks.
- Give special attention to surviving children. They are hurt, confused and often ignored. Don’t assume they are not hurting because they do not express their feelings. Many times, siblings will suppress their grief to avoid adding to their parents’ pain. Talk to them and acknowledge their loss.
- Mention the name of the loved one who has died. Don’t fear that talking about him or her will cause additional pain. The opposite is usually true. Using their name lets the family know that they are not alone in remembering them.
- Be patient. Understand that grieving family members respond differently to their pain. Some verbalize, others may seem unable or unwilling to talk, some withdraw, and others may strike out angrily.
- Sharing fond memories of their loved one through statements such as “I remember when she . . .” or “He had a wonderful gift for . . .” can be reassuring to family members and show that you appreciated their child, sibling or grandchild and are aware of their sense of loss. The family may even appreciate an amusing story. Laughter can help heal the hurting heart.
- Remember the family on important days such as their child’s, sibling’s and grandchild’s birthdays, death anniversaries and major holidays. Sending a card, calling or visiting lets the family know that you remember them too.
- Gently encourage a return to outside activities. Suggest a lunch or movie as relief from the isolation of grief. If your invitation is declined, don’t give up! Ask again, if necessary. The third or fourth time your call just may be the day that an outing would be welcome if someone took the initiative.
- There are no timetables for grief; it usually lasts far longer than anyone expects. Encourage bereaved families to be patient with themselves. They often hear, “Get on with your life; it’s time you got over this!” These demands are unrealistic. When the family expresses concern about being tired, depressed, angry, tearful, with an inability to concentrate, reassure them that grief work takes time.
- Be sensitive to the changes a bereaved family experiences. Family members will adopt new behaviors and roles as they learn to live without their loved one. They are forever changed by what can be a painful and lengthy process.
- Refer a grieving family to The Compassionate Friends, which has over 600 U.S. Chapters providing friendship, understanding and hope to bereaved families. Many types of online support are available including TCF’s comprehensive website at www.compassionatefriends.org; that includes an Online Support Community as well as TCF’s Twitter pages and private Facebook groups. Call TCF’s National Office at 877-969-0010 for Chapter referral information and links to our many other resources.
- Continue your contact with the family. Grief does not end at the funeral or on the first anniversary. Stay in touch often. In conversation, mention their loved one as you would any other member of the family. Don’t forget to mention the name of the child, sibling or grandchild who died.
On behalf of all families involved in The Compassionate Friends, we thank you for caring enough to want to help. Your loving concern makes YOU a compassionate friend.
This brochure sponsored by TCF Manhattan Chapter
in loving memory of their children, grandchildren and siblings
© 2017 The Compassionate Friends, USA