Grief - supporting others
How to support someone who is grieving the loss of their child
A family member, friend, or colleague's child has died and you don't know what to say or do to help them. It's a hard time for everyone and you find yourself scared of saying or doing the wrong thing. No one can take away the pain and sadness of grief, but letting people know that you care is comforting and healing for those who are grieving.
What you can do
- Be available to listen.
- Allow them to talk and express their feelings of loss as much as they are able, but realise that sometimes they don't want to talk.
- Tell the family how sorry you are about the child's death and the pain they must be going through.
- Offer support and ask what you can do; run errands, help with the other children, or whatever else seems needed at the time.
- Encourage them to be patient and not to expect too much of themselves.
- Give special attention at the funeral and in the months to come to the child's brothers and sisters, grandparents, and family (they are often in need of attention which bereaved parents may not be able to give).
- Let your genuine concern and caring show. Tell them how much you care – 'I can't begin to imagine how you feel'.
- Recognise that grieving has no time limit and varies from person to person.
- Continue to support them beyond the first few months. Ask what type of support they need, as this can change over time. What was needed at the time of the funeral may be different many months later.
- Talk about your memories of the deceased child and the special qualities that made the child endearing, and remember to say the child's name.
- Acknowledge their child's death through visits, phone calls, sympathy cards, donations, and flowers.
- Remember to acknowledge important days that may be difficult for the bereaved, such as birthdays, the anniversary of the death, mother's day, father's day and other significant days.
- Create opportunities for partners to have time together and time out.
- Keep calling, always leave a message and ring back. Appreciate that your bereaved relative or friend doesn't always return phone calls right away.
- Expect your relationship with the bereaved to change and grow.
- Remember you are not required to do all these things all the time.
What not to do
- Change the subject when the family mention their child.
- Avoid them because you are uncomfortable. Being avoided by friends adds pain to an already painful experience.
- Make any comments that in any way suggest that their loss was their fault.
- Point out that at least they have their other children – children are not interchangeable; they cannot replace each other.
- Say 'You should be coping or feeling better by now' or any other comments that may seem judgmental about their progress in grieving.
- Steer the conversation away from the family's story of grief or loss towards talking about another person's grief experience. Say that you know how they feel.
- Tell them not to cry. It hurts us to see them cry and makes us sad. But, by telling them not to cry, we are trying to take their grief away and may make them feel bad about their emotional reactions.
- Think that good news, such as family wedding, pregnancy or job promotion, cancels out grief.
- Have expectations for what bereaved parents should or should not be doing at different times in their grief.
- Wait until you know the perfect thing to say. Just say whatever is in your heart or say nothing at all. Sometimes just being there is comfort enough.
- Find yourself saying any of the following:
- It was God's will – it was meant to be. Now you will have an angel in heaven.
- He/she is in a better place now.
- Time heals all wounds.
- You are still young enough to have more children. At least you have other children.
- It was for the best. It could have been worse...
- It's been __ (amount of time) and you have to get on with your life.
- Everything happens for a reason.3
3 Adapted from: Journeys: Palliative care for children and teenagers, version 2, Eds. Fleming, S.
Coombs, S. and Phillips, M., Palliative Care Australia, 2010.
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