I have not lost a child so maybe I have no business writing about it-but hear me out.
Parents who have experienced child loss need support from people who could never begin to comprehend the depth of their loss. The irony is tragic.
So how can we offer better support for something we don't understand? I think one way to do that is to speak about it openly. Child loss and miscarriages happen too-frequently so chances are you know someone going through it.
My greatest fear in life is losing my daughter. I dislike making blanket statements but I know I share this sentiment with all parents. I think that our collective fear is one of a few underlying reasons why the topic of child loss is so taboo.
There are a few common misguided thoughts which surface, almost subconsciously, that may add to our feelings of helplessness and even frustration because we can’t make it better. By acknowledging some of them here along with suggestions on how to help from someone who has lost a child- my hope is that we can all be self aware enough to adjust our thinking and create a safe space for loss-families to share their grief.
Parents spend energy worrying about child safety every single day.
Did you cut those grapes in half? Are the power outlets baby-proofed? Are we too close to the street? Is the air safe to breathe? Some of this stuff is within our control but most of it is not- especially when it comes to illness or SIDS. When a couple loses a child they become the physical manifestation of our greatest fear. Facing this reality can be beyond difficult. We may not mean to- but if we behave awkwardly it can make the bereaved parent feel even worse.
We think about the length of a child’s life. We don’t know which is harder- losing one so young, or losing one we’ve come to know so well. Irrelevant. It does not matter if a child has lived ten years, ten minutes or even if a baby has not had the chance to breathe outside it's womb- he or she needs to be acknowledged and grieved. Even an unborn baby will touch the lives of it's parents, grandparents, family and friends. The death of a child at any age means the death of a future.
We feel awkward and we don't know what to say.
A very close friend of mine had a son who only lived for four days in the hospital. I remember writing to her telling her that someday she would have another chance at having a family- a variation of the old; “Don’t worry you’ll have another one,” comment. Looking back this was an dumb thing to say. Why? Because in that moment I should have realized one child cannot possibly replace the other. I know that now that I’m a Mom.
I hope we all know that saying, “Don’t worry you can have another one,” is inappropriate on many levels because you don’t really know that for sure- especially if there are fertility issues involved. The parents did not plan on losing their baby and may not have a back up plan.
Note: (My gracious friend never once implied she was offended, it’s only my own hindsight which makes me wish I worded things differently.)
In her grief my friend took to the Internet. She wrote about her experience, of how losing her son changed her life forever. She inadvertently educated those in her life about the emotional roller coaster of losing a son, trying for another, and the scary health complications faced as a result. She wrote about how having her second boy was not a band-aid but actually caused fresh pain. She told us how she yearns to be acknowledged as a mother of two and for her first son to be remembered. She speaks about the struggle to find ways to parent a deceased child when there is no forthcoming advice for that.
It seems like many people didn’t know what to say after her son died so they said nothing at all- which crushed her already broken heart over and over again.
We need to start listening, really listening, to people who have lost their children. It’s up to us- the ones who do not share that cavernous loss- to make sure we don’t add to the pain with our reaction, inaction or indecision.
Inspired by my friend’s bravery, honesty and strength I wanted to pass along what she has shown me. I asked her “How can we better support someone who has lost a child?”
Here are some of the answers she gave:
Please stick around. This is the most important one! When close friends and family avoid you because they don’t know how to help- this means to secondary losses for the mother. The loss of a child is more than any person can bare so don’t disappear.
All Mother’s and Father’s grieve differently. You would think there are common sense do’s and don’ts but there are not. The best thing you can do for your loved one is ask what they need. Some may need to talk about it and some may need the opposite. If you don’t know what to say and your words are falling you- just say that. Many times they won’t know what to say either but being honest opens the door to allow the parent to speak up if they can.
When you lose a child, you feel like you are thrown into this club you never signed up for. There are new terms and sensitive ways of speaking about things- for example the term ‘loss Mom,’ or ‘rainbow baby.’ As the bereaved parents navigate through this new speech and communication they must also educate those around them which can be difficult. Just try and listen, and be respectful.
Being around babies can be tricky for a loss-parent. Holding someone else’s baby too soon or hearing giggles and cries may trigger post traumatic stress. It does not mean that they don’t love you or your children, they just miss their own. A good way to talk to a friend about this is to say, “I know being around other children may be difficult for you right now but I’ll check back in with you about this later.”
If you lose a child you will never be the same again. You will have to find a ‘new normal’ no amount of therapy will help you get back to your ‘old self’ again. Remember that everyone grieves in a unique way so pushing someone to ‘get professional help’ or ‘move on,’ will not expedite the process, in fact it may do the opposite.
In the end the best way to show your love and support is to hang in there. Check in with your friend. Wait for them to be ready to communicate with your and share their needs but please remember to reach out often- don’t put the onus on the parents to contact you if they need something.
Much of this advice is common sense if think about it but I believe the problem is we chose not to think about it. Case in point- I've wanted to write about this topic for many months now but I've been putting it off because it makes me sad, which in turn makes me feel like a bit of a coward.
I can only hope that these words can help some of us learn to be better friends to people with broken hearts.
Labels: Family, healing, Loss, parenting