It takes bravery to enter into another person’s mess.
It does. I know. Unfortunately, the mess is normally mine (and mine to keep), and it’s the brave souls that God has blessed me with in my life that are the commendable ones.
And the bravery I have seen from them over the last seven months, especially in the last month… it’s something special.
I’m going to say it flat out: a year ago, I would not have known the first thing to say to someone who lost a child.
I would go through all of the typical responses I had heard over the years in an effort to counsel them or give them advice. I would probably say a lot of things wrong. I hope I would at least say something, but maybe I would have avoided the situation all together. I honestly don’t know, and I don’t envy the people in our lives who are now left with this battle of trying to figure out how to support us in what is uncharted territory for most of them.
Over the past year, I have gleaned wisdom from others living with one child in heaven, and in the past month, I have journeyed this firsthand. It’s a messy journey, that’s for sure. I keep saying that situations so painful and a life so beautiful as Charlie’s, good and more good has to come from it. The loss of a life so precious has to be redeemed.
To those of you that know someone who has lost a child, I’d like to share a tiny slice of my experience thus far in hopes to help you support them.
To those of you who have lost a child, I’ve got your back.
Tips for loving those that have lost a child
(In no particular order):
1. Don’t dig. I say this one first, because this totally would have been me even six months ago.
In my life and in the lives of others I have come to know whose children have also died, there have been people who try to draw the emotion and the “true feelings” out of us. I don’t think that is their motivation. I think they genuinely want to help, and they feel like trying to counsel is the best way they can.
Please don’t dig. Let parents offer up how they are “really” doing when they are ready, and don’t be offended if they never choose to confide in you or come to you.
Don’t be intrusive unless you know them very well. And I mean very well. Most I know would rather be given space to offer up their true feelings.
Still feel free to check in on them, but just don’t dig.
2. Talk about their child. Parents who have recently lost a child have not forgotten their child. On any given day or any given moment of the day, if the child is not at the forefront of their mind, the tiniest reminder will bring them there.
If you see a parent whose child has recently died, it’s okay to mention their child. Mention their name, even if it is casually. Depending on the day, the parent may not want to go into detail about their child, but as a general rule, don’t stop talking acknowledging their child.
Even if you send it in a card, tell them how their child affected your life. Maybe what you miss about them. Maybe what you remember. Even if you never got to meet their child, never go to know them, acknowledge their child, and let them know that you will remember him/her with them.
3. Avoid the urge to give advice.
If you haven’t walked this road, please don’t pretend to know more than the grieving parents. With the best of intentions, everyone wants to say something to fix the situation or to help the parents. Sometimes the best things to say are just to let them know you are sorry and that you remember their child. Please don’t instruct on grief or loss if you have not experienced it.
At Charlie’s funeral someone came up to us, with the best of intentions, and recited a rhyme that they had heard, in what I can only assume was from grief textbook straight out of the 1980s (or a bad bumper sticker), about how we should be trusting God through the loss.
If I hadn’t been at my child’s funeral, I might have laughed. It was cheesy, and it was ill-timed, and the person did not know us, and more importantly they had never gone through this loss.
In dealing with loss, sometimes it’s okay to resist the urge to give advice and just support.
4. Don’t say any of the following:
“Are you okay?” No. Just no.
“At least you still have [X amount of] children.” My friend, immediately after losing one of her daughters had a lady tell her this in the store.
“Well, at least you still have two,” she said.
Her response was my favourite.
“How many kids do you have?”
“Which one would you be okay with dying?”
“Keep the faith/stay strong.” After experiencing a loss so great, people need to be given room to grieve. Part of the grieving process (and part of LIFE) involves questions and doubts. If your friend is a Christian, they do not need to be admonished by you saying “keep the faith”. And if your friend is a HUMAN, they need to know that they don’t need to be strong all the time.
“If you need anything at all, let me know.” Because 99.9% of people will not call you or let you know, but they still might need something.
Instead, be specific. Specific ideas: make a meal, buy them groceries, send them gift cards, send them cards with no expectation of response, offer free babysitting if they have other kids, clean their house, etc.
“It was God’s plan.” Please, never say this. No matter how little time a parent was given with their child, it is never long enough.
5. If you don’t know what to say, say “I’m sorry.”
Some people know not to give advice, and so in their panic not to say the wrong thing, they say nothing at all. For months. I may have done that too if it were me in the “supportive” position. For those of you that may feel that way, a simple “I’m so sorry” or “I am here for you” works just fine.
6. Don’t take things personally.
Part of giving room also means giving allowance for things that may not be the norm. Give them space to process, to grieve, to grow, to heal. If communication is whacked out for a while or always (I am bad at a communication. All. The. Time.), know that it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you or the relationship.
7. Allow them to still be people.
Grieving people are still people. If I passionately grieved 24/7, I would probably be gouging my eyes out and would be just a shadow of a person. You need to laugh. You need to have fun. You need a break. Without it, you will not be able to sustain the demands of normal life.
Allow them to be normal. They are not fragile. They are not bedridden. Allow them to laugh, to joke, to be sarcastic or silly.
8. Just love them. In whatever way works best for them, support them in that way.
Maybe it means making them a meal. Maybe it means getting them out of the house. Maybe it means sending a card or a gift. Whatever it means for them, do it. And be there.
They need you. In whatever way works best for them, they need you.
Thank you braving the pain and for loving them.
[Thank you to those that have braved the pain and loved us.]
This article originally appeared on Scribbles and Crumbs. It has been republished here with full permission.