Supporting a Parent Who Has Lost a Child
Advice on offering help and support to a parent whose child has died
If you have a friend or relative who has lost a child, they will be going through one of the most difficult experiences in life. Their world has been completely changed forever, and finding a way to help them through grief may feel almost impossible.
It is impossible to imagine the pain and confusion of losing a child unless you have experienced it yourself. Even then, everyone’s grief is unique so you cannot assume that a bereaved parent will feel certain things or behave in a certain way. Try to accept that you cannot know what they are going through, but you can try to be supportive and understanding.
Something as traumatic as the death of a child will have a profound impact on a parent, which may affect how they behave. Here are a few things to bear in mind if you are trying to support them:
- They may seem cold or distant. If your bereaved friend isn’t showing any emotion, is avoiding speaking or seems detached, this could be shock. This doesn’t mean they are grieving in the wrong way. When emotional pain is too much to bear, this is the mind’s way of protecting itself. Don’t pressure them to confront their grief before they are ready.
- They may be unable to perform daily tasks. Trauma and grief can leave the bereaved feeling physically incapable of doing basic chores such as cooking, cleaning, or even getting up in the morning. Don’t judge them for not being proactive – instead offer to help with household work.
- Grief does not have a time limit. A parent who has lost a child will grieve for the rest of their life. Although that child is gone, they will always be their child. Do not expect your friend to ‘get over it’. Even 20 years from now they may need support with grief.
- They need to grieve in the best way for them. Everyone grieves differently. Unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or those around them, let them cope with grief as they see fit.
- You cannot fix grief. Know that there is nothing you can do or say to stop them hurting, so don’t try to cheer them up or convince them that it’s not so bad. Often the bereaved just need someone to be there, rather than offer advice or solutions.
- Losing a child at any age is painful. It does not matter how old a child is, whether they were stillborn, a newborn, in school, or a fully grown adult, that parent still knows them as their baby. Do not assume that a loss is easier or harder because of a child’s age.
- Children cannot be replaced. Unfortunately, bereaved parents can hear a lot of hurtful comments after the death of a child, usually out of ignorance rather than intentionally being cruel. Saying things like “You can always have more children” or “Well at least you have two other children” suggests that their child is replaceable, or that they should not be grieving. Try to avoid making comments like this.
Ways to help
Sometimes it is difficult to know how to best support a grieving friend, especially if they are coping with something as traumatic as the death of a child. Here are a few ways you may be able to help and be a good friend to them in the weeks, months and years after the death:
- Don’t ignore them. It can be daunting talking to someone who has lost a child, but staying silent or avoiding them can be really hurtful. It can make them feel even more isolated.
- Don’t avoid the issue. Don’t be afraid to talk about their child, especially the first time you see them after the death. Acknowledge that something awful has happened to them by saying “I’m so sorry” or something similar. Ignoring their loss won’t undo it – it will just make them feel as though they should be ashamed of grieving.
- Support them in practical ways. Everyday chores may feel pointless and empty to the bereaved. Doing things like grocery shopping, driving them to appointments, cooking or cleaning can be helpful and give them space to deal with their grief.
- Be patient and listen. It may be a while before they talk to you about their feelings, if they ever do. Feel free to ask them how they are doing, but don’t pressure them into sharing. If they do share, just listen. You don’t need to give advice or opinions unless they ask.
- Invite them to events. Social occasions can be a welcome distraction, depending on how the bereaved is feeling on that day. Start small – perhaps dinner at your house with a few friends. Give them an ‘escape route’ by letting them know it’s okay to cancel at any time or excuse themselves from dinner early. Most importantly, you might want to avoid events with children, especially if they are of a similar age to the child who died, as this could be painful.
- Don’t be discouraged if they reject invitations, or your help. Just because your friend turns down help today doesn’t mean they won’t want it tomorrow. Keep inviting them to things and keep making small gestures of support without pressuring them to say yes. One day it might be just what they need.
- Don’t disappear after a few weeks. A lot of people are eager to help in the days and weeks after a bereavement, but offers of help often get fewer and fewer a month or so after the funeral. However, the months and even years after the death can be as hard, if not harder, than the initial bereavement. Try to keep in touch and continue offering support when you can.
Grieving for the child
It may be that you too are grieving after the death of the child. If you are a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin or family friend, you could also be experiencing symptoms of grief such as shock, sadness, anger and anxiety. Even if you didn’t know them very well, the death of a young child can be very upsetting.
While you support the grieving parents, it is also important to let yourself grieve. Acknowledge what you are feeling and find some way of it expressing it. You might want to talk to a close friend or relative – as long as it is not the grieving parent.