Supporting a Parent Who Is Grieving
Knowing what to say to support someone who has recently experienced a death in the family can be difficult; knowing what to say to support a parent who has recently lost a child is almost impossible. There is no remedy for that kind of pain, no way to make the loss easier to bear. There is nothing you can say and nothing you can do to make up for the overwhelming feelings that occur when a parent loses a child.
That does not mean you do not have options. In fact, one of the worst things you can to is disappear during this difficult time. You might feel that your companionship is unwanted (and many days, it won’t be) or that your presence adds to the burden of grief. This is rarely the case. Being there—physically, emotionally, or via a phone call or text—is one of the most important gifts you can give.
So give it.
- Offer Support Without Expectations: What you say and what you do to help a grieving parent is not nearly as important as simply being a supportive presence. This might mean bringing the family a home-cooked meal, inviting them to go for a walk or offering a ride to work, taking care of errands and/or cleaning, or even reaching out each week to let them know you are thinking of them. Remember, though, that parental grief is profound. Some days, your presence might be bothersome and your friend may lash out at you. Other days, they may break down and cry for hours. Still others, they may simply request to be left alone. All of these are normal and okay…and have nothing to do with you. Your constancy and willingness to be supportive without any demands for yourself will go a long way in helping them feel comforted.
- Avoid Advice and/or Clichés: In times of grief, many people turn to common phrases like “He’s in a better place” or “Time heals all wounds” or “God has a plan.” While you may mean these things from a place of love, leave them in your heart. These platitudes will carry little meaning while grief is so raw and new, and your friend may have heard them so many times that they chafe rather than comfort.
- Talk About the Child: Say the child’s name. Talk about memories that mean a lot to you—or about memories that are simple and silly. Remember dates like birthdays and first days of school, holidays and other milestones, and talk about them as they arise. One of the worst things you can do for a grieving parent is act as though their child did not exist. A lost child is and always will be a constant part of them, and being able to share these thoughts with an open and willing audience will mean a lot both in the aftermath of death and in years to come.
- Visit the Cemetery on Your Own Time: Do not wait for your friend to accompany you to do things like visit the gravesite or stop by a shrine erected in the deceased’s memory. Visit and leave flowers or a note. Your friend will notice that they have not been alone in honoring their child’s memory and will take great comfort in this.
No matter what you do to provide support, always remember that this is not about you. Try to set aside your own awkwardness or discomfort to focus on what matters: honoring the memory of a beloved child and supporting the parents he or she left behind.