I can remember being younger and hearing about people passing away, thinking how grateful I was to not have lost anyone near me. Death seemed so far away, kind of like something you encounter in a dream. I felt bad for the people going through the loss, but I really couldn’t relate. It was always someone else’s business and not mine. But life quickly caught up to me.
The first time I lost someone close to me was ten years ago when my aunt passed away. It was the first time I had been to a funeral and the first time I had been involved in the planning. When my grandmother passed away a couple of years later, I was with her during the time when her soul left her body. This moment was very easy to see and her whole face lit up as she saw whoever was there to greet her.
But when my son Peter died my whole life changed. I saw death in whole new way. Something, that for my entire life had been just a side note or an afterthought, became part of my daily existence. Every day I woke up with the reminder that someone who had previously been inside of me and part of me was now gone.
I struggled to make sense of this new life. The loss of my son was so profound that it permeated every aspect of my being. I couldn’t do anything without being reminded of the fact that he was no longer with me.
My time on both sides of this situation has given me a chance to reflect on how to ease a potentially difficult time for the grieving person and the person trying to help.. People seem afraid to speak of my son or to ask about him, as if they are afraid to remind me of my pain or afraid of what kind of reaction I may display, but there is never a moment that he is not with me in some way. This can make things quite awkward and even somewhat hurtful, despite the intention of avoiding hurt.
So, in an attempt to help both sides, I have come up with some guidelines for helping someone who has lost a loved one (particularly a child).
- Don’t be afraid to ask! If you are unsure of what to say, ask! Ask them if they would like to talk about their loss and respect their wishes no matter what the answer is. Sometimes they will feel strong and be ready to talk and other times it may be too difficult. This has no bearing on you as a friend or family member. It is just that grief has many ebbs and flows, no matter how recent or distant the loss may be.
- Use their name, when speaking of the person who has passed away. This gives dignity to the person no matter how small they were. If it was a miscarriage where the gender was unknown or there was not a name given, refer to the baby as “your child”. This is such a beautiful gift you can give the person who is grieving, even if they do not acknowledge it.
- “Let me know if you need anything.” Don’t ask them to let you know if they need help after the loss happens. They won’t because they do not want to be an imposition or they are too wrapped up in their pain. Ask them what you can do and respect their wishes. Even if they say they don’t need anything, they will still appreciate your willingness to help. And if they do ask for help offer to do everyday things, such as laundry, cleaning the house or cooking a meal.
- Emotions range for each person. Be prepared that you may experience one of many different emotional responses from the grieving person. These can include (but are not limited to): sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, pleading, bargaining, numbness/nothingness, laughter, denial, or acceptance.
- “Please take care of yourself.” Encourage them to take care of themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Grief can often encompass so much of your thoughts that you forget to do basic things to take care of yourself, such as eat or shower.
Remember that these are just suggestions, but they are tips that I have found helpful in my time as a bereaved parent. A grieving person’s biggest fear is that their loved one will be forgotten, and this thought can be very upsetting. Say that you know nothing you can do or say will bring your loved one back or ease the pain, but that you love them and want to help. They are not looking for you to take away their pain, but for a friend who cares for them and supports them.