Oh, we can talk about the best cold medications and if cherry cough syrup tastes better to kids than orange. We can recommend preschools and sneakers. But the hardest part of parenting is the least often discussed. The roughest aspect of being a parent is losing a child.
Then we clam up. We don't want to hear. We are threatened. If her child died, mine could, too. What can we do when parenting goes beyond the normal expectations? "What do I say?" friends ask me with a look of agony in their eyes. "I feel so helpless. I can't empathize, I haven't had a child die."
You can help. You don't have to stand there with a blank stare or excuse yourself from the conversation. You can be informed so that you will be able to reach out to a friend who has lost a child.
"Jump into the midst of things and do something," says Ronald Knapp author of the book, Beyond Endurance: When A Child Dies. Traditionally there are the sympathy cards and hot casseroles brought over to the bereaved's home. But it doesn't end there. That is only the beginning of reaching out to your friend or relative who has recently experienced the death of a child of any age.
Here are 15 tips you can learn to make you an effective and compassionate friend to your friend in pain:
1) Listen. When you ask your friend, "How are you doing today?" wait to hear the answer.
2) Cry with her. She may cry also, but your tears don't make her cry. She cries when no one else is around and within her heart are the daily tears no one sees.
3) Don't use any clich?s. Avoid lines like, "It will get better." "Be grateful you have other children." "You're young, you can have another baby." "He was sick and it is good he is no longer suffering." There will never be a phrase invented that makes it all right that a child died.
4) Help with the care of the surviving children. Offer to take them to the park, your house for a meal, to church. Say "May I please take Billy to the park today? Is four o'clock okay with you?" Don't give the line, "If you need me, call me." Your bereaved friend may not feel comfortable with asking for help.
5) Say your friend's child's name. Even if she cries, these are tears that heal. Acknowledging that the child lived and has not been forgotten is a wonderful balm to a broken heart.
6) Give to the memorial fund. Find out what it is and give, today, next year and the next. Show you want to keep the child's memory alive.
7) Some mothers start to collect items that bring comfort after a child dies; find out what it is your friend is collecting and by one for her. My son liked watermelon and we have many stories of watermelons and him. So now my house has assorted watermelon mementos----a tea pot, a dish towel and a soap dispenser. Many mothers find solace in collecting rainbows, butterflies and angels.
8) Send a card (I'm thinking of you is fine) but stay away from sappy sympathy ones.
9) Go to the grave. Take flowers, a balloon or a toy. How honored your friend will be to see what you have left there the next time she visits the cemetery.
10) Don't use religion as a brush away for pain. Stay clear of words that don't help like, "It was God's Will."
11) Don't judge her. You don't know what she is going through each day, you cannot know of the intense pain unless you have had a child die.
12) Stay in touch. Call to see how she is coping. Suggest doing something together but if she isn't up to it, give her space.
13) Read a book on grief, focusing on the parts that give you ideas on how to be a source of comfort for your bereaved friend.
14) Know she now has a hole in her heart, a missing piece due to the death of her child. Holes like these never heal so accept this truth and don't expect her to get over this loss.
15) Remember that with the death of her child, a part of her died - old beliefs, ideals, etc. Her life has been forever changed.
Even as you participate in the suggestions above, you will still feel uncomfortable. It has been three years since my four year-old Daniel died, and even now when I meet a newly bereaved mother, I am uncomfortable. Talking of the untimely death of a child is never easy for anyone. However, avoiding reality does not bring healing. You will provide many gifts of comfort along the way when you actively decide to help your grieving friend. When my friends and family acknowledge all four of my children, the three on this earth and the one in Heaven, I am honored. Each time it is as though a ray of warm sunlight has touched my soul.
When A Child Has Died: Ways You Can Help A Bereaved Parent. Bonnie Hunt Conrad. Fithian Press, 1995.
When Your Friend Is Grieving: Building A Bridge Of Love. Paula D'Arcy. Harold Shaw Publishers, 1990.
Beyond Endurance: When A Child Dies. Ronald J. Knapp. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Slices Of Sunlight, A Cookbook Of Memories: Remembrances Of The Children We Held. Alice J. Wisler. Daniel's House Publications, 2000.
Down the Cereal Aisle: A Basket of Recipes and Remembrances. Alice J. Wisler. Daniel's House Publications, 2003.
Alice J. Wisler of Daniel's House Publications, leads workshops on living with grief after the death of a child. Her web site teaches how to write for healing. She is also the editor of the popular ezine, Tributes and author of "Down the Cereal Aisle" and "Slices of Sunlight."