A Guide for Family and Friends: Supporting the Grieving Parents
What Grieving Parents Want You to Know
Please don’t avoid me. You can’t catch my grief. My world is painful and when you are too afraid to call me or say anything, you isolate me at a time when I most need to be cared about. If you don’t know what to say, just come over to me, give me a hug or touch my arm, and gently say, “I’m sorry”. You can even say, “I just don’t know what to say, but care, and want you to know that”.
Three important things to know:
- People do recover from such a tragic loss eventually, but they will be changed by it and they will never forget.
- The greatest help for parents on the long road to self-healing and recovery is the understanding and support of their family and friends.
- It is easy to make a mistake or say the wrong thing in trying to support a grieving friend. But it is never too late to say you are sorry.
Straight after the death … Some Important things to do:
- Contact your friend or family member straight away – either visit or phone.
- Make sure they know you care. A few simple words, such as “I’m so sorry”, or a hug, if appropriate, may be all that is needed.
- Don’t feel that you need to “fix things” – you can’t. Just be there.
- Offer some practical help, such as answering the phone and greeting visitors, preparing meals, washing, shopping or helping with the other children. But do ask before touching any of the child’s belongings.
- Encourage the parents to make their own decisions, including the difficult ones such as plans for the funeral.
- Remember that all family members are deeply affected by the death of their baby or young child. Give your support to fathers as well as mothers.
How to Help a Grieving Family six or eight weeks later …
Ask, “How are you going now?”
Listen. Be patient and listen – your friend or family member may want to go over and over what happened.
Be sensitive to your friend or family member’s wish either to talk or not talk about their child.
Use the baby or young child’s name and be ready to share memories.
Don’t feel personally rejected by your friend or family member’s extreme moods. Try another time; there will be good days and bad days.
Later on down the track …
Ask again, “How are you going now?”
Give your friend or family member ongoing support; parents must be able to take as much time as they need to grieve – two to three years is not uncommon.
Remember to acknowledge significant events – birthdays, anniversary of their child’s death, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.
Don’t hesitate to send your friend or family member a letter or card telling them that you are thinking of them.
Invite your friend or family member to go out with you to do things you would normally do together.
Ensure that your friend or family member does not feel isolated, but be sensitive to times when they want to be alone.
If you are unsure how your friend or family member will feel about seeing your young child or children, ask them.
Find your own way to help your friend or family member. There are many ways of showing ordinary human kindness, so do keep trying, tactfully and gently.
It’s alright to show your emotions – you can be honest with your feelings.
Make sure you have support for yourself; supporting your friend may not be easy.
Some special issues for friends and family to consider
Guilt and self-blame
In some circumstances of death, parents may blame themselves for the death of their child. Listen to them without making any judgements. You might try to reassure them that what happened was not their intention. You might speak about their loving care for their child and whatever else you know to be true and positive about their devotion to their baby or young child. But be prepared to listen to their doubts and fears as well.
With Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the causes are still not known. We have learned over the years, though, that there are some things that do not cause SIDS. Many parents feel responsible in some way for the death of their baby or young child. They mistakenly believe that something they did, or did not do, or even their ignorance or neglect, somehow contributed to the death. Although this is a natural reaction, any such guilt is unfounded.
Other children of similar age
If you have a baby or young child about the same age as the child who died, ask your friend or family member how they feel about seeing your child. Some may want to cuddle and nurse your child, while others may not want to see a child at all. If they do not want to see your baby or young child at one particular time, understand that they may change their mind later.
Their first child
When a first or only child dies, parents suddenly lose their identity as a family. This can be very hurtful. While their parenting role is gone, they will never stop being a parent. Their child will always be a part of their family.
This article was prepared using extracts from To Family and Friends: You can Make a Difference.2 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
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Last reviewed: 2/3/24
- Simpson, S. (2015). What Grieving People Want You to Know: 4. Retrieved from http://www.drvirginiasimpson.com/what-grieving-people-want-you-to-know/
- Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids. (2000?). To Family and Friends: You can Make a Difference: A booklet by Parents whose Baby and Young Child has Died Suddenly and Unexpectedly (T. Ross, R. Quayle & P. Jones, Illus.). Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids.