Family and Friends


FOR FAMILY AND FRIENDS:

How to Comfort and Support Bereaved Parents 

Written and compiled by Sari Edber

With additions from co-facilitators and other bereaved parents of The MISS Foundation

You are probably reading this guide because you love and care about someone who has experienced the death of a child.  This is truly one of the worst tragedies that a parent can experience; and it is our hope that this guide helps you to better understand the complex emotions that accompany this type of loss.


Acknowledge that there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to someone’s grief.

  • Each person’s healing process is completely individualized.  There isn’t just one way to feel or act, and every bereaved parent has to make choices that are right for them in the moment.
  • SUPPORT them in these choices without judgment. 
  • It is much easier to think about how you “would” feel or act in a similar hypothetical situation
  • Do not compare situations[1] that you think are comparable (the loss of a family member or pet, enduring a sickness, etc.).
    • Saying “I understand exactly how you feel because I experienced _______” could unfairly trivialize or misrepresent this very specific experience and the grief process that accompanies it.

 

Recognize that grief is a life-long journey.

  • Grief changes and evolves over time as it becomes more integrated into the lives of bereaved parents. 
  • Understand that the emotions do become less raw and intense, but, they are always there.  Forever.
  • The lives of bereaved parents will always be about learning to navigate new challenges – no matter how many days, weeks, months, or years pass since their child's death.
  • The process can be much gentler if they know that they have your unconditional support.


DO NOT put a time line on the grief of bereaved parents or decide when you think they should be “better”. [1]

  • It is incredibly difficult for bereaved parents to face the real world again after the death of a child; and it’s that much more challenging if there is pressure from family and friends to “get back to normal.”
  • This is related to going back to work, going out with friends, seeing/holding/talking about other people’s children, getting pregnant again, etc.

 

Understand that bereaved parents will never completely be back to their “old selves.”

  • Their entire world has been turned upside down.  They see the world with new eyes, and because of this, their priorities and perspectives may change.
  • For many parents who have just lost a child, life is instantly – and sometimes, forever thereafter – filled with thoughts of “what should have been.”

Grief is not linear, logical, or predictable.

  • Contrary to popular belief, the “stages” of grief are often cyclical in nature. 
  • Most individuals talk about their emotions in comparison to a roller coaster – just because they might have had an okay day, it does not mean that they are getting “better” or that the worst is behind them.
  • Accept their moods whatever they are and whenever they arise
  • Show compassion and sensitivity to shifting emotions.
  • Remember that you can't take away their pain, but you can share it and help them feel less alone.          

 

Be extra sensitive towards the bereaved parents if you are currently pregnant or have living children.

  • Seeing children, hearing stories about their milestones, or being around other expectant mothers can often be a harsh reminder of what they have lost.
  • Before inviting bereaved parents over for a “family friendly” event, ask them if they are comfortable being around other children or let them know that if it would be too emotionally difficult, you would understand if they chose not to attend.
  • Follow their cues about how much to talk about your own children/family and what kinds of information they are comfortable with.
  • Along the same lines, DO NOT complain to newly bereaved parents about any parenting or pregnancy issues that you might have (discipline, sleep training, breastfeeding, weight gain, etc.). 
    • These parents would trade places with you in a second.

 

Be understanding of the complex emotions of a subsequent pregnancy or raising a subsequent child after a loss.

  • Just because you are thrilled that the bereaved parents are either pregnant again or have thankfully welcomed a healthy child into their lives, do not assume that they have “moved on”.
  • There are many juxtapositions that can accompany a subsequent pregnancy and/or child:

Joy AND sadness.

Excitement AND worry.

Gratitude AND anger/grief.

Being thankful for this new baby AND still wanting their missing child.

Being appreciative for being pregnant again AND thinking about how this new baby and the timing of the subsequent pregnancy “should have never been” if the previous child had been okay.

Trying to be hopeful that everything will be okay AND being filled with anxiety and fear at every moment that something could go wrong.

