9 Ways to Comfort Someone After the Death of a Child

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Nobody wants to even think about the death of a child, let alone talk about it. When children die, grief experts call it an “out-of-time” loss, one that doesn’t follow the natural progression—in which parents leave this earth before their children—we all expect. “It is often experienced as wrenching the fabric of life,” says Christiane Manzella, PhD, a psychologist and grief expert with the Seleni Institute in Manhattan, a non-profit dedicated to the emotional health of women and families. That kind of rift is terrifying to face, but if it happens to someone you know and love, the most important thing you can do is be with them through it. It’s not going to be easy, but your support is critical. Here are nine ways to give it.

1. Show up

Unfortunately, the fear surrounding this kind of loss keeps many people from engaging with it. So parents often watch close friends disappear when they need them most. “Do not vanish,” says Jessica Sprecher, whose daughter Lucy died of brain cancer in September 2008, just shy of her 6th birthday. “A lot of people went away because they didn’t know how to interact with me or speak with me, so they just didn’t,” says Sprecher. That left her incredibly isolated. “The number one thing you can do is be present,” she says.

That means making—and following through on—plans. Ellen Hollander-Sande, whose son Caleb died of Burkett’s Lymphoma in September 2013 at the age of 6, still remembers how two different friends pulled out of plans they had made with her. “Those two experiences really stick with me,” says Hollander-Sande. “They had no way to know, but both were hugely devastating. Those plans were the things keeping me alive for those two days,” says Hollander-Sande, who likens supporting a bereaved parent to taking care of someone who is severely ill. “You need to work around their needs, make the plan, be present, and let it go where it needs to go.”

At the same time, “keep visits short,” recommends Manzella. “Usually bereaved parents are exhausted and confused and frightened. Short visits let them know you are still there, but don’t further add to stress and exhaustion.”

2. Help without being asked

“Bereaved parents will not ask for help and asking a bereaved parent, ‘What can I do?’ usually elicits a smile and ‘Oh don’t worry, we’re fine,’” says Manzella. “Don’t wait. Dive in and help.” Start with everyday tasks such as laundry, cooking, and caring for other children. The preschool Sprecher’s daughter attended paid for a laundry service. A friend’s mother set her up with a cleaning service, and two others planned for and carried out her son’s 8th birthday party (which came just two days after Lucy’s death). “I showed up, and that was all I had to do,” says Sprecher. “That was really, really important.” Hollander-Sande recommends checking in before moving forward with any big plans by saying, “I’d like to do X, is that OK with you?”

3. Keep them connected to support

Since you cannot be there at all times, it’s critical to help parents connect to all the sources of support they have available to them, such as other friends, community groups, family, clergy, anyone who can show up and be there for them. “Natural supports are usually the first and most effective line to help bereaved parents,” says Manzella.

4. Acknowledge death

“Don’t be afraid to say the real words—death, dying, dead—because that is what has happened,” says Manzella. “Euphemisms can add to the distress by not acknowledging the reality of this loss.”

5. Listen to them and be with them

“There are no right words to say,” says Sprecher. “The best things that people said were, ‘I can’t even imagine what you are going through, but I love you and I am here for you.’” And being there means tolerating all of the emotions that bereaved parents experience. “Some days I can talk about it and be OK,” says Sprecher, “and other days I can say the exact same words and be a basket case. The emotions are definitely unpredictable.”

Hollander-Sande warns against trying to connect by asking how a parent is doing. “I had a friend who was addicted to saying, ‘how are you?’ in a very earnest way. But it was just too hard to figure out an answer. I was paralyzed by the question. At some point I told her, ‘You can’t ask how are you? anymore. She meditated on it and realized that she needed to say, ‘Hey I’m thinking of you.’” Call, text, and check in regularly, recommends Sprecher. “Say ‘you are on my mind today, and I wanted to tell you I love you.’”

6. Remember and talk about their child

Bereaved parents tell Manzella all the time, “People think that asking about my deceased child will make me feel worse, but I am already feeling worse.” In fact, for many bereaved parents talking about their child is one of the few things that brings comfort and respite from sorrow. “The hardest time I have is when people don’t want to mention Lucy’s name,” says Sprecher, “because I still want to talk about her.”

“Telling stories allows parents to rekindle the love and connection to that child that is not based solely on the memories of the child’s last days or the memory of the death,” says Manzella. “If there’s a friend who can be with them and listen, that is such a gift.” Likewise, sharing your own memories and love for their children can mean so much. Sprecher recalls the time a friend showed up on her doorstep with a shirt that had one of her daughter’s catch phrases on it: “Pink is the new black.” Says Sprecher, “The most precious thing to me is having people in my life that had some kind of actual connection with Lucy when she was alive.”

Another way to show your love for the parent and child alike is to contribute to any kind of memorial fund with a personal note of remembrance or offer to set one up.

7. Stay in it for the long haul

“Often parents experience a deep sense of loneliness and isolation around six months after their child has died,” says Manzella. “Don’t assume that just because a parent is going to work, functioning, taking care of the children, that they don’t need your ongoing support. That’s often when they need it most.” Similarly, anniversaries of a child’s birth or death, holidays such as Mother’s Day, or milestones (like the year a child would have moved on to another school or graduated) can be incredibly difficult. “Put those dates on your calendar,” suggests Hollander-Sande, “and make sure you touch base.”

8. Keep guilt out of the conversation

“Any parent whose child dies blames themselves in 7,000 ways,” says Hollander-Sande, “so any time you are talking about the normal worries of parenting, ‘I shouldn’t have done this,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ try to be cognizant of that.” Another area to be mindful of is how and when you talk about death. “Making light of death or suffering or wishing death upon anybody even in a joking manner is really awful,” says Sprecher.

Similarly telling a bereaved parent that you “can relate” is rarely a good idea, unless you too have a lost a child. Losing a parent, while incredibly difficult, is a different kind of loss than when a child dies before his or her parents. Rather than assuming you understand their experience, just listen to it.

9. Look for signs that they need professional support

“If bereaved parents find that they are having a really difficult time moving through grief or feeling stuck, let them know that there is help available,” says Manzella. You can help them begin the search for trained support at adec.org.

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