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How to Comfort Someone Whose Child Dies

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When a friend suffers the loss of a child, we don’t know how to comfort them. Our first thought is usually, “I don’t know what to say.” When a child is lost, we all suffer, and it’s particularly hard for other parents to deal with.

“Friends would cross the street to avoid me,” one client told me. What to say and how to help the grieving parents is a challenge.

I had first-hand experience with this when my son died several years ago. Let me share some thoughts from that perspective. There are some things that aren’t helpful:

  • Asking the person what you can do to help, or any question, is beyond their capacity. People devastated by grief can’t make the simplest decision, and they still have to make burial arrangements, etc.
  • Saying most of the things they say in movies – he’s in a better place, it was God’s will, your memories will comfort you, time will heal. They make no sense at the time. The person is trying to figure out something incomprehensible and doesn’t have space to fit in other ideas.
  • Assuming the grief-stricken person needs to express their emotions. It’s all the person can do to contain the emotions. It’s self-protection to shut down, and it’s necessary.
  • Trying ... trying anything. The grieving person feels the emotional pull when they’re already on their last nerve and have nothing to give ... this person is trying to make me feel better, make me cry, make me explain something. It’s a fragile state.
  • Thinking the grieving person needs to do something. To the grieving person, it’s pressure, it makes absolutely no sense, and often it isn’t ‘needed’ anyway. “You must eat something,” elicits “Why?” You can’t imagine how you’re bouncing pebbles off a distant planet. Words, I’m sorry to say, really aren’t of much use.
  • References to other deaths. It’s just a time not to do that, like sending a book about coping with the death of a child. The person needs not to be a part of a group – widows who’ve lost husbands, mothers who’ve lost children ... It needs to stand alone.

    What, then, can you do?

    Here are some of the things that helped me through. I can’t say they comforted me, as for a time there was no way to comfort me, and I guess that’s a point to be made. You don’t even want to be comforted. What you want is your child back.

  • My younger sister came to the Memorial Service and just made small talk. When she left, to go back home, she shook her head and said, “Oh Susan.” She left a tape by Ian Tyson on my bedside table ... rock with me Jesus help me bear this heavy load, don’t let her slip, not let her slide … all cowboys cross the Great Divide.
  • After the dinner after the Service, folks came back to my house. My niece sat beside me and stroked my hair while she talked with everyone, so I didn’t have to.
  • A colleague at work met me coming out of the elevator my first day back to work. He looked up, then looked down with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t know what to say,” and walked away with his shoulders bent. He had a son the same age as mine. It was thoughtful of him not to stick around and have me feel the need to comfort him.
  • My friend who said, “Give me a list of people to call. I’ll tell them for you.”
  • My boss said, when I returned to work, “The only reason I’m letting you be here is that it’s maybe slightly better than being home.” He gave me little things to do, to occupy my mind, but nothing requiring judgment.
  • My twin sister called me every 6 weeks and said she was flying out for a visit. (Didn’t ask, said.) She would show up at the house and just putter ... cook, clean, garden ... She didn’t disturb me.
  • When she answered the phone when I was napping, I heard her say, “She’s seeking the mercy of sleep.”
  • My friend, who’d lost her 8 month old son ... when I asked her “How do I live with this?” she said, “I don’t know. Your’s is different. Mine was [just a baby] but yours was [21] and the longer you have them the worse it is.”
  • My friend who wrote, “From now on, for me, every tree will be missing a leaf.”
  • My son’s friend who told me, when she heard about it, “That’s really [expletive].”
  • Between visits, my sister sent me homemade chocolate chip cookies, something symbolic between the two of us. Mother ... home ... happier times. They arrived in shoe boxes, wrapped in plain brown paper. It’s a time to be basic.
  • The people who talked about how wonderful my son was, only at a distance ... by email, or letters.
  • The friend who gave me a gift certificate for 10 massages.

    In the acute state of grief, the person can’t think, and there’s no emotional space. What isn’t occupied by grief, is occupied by anger, which the person is trying not to vent against an innocent person. Just be around them, lovingly. Words aren’t absorbed. There’s authenticity in saying “I don’t know what to say,” when you don’t. Avoid trying to pull their emotions out, or to put yours on them. Don’t make any cognitive or emotional demands. If you can, remove cognitive tasks – tell them you’re picking them up for dinner at Chili’s, Tuesday at 6, and to wear jeans. A gentle touch means a lot. Accept how they’re being at the time. Understand that for them to respond is asking them for energy they don’t have. Even the most gracious of us are hard-put to be gracious at such a time.

    Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, , Coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. Coach Certification Program - fast, affordable, no-residency, training coaches worldwide. Email for free ezine.

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    Susan Dunn
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