  • Be aware of these feelings and ask the bereaved parents how they are doing both emotionally and physically during this process.
  • Even once a healthy child has been fortunately brought into this world, there are usually bittersweet emotions that are tied to missing their child that died.
  •  In fact, some bereaved parents note that their grief takes on an entirely new meaning once they see and hold their healthy baby: it makes what they lost all the more tangible.

 

Do some research on your own.
  • Educate yourself about what happened with their child that died so that you can talk with the bereaved parents with background knowledge and sensitivity.
  • They will be very appreciative to not have to explain every detail of the circumstances surrounding their child's death once again to you.
  • Find information about some local support resources, online forum boards, or relevant support groups. Do not force them to take advantage of any of these outlets if they are not ready or interested, but support them wholeheartedly if they choose to.
  • If they do choose to read or speak with others about their experiences, tell them you are proud of them for doing so and ask if they would like to share how those experiences have impacted their grief journey.

 

Be gentle with yourself, too.

Remember that you are experiencing, to some extent, two types of grief:

First, for the child that has died, who you also love and miss. 

Second, for the bereaved parents, who will forever be changed by this tragic experience.

  • Give yourself the same permission to experience the full range of emotions that accompany these losses.
  • Just as you wish to lovingly support the bereaved parents, make sure that you are also finding the comfort that you need for your own healing process.

 

Practical advice – What to do?  What to say?

DO help with any kind of logistics, planning, or organizing that would be helpful to newly bereaved parents. Initially, grief can be an all-consuming process that sometimes hinders one’s ability to complete everyday tasks. 
  • Show patience through this part of their healing and take the initiative without waiting for them to ask for help.
  • This can include making funeral arrangements, organizing a memorial, cooking, cleaning, laundry, driving, grocery shopping, taking care of other children...
  • Try saying: “I can only begin to comprehend how emotionally drained you might be right now.  I would love to help lighten your load.  Please let me know what you would find most helpful right now (give some examples from above).”

DO acknowledge not just the death of the child, but also the loss of what that child meant to the bereaved parents.

Validate the loss of the hopes and dreams 

Try saying: “I know how much you looked forward to all of the joys that would come with seeing your child grow up.  Your child will always be loved and missed.”

 

DO talk about their child.  Do not avoid this topic for fear of upsetting the griever. [1] Not mentioning their child who died is likely to make them feel even more alone in their grief.

To them, this usually means that you don’t remember or think about him/her. 

Most bereaved parents appreciate any kind of acknowledgement. 

Bereaved parents think about their missing children ALL THE TIME.  You will not be “reminding” them of something that’s not already on their minds.

Try saying: “I think about your child often.  Would it be ok for me to bring up his/her name to you?  Would you find comfort in hearing about how much I love and miss him/her too?”

DO use the child's name. 
  • There is a quote that says; “Mentioning my child's name might make me cry, but not mentioning his/her name will break my heart.” -Anonymous

DO talk about how special this child will always be to you

  • Acknowledgement that you also felt a loving connection to their child will likely bring much comfort.
  • Try saying: “I think about him/her often and he/she will forever hold a special place in my heart.”
DO mark your calendar regarding the birth and/or death dates of the child and remember to contact the bereaved family each year. [1]
  • These milestones are often some of the most emotional and difficult.  The act of remembering their child and showing compassion to the parents on these dates will mean more to them than you could possibly imagine.
  • The week(s) leading up to these milestones can be filled with both sadness and anticipation.  Call beforehand to check in and see how they are doing.
  • Try saying: “I am thinking about you and remembering your child today.  I hope that you have a gentle day honoring his/her memory.  Please know that I am here for you.  I love and miss your child always.” DO remember to somehow acknowledge the bereaved parents on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day
  • Bereaved parents are parents too, and the lack of acknowledgement as such often adds to their existing grief.
  • Try saying: “I’m thinking of you today.  I can only imagine that Mother’s/Father’s Day might be difficult for you. Missing your child today and everyday.”

 

DO ask if it’s all right for you to do something special to help others in memory of the child that died.
  • Parents often find meaning in creating a legacy for their child, even in death.
  • Try saying: “If there is a charity or organization that you feel a connection to, I would love to organize and collect donations in your child's memory.  So many people in need would be able receive help – all because of your child.  What a special gift that would be for them.”

  

DON’T forget about the bereaved father. Both parents are grieving the death of their child– even if the dads may or may not show it publicly.
  • Men and women, all people, grieve differently.  Because fathers can tend to be more private about their emotions, people often assume that they are “ok” and “being strong”.
  • Ask the bereaved father how he is doing and see if he would like to talk more about his own healing.  Take cues from him directly, not from the assumptions that you make.
  • Try saying: “I am sure that most people usually ask you how your wife is doing.  I want to know how YOU are doing.  If you ever want to talk, please know that I’m here to listen.”

 

DON’T think that the age of the child or gestation of pregnancy at the time of the loss determines how much a bereaved parent should grieve. This was their child that they carried, nurtured, and had longed and hoped for.
  • By putting limitations on their love for this child, you are shattering their dreams all over again.

 

DON’T pretend that this child never existed.
If you are a grandparent or other family member, continue to include this child into your lives. 

If you are talking about “all” of your grandchildren, ask the parent if they would like for you to include the child who died.

If you have a wall or shelf of family pictures, ask them if they would appreciate if you included a framed picture of this child, a special memento, or a symbolic quote that you find meaningful.

WHAT NOT TO SAY:

DON’T use any of the following clichés regarding the loss of their child:

“It’s for the best.” 

“Be brave, don’t cry.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“At least it happened early on before you got more attached.” 

“You’re young, you can always have more.” 

“It just wasn’t meant to be.” 

"There was probably something wrong with the baby, and it’s better this way.”

“It’s time to move on.”

“Be thankful for what you do have and don’t focus so much on this.” 

“It’s just a bump in the road – you’ll get over it.”

“Your child wouldn’t want you to be upset.”

“You’re doing so much better.”  OR   “It’s so good to see you smiling again.”

Avoid anything that begins with, "At least...."

Similarly, DON’T use any of the following statements in reference to the a subsequent pregnancy or a new baby:
“See, this was the child you were meant to have.”

“If not for your loss, you would never have had this perfect baby.”

“If you are patient, everything works out for the best.”

"Now you know there was a reason for what you went through.”

“All of your worrying was silly – I told you everything would be fine with this one.”

“Try not to think about that baby and focus on the one right in front of you.”

“Now you are finally a mother/father.”

“Happy first Mother’s Day/Father’s Day.”

“Now that you have your healthy baby, you can go back to normal.”

* In one way or another, all of these comments CAN trivialize the

child who died, the depth of the loss, and/or the difficult process of healing. 

DON’T try to use these lines to make the bereaved parents feel better.  This is not only impossible, but it also can make the parents feel worse.

DO listen with sympathy and sensitivity to how they are feeling and find out what does bring them comfort.

DO be sensitive to the fact that everyone has different beliefs about death.  Just because you find comfort in one idea/value/view point, not everyone will find it helpful.  For this reason, also avoid religious statements like:

“It’s all a part of God’s plan.” 

“God needed another angel.”
“You’re child is safe and happy with God now.”

Some parents might find comfort in some of the above statements –

but, let them verbalize these ideals to you.  Do not put your beliefs onto them.


After experiencing the death of a child, the spiritual ideas that bereaved parents once held may change.  DO NOT assume that any previous religious beliefs have remained the same.
Down the road, DO take advantage of this as an opportunity to talk with the bereaved parents about their beliefs about death.

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[1] “The Do’s and Don’ts of Grief Support” and “Being Effectively Present: An Invitation to Caregivers”

www.missfoundation.org

The MISS Foundation is a 501 (c) 3, volunteer based organization committed to providing crisis support and long term aid to families after the death of a child from any cause. MISS also participates in legislative and advocacy issues, community engagement and volunteerism, and culturally competent, multidisciplinary, education opportunities.