Saturday, February 12, 2011

Supporting a family when a child dies

Roger and I attended a beautiful memorial reception today for another brave cancer warrior.  Little Lois lost the battle with Leukemia.  She was a little over three years of age. 

I realized that this was the first memorial that I attended for another child since Charlotte died last year.  The event was positive, bright, filled with children, and filled with smiles.  I hope that it was all Lois's family wanted it to be. 

At times like this, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to support those who are grieving.  When a child dies, there are many who are caught in the wake of loss.  It is hard to know what to say, how to say it, or whether to say anything at all. 

Are there rules? Well, yes and no.  Since each person grieves in their own way, I am not sure if there is always a right or wrong answer to some questions.  That being said, my experience has caused me to realize that there are some phrases that jar a grieving parent like fingernails on a chalkboard.  If you are supporting someone who is grieving, here's some food for thought:

Ban the phrase "at least" from your vocabulary.  In the midst of acute grief, there is no bright side to things.  This is a time to allow the family their sadness.  At least she didn't suffer or At least you have other children or At least you can still have children.  NOT HELPFUL.  At the moment, life sucks.  in fact, it's going to suck for a while. It's ok to acknowledge it.

Be cautious in your use of religious metaphors or talk of heaven.  This is probably very individual, but please remember that not everyone shares the same beliefs in life, death, heaven, or an afterlife.  Some parents take serious offense to the idea of their child as "an angel in heaven" because that is not how they imagine them to be after death.  Further, the phrase know that she is in a better place is particularly bothersome.  In my mind, there is no better place for Charlotte to be than with me.  Here on Earth.  It is not necessarily comforting (even if I believe in heaven and the afterlife) to think that she is somewhere else.  In fact, sometimes the use of that phrase is extremely painful to the person who is grieving. 

Don't ask about their plans (or lack thereof) to have more children. If this information is not offered by the parent directly, it's not up for discussion. You may wonder how they feel but for most parents, it's a difficult and possibly painful topic.  This is true whether the child's loss was one week ago or three years ago.  Know that if you ask this question, you are treading on dangerous ground.

Sometimes there are no words. We struggle in these situations to find the right words but sometimes, there is nothing to say. There are no answers. We don't know the reasons why. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just sit with, cry with, laugh with, or hug the grieving person.  It's ok if you don't have all the answers. You can be a friend just by letting them know that you are there.

Remember that grief has no timetable. Everyone grieves on their own schedule. There is no designated time when a person will be over it. Grief ebbs and flows. It tends to fade over time. Some people get stuck and may need some additional support to approach a sense of "normal" but be careful not to project your feelings or expectations on another person's process grieving a loss. 

The last thing I will say is that the most important factor in the process a grieving family endures is the support the community can offer them. I think often of the phrase, "Our thoughts and prayers are with you." If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase or saw it written in a card or email, I could finance a new wing of the hospital.  Individually, the phrase carried no weight.  It was just something to fill the void when no other words seemed right.  On the other hand, when I would read comments on our blog or Facebook pages or look at the piles and piles of cards that had been sent from all over the world, I felt the impact of that phrase.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Can you imagine? There were, thousands,...of individuals thinking of us, sending positive vibes, and praying for us.  It created an energy force that was strong and comforting at the same time.  It was like a huge, soft blanket on which we could break the freefall that had become our lives.  And for that I continue to be grateful.

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