When a child dies, the sense of unfairness in the world is magnified. Children are meant to live full and productive lives; and as parents, we have so many hopes and dreams for them. The parents of that child, no matter the age, need our compassion and care at this most difficult moment in their lives. No parent ever expects to bury their child, and the experience is not something that is taught in parenting courses.
I am a parent of adult children—and the parent of a child that will be forever sixteen. Parents who have lost children belong to an exclusive group. It is definitely not a group anyone wants membership in. Our mandate is to get through each day with a minimum amount of painful reminders. Children take up a great deal of a parent’s day: we cook, clean, transport them, help with homework and so much more. Parents’ schedules often become consumed by the activities of childrearing. So when a child dies, yes, it’s devastating for everyone. But the difference for the parents and siblings is that the child was a huge part of their daily life—and now he or she is gone.
When Talking with a Grieving Parent
When talking to a parent who has lost a child, one of the most important things you can do is listen. For most of us, just finding someone who is willing to listen to our pain, worries, and concerns is incredible. Make time to go for a walk, have a cup of coffee, or chat on the phone. From my personal experience, it is not necessary to offer advice; just listen, and perhaps offer a hug.
There are certain things you should never say to a grieving parent. “Tomorrow will be a better day” is just a bad statement to make. The grieving parent has had their child ripped away. They cannot even fathom a better tomorrow.
The second comment to avoid is, “It was probably for the best.” I have talked to many parents over the years and no matter how sick or hurt their child was, dying is not for the best. As parents, we make our lives work around our children, and even though a sick child takes extra time and effort, it is terrifying to even think about not having our child with us.
The Grieving Parent: Dealing with the Pain
In the last year or so, I have been blessed to talk to many parents that have connected with me through my blog. One of the most common questions from a grieving parent is, “Will it ever get better?” After nearly eleven years, I would say that it is still the same gut-wrenching pain as the first day. However, I have learned various techniques to deal with the emotional pain and anguish. It took a lot of work; and some days, no matter how hard I try, it is still just a bad day.
My first suggestion is to analyze your day. What are the triggers that make you sad or emotional? For me, it was family gatherings and seeing her friends happy and healthy. Once you have figured out your triggers, it’s important to determine how you can either limit them or control your anxiety and depression when the triggers arise.
There is a huge assortment of techniques you can try to control your reactions to your triggers; not all of them will work for everyone. I spent a great deal of time and energy trying different approaches to determine which ones worked the best for me. One of my major issues is anxiety. Through meditation and mindfulness, I learned how to control my breathing with a simple exercise that can be done anywhere. When breathing in, I say the alphabet in my head, trying to inhale as deeply as possible; and then I exhale, again saying the alphabet. It slows my breathing to a more reasonable rate.
In addition, from my perspective, joining a group of other grieving parents can be very beneficial. No one understands a grieving parent better than another grieving parent. The parents in these groups will understand what you are going through and are likely to help you gain perspective. Medical professionals, or an online search, can often help you locate these groups.
The other common comment I hear a lot from parents who have lost a child is that the day feels so empty with the child gone. My best advice is to completely overhaul your schedule and develop a new routine. With a new schedule, you will not have the constant reminder of what and who is missing.
For everyone—friends and family—it takes time and a lot of effort to live life after the loss of a child. For the parents and siblings, they need compassion and care for the rest of their lives.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: For information about available support groups or other resources in your area, contacting the 211 Helpline could be a good place to start. The 211 Helpline is an information and referral service which connects people with resources and services in their community. You can reach them by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by visiting www.211.org in the US. In Canada, you can contact the 211 Helpline by calling 1-800-836-3238 or by visiting www.211.ca)