Every year, as I get closer to Gianna’s birthday, memories come to mind that I normally wouldn’t think about because they are too painful. I begin thinking about the last months of pregnancy with her, how excited I was to have her, and then about my horrible labor and her unnecessary and painful death. It all makes me so sad and the waves of grief frequently come crashing over me.
But I also remember so many comforting things during that unimaginable time in my life: the endless stream of visitors while Gianna was in the NICU, the emails and messages of prayers being lifted up for our family, the countless flowers, bereavement gifts, and cards that arrived on our doorstep even from complete strangers, the huge crowd of friends and family that attended Gianna’s wake and funeral. I felt so loved and supported during that time; it is quite humbling and continues to give me hope in humanity. I can’t help but feel grateful amidst my sometimes-crippling grief.
I often wonder what it was like for our friends and family to deal with us during that time. Hearing about a child dying is devastating. Learning that it is a child of a close friend or family member can be soul-crushing and life-changing. I wouldn’t have known what to say to a bereaved parent before my child died. Everything I know about comforting someone who’s grieving I learned the hard way. And I wanted to share what I have learned and the many ways our friends helped us.
Before reaching out to the bereaved, I would recommend making a few thoughtful reflections first:
- Know that any act of kindness or love makes the world a better place. Even if you didn’t say the “perfect” thing or felt that the encounter was awkward, hopefully you tried your best and it came from a place of love. In the big scheme of things, that is what matters: your intention. If you feel that you could’ve done or said something more helpful, then learn from it and try again. Don’t get stuck in yourself. And remember, it is worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Silence just intensifies the isolation and loneliness of the bereaved. So, when in doubt, reach out. And keep reaching out because the grieving need comfort, support, and involvement more than even they know.
- Manage your own feelings first, then focus on the bereaved. When someone hears of a death of a child, it can be shocking and one can get overwhelmed with the emotions they are experiencing. Some people freeze up and don’t know how to respond. Some people think about their own child dying and get scared. In the midst of death and tragedy, we definitely need to recognize our own emotions, give them space, and process them. But we can’t just stay there. The focus should now be put on the grieving because, presently, they are the ones suffering the actual loss. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, “What would they need during this time? What could help them? What can I offer them to make the burden of their grief slightly lighter? What would help me if I was living the same thing?”
- Avoid “conversational narcissism.” I know this is a strong term so let me explain. Although mostly subtle and unconscious, it’s the desire to take over the conversation and turn the focus of exchange to yourself. I get it, it’s only human and it is what we do in normal conversation, usually quite appropriately. For example: Dave: “I’m starving!” Amy: “Me too! It’s been hours since I’ve ate!” This is a pretty normal exchange. However, talking about death is uncomfortable and when we don’t know what to stay, we default to a subject with which we are comfortable: ourselves. You may be trying to empathize, at least consciously, but it can come across as drawing focus away from the bereaved person’s pain and turns the attention towards oneself. Try not to respond to loss and struggle with stories of your own experience or by giving advice, unless the person asks. What grieving people need is for you to hear them and acknowledge what they are going through. Simply validate their pain and listen to how they are experiencing it. Don’t force them to listen and acknowledge you. They already have enough to bear. Instead of shifting the conversation to you, try to have a supportive response that encourages the person to continue their story. In short, listen more and talk less.
- Accept the bereaved as they are. We all have different ways of managing grief. Some get angry, some get numb, some turn to humor. It is not your job to correct them but to give them space to be the way they are presently, for that is how they heal. Love them where they are at and don’t judge or compare, for they are living the unimaginable.
- Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Talking about death is sad and awkward, even more so the death of a child. No one truly knows what to say or do, even those who have lost a child themselves. The situation just sucks. You can’t fix it or take away the sadness or awkwardness. But you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel alone. And that only takes an open heart and a willingness to feel awkward or unpleasant.
