Empathy Blog

Meeting bereaved parents where they are

By David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning

As we approach the end of July, Bereaved Parents Awareness month, I wanted to reflect on the fact that for bereaved parents, August is also going to be bereaved parents’ month. 

If you know someone who has lost a child, every month is bereaved parents’ month for them. It’s important, of course, for us to have these special months to bring awareness, but keep in mind that bereaved parents won’t stop needing your support come July 31.

It’s not an easy thing to do to be there for a friend who has had a child die. Our culture simply doesn’t prepare us well for moments like this. It teaches us that children aren’t supposed to die. And so, when it does happen to someone close to us, we don’t know what to say, what to do, how to be with them.

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I have been a grief specialist for many years. When I was young, my mother died while a shooting took place, which shaped my childhood and put me on a trajectory to dedicate myself to end-of-life care and grief. But I thought that most of my personal grief was behind me. I knew that someday, in my 90s, my friends would begin to die. But until then, I was here to help others. It was about their grief, not mine.

Then in 2016, I was lecturing in Baltimore, and I got a notification that one of my sons had called 911 on my phone. I immediately called my older son and learned that my younger son David had died. The experience was as horrific as I had pictured it could be, and much more so. 

I often say that I wanted to write a letter to every bereaved parent I had ever counseled, apologizing to them. Telling them that I didn't understand how bad the pain was. I had always known intellectually that you can't feel what another's pain is like. But anything I had imagined didn’t approach it. The pain had an intensity that I was not prepared for. 

Most people don’t have such knowledgeable, grief-literate people around them. My heart breaks for many of the bereaved parents I work with who tell me that no one mentions their child around them anymore. People mistakenly think we don't want to talk about our kids. That it would be too upsetting. So, they pretend it never happened. They prefer to skip over that part of the story. But that’s not what most bereaved parents want. I and most of the parents I work with will tell you, we love talking about our kids.

Bereaved parents know their child has died. They get the pain. It's always there for them. You’re not going to make it worse by talking about the person they love.

Of course, it’s hard to know what to do, what to say. But don’t let that keep you from reaching out. Catastrophic events are already isolating—don't add more isolation to their isolation. Check on them on random days, not just the day after the funeral or the anniversary of their loss. Call three months later, five months later, on a random weekday afternoon.

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People will say, I don’t know how to be there for them. We used to go to lunch every Tuesday, and now they don't want to do that anymore. OK, so drop by their house with lunch. You used to go for coffee? Drop by with coffee. They seem to be at the cemetery a lot? Sounds like a good place to go sit with them. 

Whatever you do, don’t sit back and say, when you’re ready to get back to life, you'll find me waiting here for you. Instead tell them: I'm going to meet you wherever you are in your grief.

Meeting them where they are means taking an emotional risk. You need to push past your inclination not to upset them. Be willing to face the fact that you might mess up; you might say something wrong. Just tell them: If I ever say anything wrong, please let me know. I want to be here. I want to do this in a way that supports you, and I might make some mistakes, but I'm here, and I love you. Neither one of us has ever been through this before, but I'm by your side. 

Being there with them also means resisting the urge that many of us have, if we’re parents ourselves, to say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even imagine losing my child.”

The moment you say I can't imagine that happening to me, you’re no longer being there with the bereaved parent. You’ve stopped being present with them and are now firmly in your own fears. You’ve taken their pain and made it about you. 

Instead, let go of the idea that you have to say anything at all. Talking to someone in this situation is about realizing there are no right words. There is no silver lining. Often the point isn’t coming to do anything; the point is coming to be. Sometimes in tragedies, the most important thing we can do is come to sit with the person or walk by their side.

We’re such a productive, goal-oriented society, we often want the playbook, the perfect words, the “five tips for talking to a bereaved parent.” But this isn’t a puzzle you can solve. There are no perfect words, no formula here. And every bereaved parent is different, just like every grief is different. 

A few months after David died, I remember speaking with Dianne Gray, a hospice and grief specialist, and a bereaved parent herself. She said to me, I know you are drowning. And you will be drowning for a long time. At some point you will hit bottom, and then you will have a decision to make. Do you stay there, or do you push up again?

This is the decision that we all eventually have to make in grief: Do we live again? The choice I had to make was to start living again, to make David part of the reason I was going on, instead of having him be the reason I’d keep drowning.

Some parents start to feel like doing this is disloyal. Our culture tells us: A parent is not supposed to have a happy life after their child dies. And I had to struggle with that, like everyone else. What I came to eventually was that the only way I could honor my son was by living again for him. There's a part of me that feels like I died with him and there is a part of him that lives on in me.

Horrific grief stretches your bandwidth for pain, but it also stretches your bandwidth for joy. I want to be an example to others. I am still alive; I do have another son. Life continues, and joy and happiness are possible. Celebrating life doesn't take away from our memory of or our grief for our children who have died. It actually honors them. From now on, part of my joy in life will always be him.

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