- Category: For family & friends For family & friends
How you can help the grieving parent
In this section:
- Talking - what to say and what NOT to say
- Be there for them
- Don't just say, but do
- Don't forget siblings
- Stay in touch post 6 weeks
- Avoid 'sympathy fatigue'
- Make allowances
- Anniversaries and important dates
- Other things you can do
It is natural to want to help out and make the grieving person feel better. And its human nature to want to say something to them but often you just don’t know what to say.
Below are some suggestions on what you can do and say to help support a person suffering from a loss. These suggestions have come from personal experience and from other grieving parents.
It is common for people not to know what to say. It is an awkward topic and very painful. Often there are just no words to express the intense sorrow of losing a baby.
Some people say nothing and avoid the parent, which has the outcome of being just as hurtful than anything they could say (and this silence is always remembered too). If you are unsure and don’t know what to say, tell them exactly that. That’s perfectly okay. Tell them you are sorry for their loss. It’s okay not to know exactly what to say (most of us don't), but to have it ignored comes across as though you don't care and don't want to acknowledge it.
Don't feel that you have to say something either – a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is all they need to hear. Sometimes people try and be helpful by saying certain comments, giving “advice”, sharing a story about someone else’s loss (which may or may not be relevant to their situation) and just trying to make them feel better. The bereaved parent is not expecting you to fix them or make them feel better – they just want to be able to talk and have people listen and acknowledge their baby in a positive way, regardless of the possible reasons they lost their baby.
If a friend has lost their job or house or missed out on something they really wanted, you would feel sorry for them and want to support them without judgement right? Death is an awkward topic at times but the same principle applies - offer support without judgement.
There has been so much written from bereaved parents on this topic that we have dedicated a separate page to it, addressing the common cliches and reactions to them.
Be a good listener – allow the parent to talk about their loss and about their baby and listen without interrupting or giving advice. It means a lot to them to have someone just listen and acknowledge their baby and the difficult experience they are going through. You will not be able to fix their grief (no one can), but what you can do is be there for them and allow them to talk about their baby and share their feelings with you, even if it is repetitive. They won’t expect you to fix their grief or make them feeling better, but having a shoulder to cry on without comment or judgment is very comforting. Parents have a need to talk about their babies and this gives them a lot of comfort.
Call, text, or email – even if you have nothing to say or don't know what to say, just a simple “I am thinking of you” will do. They may not answer the phone or the door, but let them know that you will be checking in to see how they are going. Calls and visits need not be more than 5 minutes, but getting in touch means a lot to them to know you are thinking of them.
Tell them you will give them space but that you will call them once a week to check in - and that they don't have to pick up the phone if they don't want to. Make the effort to keep this up.
Mention their baby by name and don’t be afraid to ask questions about their baby. Ask the parents how they are feeling – they will soon let you know if they wish to discuss it – this can also vary from day to day but the important thing is to allow them the opportunity to express themselves.
Offer to help out. The usual responsibilities and errands in life are a stress they can't deal with right now. Stock their freezer with some healthy meals, bring them the basics. Offer to get them something from the shops when you go. They might not feel like eating but having something there in the house can make a difference and means they are more likely to eat. Drop the food off to them but don't stay. Make them aware that you are there for them but you don't want to impose.
People often tell the bereaved "Let me know if there is anything I can do..." but they don't follow through. Stay in touch and take notice of things they might need. Go a step further and do some housework or gardening for them, run errands, offer childcare if they need it. Offering to attend a support group or accompanying them to a medical appointment can also provide some support. They may not accept it, but it is nice to have especially with things they find difficult to face or maintain at the moment.
If you are going out somewhere, ask them along even if you feel they might not be interested. Sometimes it's the little things like a cup of coffee or a walk to the shops that can take their mind off things. They may not go, but one day they might feel like they would like to get out of the house and company with a friend always helps.
Read books or blogs about grief if you want to get an insight into their feelings.
If the parent has other children in the family, they would be grieving too and would be going though a confusing time right now. Offer to help out with taking the children out, or bring them a small gift or something you know they would like. They need attention too and this is a kind gesture to know they are not forgotten right now.
Don’t feel offended if your efforts are rebuffed or if they don’t want to talk to you. It may be nothing personal – some people don’t like to talk and and other times they might need to talk. Allow them their space if the need it. Remember this time now is for grieving, there will be plenty of time in the future when things can return to what they were, although they will never be the same. Remember it won't be like this forever.
Many bereaved parents comment that after the funeral there are many people rallying around offering help and support. It makes the immediate aftermath easier to bear. It is widely stated that after 6 weeks or so people tend to return to their lives and the bereaved parent can start to feel more isolated and forgotten about. If they seem to be coping better and managing to do things, it does not necessarily mean they are better. Stay in touch - they will need your support for a long time yet.
One parent remarked that although people can be very supportive in the initial stages of their loss, after a period of time people start to get tired of hearing about their grief – they think that because 6 months, 1 year, 5 years has passed that the parent should be “over it” or have moved on.
This is not the case – the bereaved parent will never get over the death of their child. They will learn to live with it, and they will adjust to a new state of normal – but there is nothing wrong with them if they are still grieving even though it might seem a long time ago to you. All you can do is continue to allow them to express their emotions. A kind gesture would be to ask how they are feeling every now and then, and to remember important dates such as holidays and anniversaries in the years to come. Having someone acknowledge their baby and their loss (and their ongoing pain) is very touching.
A bereaved person will be feeling a whole range of emotions such as anger, sadness numbness, depression and many more. If they lash out at you or avoid you, it is not because they don't want to see you - they are just coming to terms with what has happened. Try and be patient while this passes - they are very uncomfortable right now and will need to know you are still there for them when they feel ready. Although your world is still revolving, their whole world has temporarily stopped, and it takes time to come to terms with things. It may be nothing personal – some people don’t like to talk and and other times they might need to talk. Allow them their space if the need it. Remember this time now is for grieving, there will be plenty of time in the future when things can return to what they were, although it will never be the same for them. Remember it won't be like this forever.
The date of a baby's due date, birth or date of passing can be very difficult especially the lead up to that time. Special occasions like Christmas and Easter and birthdays can also be painful, as are mother's and father's days. Keep this in mind and understand they may be emotional or distant at this time. Ask them how they are feeling. Most importantly, remember these significant dates for the future, and think of them in the lead up to that time, when the memories can be more intense.
It can be touching to know people are thinking of our babies long after they have passed away. A simple gesture like lighting a candle, releasing a balloon to the sky or generally just letting the parent know that you often think about them and their baby (use their name) means a lot. If you want to help but can't offer anything suitable, you could make a donation to a bereavement charity in memory of their child's name (as the recipient will know it is donated on behalf of someone), or donate to a charity that has some significance to the loss (eg if the baby died from a particular condition, a donation to that research or support organisation will have a special meaning).
Buy them a gift to remember their baby, or make something in memory of the baby. It could be something as simple as a personalised bib or a candle or ornament – even though the baby is no longer here it is nice to have someone show acknowledgement in this way.