Now here are some concrete ways to help and suggestions for what to say:
- Admit that you don’t know what to say. This is a good start and at least breaks the ice. It gives a message to the grieving that you also feel the messiness of the situation. For example, “I am so sorry you are going through this. What a horrible loss. I wish I could say the right thing. I know I can’t fix it but I just want to let you know I am here for you and am sending you love.”
- Try to improve your grief communication by eliminating clichés with more precise and real responses. Unfortunately, we live in a society that seems to have a phobia of death and it pathologizes everything related to sadness. We are not taught how to deal with death and sadness and for the majority of us, the only response we have in our repertoire is, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” which is extremely overused. Clichés can come across as programmed and lacking feeling and can make the bereaved feel dismissed in their pain. Avoid phrases like, “I know how you feel. God has a greater plan. Everything happens for a reason. He’s in a better place now. At least she is not suffering anymore.” Try to communicate in a more personalized, authentic way. For example: a. “I am so sorry your daughter has died. You must be deeply missing her and suffering greatly. She will always be remembered in our hearts and know you can count on us for anything you need. Here is a casserole to warm up whenever you need a meal. We love you.” b. “Please accept my deepest condolences. I cannot imagine what you are going through right now but know that I am here for you and willing to help. Sending you love and prayers.” And if it helps to use rougher words to express your emotions, go for it. I loved it when my friends simply said, “This f*$@ing sucks. What a shitty situation.” I loved it because these words expressed the reality of my situation and what I was feeling inside. However you choose to respond, all of these more authentic phrases tend to open up the conversation while clichés tend to shut it down.
- Distance and silence aren’t good. Write that email, send that card, make that phone call, show up at the funeral or memorial service, visit the bereaved, ask how they are doing. Here are some gift suggestions. Don’t disappear because you think the grieving “just want to be alone.” Don’t be silent for fear of bringing up the hurt again and don’t avoid talking about the situation. There’s an accurate phrase that says:For me, hearing “I remembered your child” is like balm over my aching soul. Even just asking the simple question, “How are you doing?” is consoling. I think it’s safe to say most bereaved parents just want their child to be talked about and remembered, and they want to feel less alone on their journey. That can only happen if you reach out.
- Show up and lend a hand (especially in the weeks/months immediately following the loss.) Don’t just offer help. It is very common to say, “Let me know if there is anything you need.” Most of the time, the bereaved don’t know what they want or need. They are overwhelmed with just surviving. Mow the lawn, make food, do the laundry, clean their home, pick up groceries. Take the practical burdens off their shoulders so they can focus on the exhausting task at hand, grieving (and planning a funeral or memorial service). I remember a sweet friend texted a few days after we got home from the hospital where Gianna died. “Leave your laundry in a bag by your front door. I will pick it up at 3pm. I will leave it on your front door tomorrow morning.” She did this every three days. Such a simple gesture but helpful, practical and not imposing. Others would just leave bags of groceries or casseroles on our doorstep. I cannot tell you how much this helped us survive the first few months after Gianna’s death.
- Don’t forget LATER. Life keeps going, the world keeps on turning. But for parents who have lost a child, life is not the same nor will it ever be. Even though the world keeps going, their pain never goes away. Although they may look happy or seem to be handling the loss well, know that the PAIN IS STILL THERE. For years and years to come. Until they themselves pass away. So don’t forget them or their child. Visit their child’s grave and tell them about it, remember their child’s birthday and death-aversary, remember them during the holidays when their pain is heightened, ask them how they are doing no matter how long it’s been. If you don’t remember to do all of these things, do one. Or two. Anything helps alleviate the pain. I love it when friends or family visit her grave and text me pictures of it. It is also a great consolation when people light a candle for Gianna or pray for me at a particular place, and they let me know or send me a photo. Or just text me out of the blue to let me know they are thinking of me. Those things are like little breaths of fresh air that give me oxygen, even three years later. No act is too small or insignificant.
There is really no way around the fact that losing a child (or anyone!) sucks. But I can’t stress it enough-being there in the hardest of times is the stuff with which real friendship is made.
And today, and everyday, I am so grateful for those incredible humans I am privileged to call friends and family.