Helpful Hints - How to Support the Grieving Family

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Death is a difficult subject, one which is frightening and unfamiliar to many people. Sometimes it is hard to know what to do or say to someone whose young child has died. You may feel awkward, uncomfortable or even afraid. But don’t let your own sense of helplessness keep you away. Silence and distance can be so hurtful, not only to the parents, but also to you and your relationship with them.

As you cared about your friend or family member before the death of their child, show them, in some way, that you still do. Your understanding and support will make a difference.

What you can do:

Be there. Come to the house or call to say: “I care and I want to help.”

Listen! Even when talk about the baby or young child or circumstances of death make you uncomfortable. This is not about your comfort.

Remember that it is usually the simple things that mean so much.

Freely recall the baby or young child by his/her name. This is an important way of acknowledging the child’s existence and importance.

If you have organisational skills, take the initiative and be an organiser. Put together a list of friends and relatives willing to bring meals to the bereaved family for several weeks after the death. Be available to run errands, clean the house and even feed or walk the dog.

Consider both the practical and emotional needs of any siblings. How long has it been since Jack ate anything? Does Amy need someone to cuddle? Organise ‘play dates’ with your own children.

If you would like to give the bereaved parents a gift, consider a locket for the child’s picture, a special box in which to keep mementos of the child, picture frames (especially for siblings) or framed poetry, or a vase for flowers.

Consider how long you think it would take to “get over” the death and then forget it! In fact, there is no time limit. Grieving is tough work that takes much longer than most people expect. Most parents say it takes two to three years to feel ‘half normal’ again and, even then, there is the strong need to remember and maintain the strong bond with their child forever.

Remember important days such as birthdays and the anniversary of the death. A call, a visit or a card can mean a great deal to grieving parents who are wondering if anyone else remembers.

Do feel free to say any of these things:

  • I’m sorry.
  • I can’t begin to imagine your pain.
  • I feel so sad that you have to go through this
  • This must be extremely difficult for you
  • I want to do whatever I can to help you. What can I do?
  • Talk for as long as you want. I have plenty of time to listen.

Fathers grieve, too

When a baby or young child dies, it is generally accepted that mothers will grieve. But it is not widely accepted that fathers will grieve, too. They will be deeply hurt, though some may not show their grief as openly as do mothers. Fathers need friendship and support; they need to be allowed to talk about their child if they wish, and they need to know that you care. In fact, they need all the same sorts of support that mothers need. Try not to say things like, “How is your wife doing?” without also asking how he is doing. Almost everything that you think to do in support of a mother whose child has died will also be appreciated by the father.

“..my brother said you and Olivia are going to counselling and we have taken care of it and we were driven there, we didn’t even have to think about, we knew that we needed some kind of counselling, we didn’t know what, but someone took care of that…I don’t know as a parent if I would have done that…you don’t know what you need…”1

“…on your own initiative…sometimes it’s too hard…”1

Brothers and sisters

When a baby or young child dies, it is important to remember that the child’s brothers and sisters will be grieving. They too will experience the pain of grief, but they will express it in different ways. For example, they may be unusually clinging or anxious, may have nightmares, or may appear unaffected. They will have questions, and their own fears.

Sometimes parents may appear uninterested in their other children for a time, or simply do not have the energy to give them the attention they need. If you can, try to give special attention to the child’s brothers and sisters. This will be helpful both to the children and to the parents.

Grandparents

Grandparents will be deeply affected when a grandchild dies. They will grieve not only for the loss of their grandchild, but also for the pain their own child is suffering. Grandparents, too, will need support and comfort.

Practical matters

Sometimes it is a big help to parents if you can lend a hand with practical matters and everyday chores. Don’t be afraid to ask your friend or family member if you can do something to help. Make suggestions like, “Can I take your kids to kinder?” or “Would you like me to pick up some shopping?”. If you take the initiative, your friend or family member will not have to feel that he or she is imposing.

Don’t be offended, though, if they refuse your help. Some parents may feel that a part of their parenting role is gone, and thus they want to continue with as many day-to-day chores as possible to reaffirm their role as parents. Some also find a sense of security in routine.

So be flexible. Offer to help, but don’t insist. And if they say no at first, perhaps you can ask again at another time when they may really want some practical help.

Some of the things you can do to help.

  • Washing clothes (ask before you wash any of the baby or young child’s clothes).
  • Washing dishes (ask before you wash any of the baby or young child’s bottles or dishes).
  • Tidying up around the house (but leave the nursery untouched).
  • Preparing meals for the rest of the family (the parents may not want to eat much at first).
  • Looking after the other children.
  • Grocery shopping.
  • Answering the phone and greeting visitors.
  • Making phone calls that may be difficult for your friend or family member, such as notifying distant relatives or notifying the Social Security office regarding Family Allowance.
  • Helping to answer correspondence.
  • Driving your friend or family member to places they need to go.
  • Mowing the lawn or taking care of the garden.
  • Feeding the pets.

“Not long after Franklin died I came home to find someone had left a cake at the door. This meant that someone had thought of us and had acted upon this.”

Erica

Franklin, 10.2.89 – 21.7.89

Making Decisions

After the death of a child, some parents feel inadequate or helpless. It is tempting to want to make decisions for them, so that they do not have to worry. But if you take over their decision-making, you may inadvertently make them feel even more helpless. Many parents have said that they wished they had taken a more active part in their baby or young child’s funeral, for example. Even if you do not agree with their decisions, try to accept them as the right ones for the parents at that time.

In addition to funeral arrangements, the decision of if and when to put away the baby or young child’s clothing, pictures and toys must be that of the parents. They need to decide what to do with these things in their own time. Sometimes the father and mother do not agree; it is important that you do not take sides, but try to understand how each person feels.

If the parents are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, try to encourage them to be patient with themselves and not to expect too much of themselves. If you are there for them, they may feel more capable just knowing that someone cares and will help if needed.

Keeping in touch

As time goes on, family and friends may be less available, but the parents may still need support. Grieving is not a “process” that will be finished in a matter of months; each parent’s experience will be unique, and they must be able to take as much time as they need to grieve. Sometimes significant events, such as the baby or young child’s birthday, the anniversary of his or her death, Christmas, and Mother’s and Father’s Day, and the week or weeks preceding these events, will be particularly difficult for the parents. Many parents find it comforting when friends and family remember these special days.

“Franklin’s first birthday anniversary aroused a great deal of mixed feelings. He had died six and a half months earlier. The two cards received, one from my sister and one from my mother, touched me to the bottom of my heart. At least someone had remembered that he was even born!”

Erica

Franklin, 10.2.89 – 21.7.89

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.


Last reviewed: 22/5/19