The loss of a child—no matter the age—can be traumatic and can leave family, particularly the parents, reeling in the emotional turmoil that comes with great loss. I have noticed a few commonalities among those parents, one being that the people in their lives do not know how to react or help.
This article is for friends and family members of a parent who has lost a child. The goal is to raise awareness of common mistakes made in trying to provide support and to suggest more effective ways to support parents as they work through their grief.
“It’s time to move on! You have to get on with your life!”
This statement, and others like it, is the first common mistake well-meaning loved ones make. The intent is to help the parent to get back to life and to find meaning again. Watching someone we love go through grief and extreme suffering can be very uncomfortable. We have an innate need to want to help the people we love through life, and if one of our loved ones seems stuck, we have the urge to do everything we can to get them unstuck. However, this message unintentionally invalidates the parent, who may start to question whether there is something wrong with them for grieving for the child.
Grief looks different in every person. Some people may need to take a leave of absence from work. They may need to lay on the couch all day and allow themselves to ride the roller coaster that is grief, which usually consists of bouts of crying, depression, anger, numbness, confusion, and inward questioning as to how the person could have prevented the loss, followed by perhaps more anger, depression, and numbness. The parent may feel distant from loved ones, which often makes loved ones concerned and anxious and can lead to statements similar to the one above.
There is no time limit on how long it takes a person to grieve the loss of a child. In fact, it is important to acknowledge that huge losses will make an impact on a person’s life forever. This does not mean there is no life after loss. It just means that it will look different.
Giving the person as much time as they need to grieve, and allowing them to grieve in their own way, is very important. Doing so creates safety for the parent and assurance they can do what is needed to do to work through emotions with support and understanding. Saying something like, “It’s OK that you are feeling the way you are … you have experienced a major loss and I want you to know that I am here to listen … take as long as you need,” is a much better way to communicate to the person that you want to help him or her through the grieving process.
“Why are you having those thoughts? They are completely irrational, and of course you couldn’t have done anything to prevent this!”
When someone becomes a parent, they are forever changed. It is like a switch goes off in the brain. All of a sudden, priorities shift, and keeping one’s child safe and happy is a top priority. So when someone experiences a loss of a child, it is natural to start questioning inwardly and wondering what they could have done to keep the child safe.
Even in situations where it is blatantly obvious there was nothing the parent could have done, there is still that wondering. In my experience, parents are cognitively aware of the fact they could not have done anything to prevent the loss, but emotionally they still feel that they failed. Loved ones often want to jump in and challenge these thoughts in an effort to reassure the parent that this is not true. This may be necessary at some point, but how you do this is extremely important.
When you fail to validate the parent’s feelings by failing to simply listen without trying to fix it, a barrier for communication may be created. Part of healing and moving forward through grief is being able to share what the parent is thinking, no matter how extreme those thoughts may sound. Failing to validate feelings can hinder the healing process.
Instead of jumping right to trying to correct a belief that you feel is irrational, validate that having such thoughts is completely normal for a parent who has lost a child. Listen to the person and practice reflective listening skills (example: “I hear you saying that you feel responsible for this”). Make validating statements such as, “I hear you saying you are hurting. I know this is very painful for you, which is completely understandable.” This can help the person realize that you are trying to understand where they are coming from.
Sometimes even irrational beliefs need to be validated. Sometimes more intensive work has to take place. If the latter is true, it is important to help the person to get to a therapist who can help.
“Everything happens for a reason. They’re in a better place.”
This may be part of your spiritual belief system or even the parent’s belief system, but this statement often backfires. Trying to provide an explanation for the loss of a child can lead to the parent feeling as though their anger (or other intense emotion connected with the loss) is invalid. It is important that the parent is allowed to process the loss and can identify meaning, if any, in their own time.
If the parent wants to have a conversation about meaning and the loss, by all means, have that conversation! But let the person decide if that is a conversation they want and are ready to have. Be aware that people feel a lot of things with such a significant loss, and all feelings and thoughts that come up are valid.
Remember, you shouldn’t try to “fix” the pain that accompanies grieving. Something along these lines is a good place to start: “I can’t imagine what you are going through. This must be so difficult. I am here for you and would like to offer my support during this difficult time. I can offer you a listening ear without judgment or advice.”
A support network is an important part of the healing process after the loss of a child. Knowing how you can be there for the parent can make a huge difference in how that person grieves and begins to work toward healing. Seeking assistance from a professional to help guide you through supporting your loved one can be extremely helpful and can help address the discomfort that often accompanies seeing someone you love suffer.
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