Bereaved Parents Awareness Month is recognized every year during the month of July. This special time is dedicated to raising awareness around how to best support those who have experienced the unimaginable grief and trauma of having lost a beloved infant or child. Family and friends often do not know what to say or do to support grieving parents. They may feel that by mentioning the loss they will cause further pain and so sadly, they may avoid those who are grieving or say nothing at all. Society in general tends to avoid talking about death. When it comes to the death of someone’s child, there is usually even more fear and hesitation in terms of reaching out to talk about what has happened and/or to offer support.
Losing a child – an unspeakable loss
Losing an infant or a child at any age is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. By acknowledging the loss and talking about it, people are often forced to look inward and realize that it could happen to their own family. It is almost inconceivable for parents to entertain the notion that whether a child is soon to be born, has just arrived, is five years old, or 25 years old, they could unexpectedly die.
Finding a way through unspeakable loss
Whether someone is anticipating a loss, going through a loss, or mourning after a loss, there is some solace to be found in being able to share, grieve and remember their child gone too soon with others who are willing to listen. This is especially true when bereaved parents can come together (often in support groups led by a therapist) where they can share with others who understand the unique and devastating pain that follows the loss of a child. In both individual and group sessions, the goal is never to hurry parents through their grief journey, nor is it to try to take away their pain, but rather to help them navigate this truly life-altering experience.
Grief is love turned inside out
Gone are the days when it was believed that grief presented itself by way of a set of predetermined stages that needed to be worked through in a linear order (e.g., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Grief is messy, unpredictable, and unique to each person. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. When we experience a major loss, our lives are literally turned upside down, and our minds and bodies often react in ways that feel strange and alarmingly unfamiliar. After the death of a child, it is important for family and friends to let parents grieve in their own way and in their own time. There may be feelings of guilt and fear, a loss of hope for the future and sudden outbursts of anger. This wide range of emotions will likely be present for a long time, and during all stages of their loss journey, bereaved parents truly need acceptance, understanding and support.
What you can do to support bereaved parents:
What you can do:
Overall, be patient. Newly bereaved parents may simply be unable to respond to offers of help as they are still in shock. Do check back in – and keep checking back in.
Authentically show your concern and care; a few simple words such as “I am so very sorry for your loss,” a gentle hug or even sitting together in silence can provide comfort.
Help with meals, support for other siblings, household chores and errands (rather than saying ‘let me know if you need anything’).
Ask how they are feeling in a way that honours their grief (e.g., “how is today going for you?” rather than “How are you?”).
Gently ask if they would like to talk about their child, and if they wish, share your favourite memories of their child with them.
Be there in both the short and especially in the longer term. It is often after the funeral service when friends stop checking in that bereaved parents feel most alone. Mother’s and Father’s Day, and the anniversary of the date of their child’s death are particularly hard. Being there for someone does not necessarily mean visiting daily – a text, phone call or email are often equally welcome. Consistency, rather than frequency, is often what is needed most.
What you should not do:
Do not ignore or avoid them because you have no idea what to say or are feeling uncomfortable. Being avoided by others is incredibly isolating and is an additional source of loss and pain.
When they mention their child, don’t change the subject, and don’t stop mentioning their child’s name just because you are afraid of reminding them of their loss: they are thinking of their child all the time.
Avoid telling them that you know how they feel because you have also experienced a loss yourself. Everyone’s grief is completely unique and none of us truly knows how someone else might be feeling.
Never tell them what they should feel or do.
Do not tell them that such tragedies happen to only those who are able handle it or that their child is now ‘in a better place.’ Avoid all well-intentioned condolences that begin with “at least…”.
Try not to feel embarrassed by their tears when you are with them, or your own if you yourself are overcome with sorrow.
Your own grief
As a member of the family, extended family or as a friend or colleague, it is likely that you knew the child who died and as such, you will have your own emotions to process. There is the shock and sorrow that comes not only with hearing about the loss of a child but also the devastating impact that the death has had on those you care about. To best support a bereaved family member or friend, honouring and making space for your own emotions is incredibly important, hence the popular quote ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup.’
Grant us grace as we ride the waves of grief…
Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can learn to do is swim. – Vicki Harrison
Carole Brulé is an end-of-life doula, an infant and pregnancy loss doula, and a visiting home hospice and pediatric palliative care volunteer.