Parents who experience the death of a child suffer tremendous, life-altering pain. The grief they endure will likely be the most difficult thing they’ll experience in their lifetimes.
And yet friends and family—and even society as a whole—often fail grieving parents because they cannot comprehend exactly what they are going through or what they really need.
While one-on-one therapy and support groups for bereaved parents can help you process your grief, that’s not always enough.
With such a gulf of understanding between those who have experienced the death of a child and those who haven’t, bereaved parents say there are many things they wish they’d known about what it’s really like—and what is truly helpful.
Keep these things in mind if you want to offer support to a parent who is grieving, or if you are mourning a child yourself.
People tend to avoid the topic
When an older person dies, the topic of death is comparatively easier to tackle. Even through the pain of the loss, you may be able to recognize that they lived a long life and feel grateful for the time you had together.
But when a child passes away, you can’t say they lived a long, wonderful life because they didn’t.
Nothing feels like the right thing to say because the loss is so profound: along with their death, those left behind will grieve the adult the child would have become and the life they would have led.
The magnitude of pain is difficult for others to grasp
Unless you’ve buried your own child, you can’t possibly comprehend the devastation of such a loss. And even if you have, everyone grieves differently and every death exacts a unique toll.
Parents don’t get over the death of their child, nor do they get over all the things their child isn’t going to get to see, touch, taste, hear, and experience. Losing a child is a multifold loss of so many things that are gone forever.
Saying “I understand” or “I can imagine,” no matter how heartfelt it may be intended, can make parents feel that you are diminishing their anguish. It suggests you are in touch with a profoundly heartbreaking emotion that you are not.
There’s no shared grief when your child dies
In some situations, grief can be shared. When a parent dies, that grief is shared among their children, as well as surviving siblings of the parent who passed away. When a child passes away, there is no shared grief.
Although there may be two parents who are grieving, both parents can feel lonely and isolated. Because we all experience grief differently—combined with the deep wound created by the death of a child—many marriages do not survive.
It’s OK to talk about their child
In our society, we rarely talk about death in a healthy and open way, especially when a child has died.
Because of this, a parent whose mind and heart are consumed with grieving their child is often not asked how their mourning process is going—whether it’s on their first day back at work, or during a chance meeting at the supermarket.
In turn, the person they’re talking to may be fumbling around, trying to figure out what to say. There’s only so many times you can say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” to a grieving parent before it stops losing its meaning.
What would be helpful for a grieving parent instead? If you knew their child, a comment or anecdote about how you’ll remember them is a comfort to a parent who may feel a burden to keep their child’s memory alive. Remembering something about their child's life—rather than their death—is something most bereaved parents are eager to do.
Too much focus is placed on how the child died
When a child dies, the first question is always, “How did they die?” because who can conceive a life being cut so short without some sort of tragedy? But the next question, the question a parent wants to hear but rarely does, is: “How did they live?”
Whether the child lived to be 5 or 21, it is helpful to grieving parents to focus on how they lived, the things they loved, and the things they accomplished in their short lives.
There’s no end to grieving the loss of a child
If you are a grieving parent you are going to grieve this death for the rest of your life. You’ll learn to live with it, but it’s never going to go away.
But someday, you’ll think of something your child did or said and laugh again. Someday, you’ll be able to go to the places you regularly went with your child, but the grief will always be there.
As the grieving process unfolds, your relationship with the grief can change, but there’s no returning to the world that existed before ●
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