by Teresa J. Mitchell
Parents who lose a child during pregnancy or after birth face an immediate heartbreak. Then grief sets in. It's not easy to face crushed hopes and dreams for their child and family.
A child's death will forever alter a parent's path. Even benign questions like, "How many children do you have?" from well-meaning strangers can reopen the wound.
As a family member or close friend, you might feel uneasy or helpless if the situation arises.
How can you provide support for the grieving parents? Here are helpful tips and the big do's and don'ts to remember.
Open Your Heart
Right now, your loved ones need to talk -- or not. Do they want to talk, cry, scream or vent? Would they rather have time alone? Don't push them to talk if they aren't ready.
They don't expect you to "fix" or "make things better." Their child died. You cannot possibly repair or even lessen their suffering.
You can, however, offer to help shoulder this crushing burden by being there for them.
Reach Out with Tangible Support
Immediately after a loss, and for at least the first six weeks, mundane tasks require energy that the grieving parents might not have. Organize others in your circle and offer to help out with:
- Grocery shopping
- Creating "freezer meals" that just need reheating
- Light housework, laundry and dishes
- Yard work
Are there other children in the family? Offer to run the kids to school or extra-curricular activities. Invite the kids over for a sleep-over. If mom or dad can't bear the thought of being separated from their children right now, suggest that you come over to entertain the kids for a while.
Ride the Roller Coaster
The grieving process is like an emotional roller coaster. Expect that the anguished parents will express anything from crying, anger, sadness, disorientation to confusion at any given moment.
Feelings of guilt might crop up with the "what if's" and "why's." Jealousy could be directed towards others with a healthy pregnancy or children. You could witness a glimmer of happiness or laughter followed by deep remorse.
Experiencing a loss affects a couple's relationship. The good news is that contrary to popular myths, most marriages of bereaved parents tend to become stronger.
One or both parents might try to play the "blame game." What should you do? Don't get dragged into their conflict. It's probably wise to steer clear. Encourage the couple to turn to one another as they work through the emotions. Their grief and experience is specific to that child and family. Later on, they'll appreciate that you remained supportive of them as a couple.
• Don't offer platitudes. Hearing things like "Thankfully you can have another (or have other children)," "Your baby's gone to a better place," or "This is part of god's plan" are not helpful.
• Don't push. Everyone has their own personal path of grief and healing. Grief follows no particular time frame or order.
• Don't avoid. Your family or friend has already experienced a loss. A card, email, text message, or call lets them know you're thinking of them. Your connection can be a lifeline.
• Acknowledge the loss. Some people decide to treat the loss as a forbidden topic. While the intentions are to protect the parents from pain, ignoring the event is more distressing.
• Share special memories or hopes. Pictures might be too much but it's good to remember due dates, birthdays, or anniversary of the loss and extend a sign of recognition and support.
• Watch for signs of depression. Grief and suffering are normal. Taking time to withdraw might even be necessary…to an extent.
While some signs of depression are common after a loss, it doesn't hurt to watch your loved one or friends to see if they sink further. Depression can lead to serious health consequences, increase risks of alcohol or drug abuse, and lead to suicide. Learn the warning signs and seek professional help if necessary.
• Respect the parents' wishes. Following a loss, so much feels "out of control." Above all, enable mom and dad to make the final decisions.
Research some tangible ways to give parents power. You can work together to set up an account through a local bank to help offset medical and funeral expenses. Another idea is to host a donation drive for a charity preferred by the parents.
You can honor the family and child by creating a tribute -- a tree for a local park, a nature trail marker or flower garden.
A parent never expects to bury their child. This journey is unique and unlike anyone should have to go through. Even if you have experienced a loss yourself, it's always different for each family. As a loving family member or friend, you're going to be an integral source of support and healing.
Have you helped someone you cared about following a loss? What did you find useful (or not) in their journey through grief?