This is the advice I never want to have to give. Or rather, it’s the advice I never want anyone to ever need. But the hardest of all truths is that sometimes the order of the world turns upside down and children die. In the years since my firstborn son Phoenix died, I’ve heard from many people wondering what they can do for a loved one or colleague who has lost a child. I began keeping this list, which has evolved with the help from other bereaved parents who have added their own suggestions. I hope no one you know ever needs to know these things. But in case they ever do, here is what I send:
First of all, thank you for wanting to help support a parent who has lost a child. Please know that you may feel like you don’t know what to do or say. No one does. Even those of us who have lost a child sometimes struggle to know how to be there for another newly bereaved parent. But you can do this. Below is a list of some suggestions of helpful things that beautiful friends did for my husband and me after our son Phoenix died and also suggestions from other families who have lost a child. I didn’t have the words to know what to ask for at the time but I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends who just did them. The most important thing to know is that simply by your desire to be there with someone in the midst of profound loss, you are showing a courageous heart and the most love possible. Thank you.
Here are 23 suggestions for ways to help:
- Show up. Show up in whatever way feels right. Show up by sending a text. Show up by sending a card. Show up in person if that is something the parents want. Many bereaved parents feel like aliens. We represent everyone's worst nightmare and we are afraid our friends can't handle us. Keep showing up. I cannot stress how important this is.
- Mark on your calendar when the child’s birthday is and send the parents a card, email, text or flowers to arrive on that day. Do this for as many years into the future as you can. Do the same with the anniversary of her death.
- Have no expectations of the family. They likely will not be able to respond to cards, texts, letters or phone calls. But keep showing up.
- Sit with them in their pain and know you cannot fix it. Your presence and your love will offer the only balm there is.
- If you are in their very close circle, offer to help with phone calls and notify others of the child’s death. I will be forever grateful to my best friend, Jen, who while deeply grieving herself, made those most difficult phone calls, over and over, when my husband, Mike, and I could not.
- Go to the memorial service if it is public.
- It will be OK to cry in front of them.
- Say the child’s name out loud. Say it now, say in in the years to come. Say it to the child's parents and family. It will be the most beautiful music they will hear.
- Talk about the child who has died. Bring up memories of him or of the beautiful way his mom or dad parented him. Do not be afraid of reminding them of something painful because a bereaved parent never forgets, not even when they sleep.
- As much as you can, please let others around them know not to say that she is in a better place, this is God's will or that things happen for a reason. Those are intensely painful words for a grieving parent to hear. Nothing will make this "OK." Some people will also compliment a grieving parent for being "strong" or will say if it happened to them they could not survive it. Also not helpful. The parent has no choice but to survive it and also would have never thought they could have.
- Do not expect them to "get over it." Bereaved parents learn to integrate the loss into their lives and can feel joy and happiness again, but you don't get over a loss like this. This kind of grief has no time table.
- Support whatever the parents need to do. Suspend judgment.
- If you don't know what to say you can say "I'm sorry. I love you. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere." You can say that over and over.
- Follow the lead of the parents. What they want and need will change - sometime hourly - but go with it.
- If the child has a sibling, follow the lead of that child. Offer opportunities to talk about the sibling who died when it seem natural (such as "Oh, you like that book? I remember Noah did too.”) But know that kids are amazing at knowing when it's too much for them and will abruptly change the subject when they need to. Let that happen.
- Offer to help in specific ways: bringing a meal, helping care for the other children, washing their clothes. Asking them what they need will be too big of question right now but you can say "Can I take your dog for a walk?" (or whatever). Spontaneously do household tasks such as emptying the garbage if you notice it’s full. Or bring cleaning supplies in your bag, pop into the bathroom, and quietly clean it.
- One of the kindest things someone did for me when I was out of my mind with grief and too overwhelmed to figure out how to even put together an outfit was to come over and arrange my clothes into outfits, including socks, that I could just pull out of the closet. Look for things like that.
- If you are close to the family, make plans in the future. Some friends of ours took us out dinner every Wednesday for the first year after our son died. I relied on the routine. It didn't matter that I could barely eat. I could feel their love and that's what it was about.
- Offer to help unsubscribe them from physical mail and email advertisements, publications, etc. targeted to parents that might be a painful for them to receive.
- They will need you more in two months. By then people usually have gone back to normal and will have stopped checking in. Show up.
- It may be hard for the parents to be around other children who are close in age to the child who died. Know that it is not personal and it does not mean the parents don’t love those children, it is just how it is. (I am forever grateful to my friend who had a son very close in age to Phoenix who was patient and understood I wanted to be with her child but just couldn't. One time I had to run from the room in tears when he came over - I thought I could do it but could not. In time that changed for me.)
- If there is a surviving child, offer to take that child out to do “normal” kid things such as go to a movie, go camping or play with friends.
- Grief is physical. Offer the bereaved family gift cards for a massage or acupuncture if you can. Offer to help them find a yoga class and accompany them. Invite them for a walk.
Lastly, thank you. Thank you for your care and your bravery in wanting to be there for a bereaved friend. That is true love incarnate.
Linda Dahlstrom Anderson and her son, Phoenix, in June 2005, a month before he died at age 7 months.