First, we want to start by giving a huge THANK YOU! Thank you for taking time to find out how to be there for your friend or loved one in a way that most people are not.
One of the hardest things for a grieving parent, is to be with those who want to fix us by:
- Giving advice. (“Time heals all wounds.”)
- Sharing a cliché’ thought. (“They are in a better place now.”)
- Quoting scripture. (“Remember Romans 8:28 says that God promises to work everything out for our good.”)
I guarantee that none of those things will help. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Unless you can bring our child back, you can’t fix us or pull us out of our grief.
The most important thing we can tell you is to just be there for the parent who is facing the nightmare of the death of their child. Don’t worry about coming up with comforting words. Don’t feel like you have to be spiritual and remind them of scripture verses. Just be there, with a hug, with tears, with your presence.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
Many times, in the first week or so, we appear to others as very strong. We may not break down much, and we may even bravely speak at the funeral of our own child, giving the appearance that we are doing really well. (People even tell us, “You are so strong. I couldn’t go through what you are going through.”) However, we are usually quite numb, and are living in the fog of auto-pilot. We know if we allowed ourselves to feel the full load of what has just happened, we would not be able to function.
And that is exactly what happens when everyone else goes on with life a week or two later, and we are left with the shock that this is real, and our child is never coming back.
Most people don’t realize the death of a child is considered a trauma. Therefore, the parent you are wanting to help is dealing with traumatic grief. Often there is PTSD that comes with it, depending on how the child died such as a terrible accident (and they did not need to be there when it happened to have PTSD), if the parent found the body, etc. This is important to know, both in the beginning weeks, months and even years down the road.
Another thing most people do not know, is that five years and under is considered fresh grief for those who have lost a child from this earth. So do not expect that parent to be back to the way they were and living a “normal” life again, including being out and about in society, for a good two to three years. Some take even longer. Even when that finally starts to happen, life will never be the same for that parent, because having a child “amputated” from us changes us.
We will not go back to the person we were before our child died. Can we get to the place where we are no longer a mess, and able to live a life of purpose once again? Yes, but that is because we have journeyed through the grief on our own timetable, not a timetable that those who have never faced the death of their own child thinks we should be on.
THE PHYSICAL AFFECTS
Grieving moms often literally have a broken heart. It affects the left ventricle, even changing the shape of the heart, as part of the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. It can cause heart attack–like symptoms, and in lay-terms is called broken-heart syndrome.
Child loss is considered a trauma, which means these parents need lots of rest and care. Grieving parents have a compromised immune system causing them to pick up sicknesses easily. Their brains go through chemical changes, causing them to be easily confused, klutzy, and extremely forgetful. It can take all the energy they have just to take a shower. They are very raw, and easily upset, erupting suddenly into tears or anger.
Family and friends who are around those who have lost a child need to know how to allow for these changes, and not expect more from them then they are literally physically capable of, realizing that all of this can go on for up to five years and even beyond in some cases!
HOW OUR CULTURE AFFECTS A GRIEVING PARENT
Unfortunately, as a whole, our culture does not handle grief in a way that is helpful to those of us who have faced a deep loss. They often see it as an event, instead of the process that it is. Death is the event. It can take weeks, months and even years, not to be affected deeply by that loss on a daily basis, especially the death of one’s child (no matter the age of the child).
Most people push us away as our continued pain and tears make them uncomfortable and we are told we should be over the death of our child by now. (Just stab us in the heart and twist the knife please….) So, we learn to wear a mask and say everything is fine. Since it becomes our “duty” to make the people around us comfortable with our pain, we become experts at fooling them into thinking we are strong, and that at some point we are okay and have pretty much forgotten about the fact that we had a child die, leaving him or her in our past like it seems everyone else has.
That means as grieving parents, we do a great job at shutting others out of our world of darkness, confusion, and suffocating pain. Unless you have lost a child, you probably have no idea how many tears still fall years later, and how painful it is to feel like no one cares or remembers that our child once lived on this earth.
A SPECIAL MESSAGE TO THE BODY OF CHRIST
As Christians, we are very good at rejoicing with those who rejoice, but not so good at following the second half of what we are told to do in Romans 12:15, which is to mourn with those who mourn.
It is natural for us to want to help those who are down or discouraged to “get the victory” by reminding them what the Bible says about who we are in Christ. We might tell the person who is struggling to just start thinking more happy thoughts, using Philippians 4:8 as our back-up verse.
I am going to get right to the point. Those things do not help a parent who is in the suffocating darkness of grieving the death of their child. I have had a close walk with God since high school and was an international children’s minister, but I had no idea such deep horrific darkness even existed until my daughter died.
Believe me, I know that the death of one’s child is not beyond God’s ability to bring His light into that darkness. However, many (if not most) Christian parents have had their faith in God shattered with the death of their child. They question everything they thought they knew about God. Many are angry with Him, because they know God could have stepped in and stopped the death from happening, but He did not. It is difficult for them to go to church where they hear testimonies of how God came through for others, but not for them.
Speaking of attending church services, unfortunately, many churches are not a safe place to grieve a deep loss if it takes more than just a few months to “get over it”. Fellow church goers (and sometimes even the spiritual leadership) try to “pump them up” (like you would for someone who is discouraged because they lost their job). Or they ignore the bereaved parent, not knowing what to say. There are a lot of reasons these grieving parents (who are barely in survival mode for weeks and months), feel even more alone and isolated at church. Since they are already struggling spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically, it is easier to just stay home.
In your concern, you may believe you need to help them shake off their sadness and get back with God by telling them they need to get back in church, remind them they need to be reading their Bibles, and share scriptures with them, while getting frustrated by their resistance. Please don’t put pressure on them or try and guilt them into doing what you think is best for their wellbeing and recovery. They will end up shutting you out of their lives to be able to work through their grief without having your “help” as an added burden.
I have come to discover that we don’t have to choose between leaning on God or falling apart, but we can lean on God while we fall apart.
SOME IMPORTANT FINAL THOUGHTS
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the child who has died, thinking you will just make the parent hurt more and start crying. I guarantee that we are already thinking of our child; we can’t hurt more than we already do, and even if it makes us cry, we would rather cry because people are remembering and sharing our child with us, than cry because no one wants to talk about our deceased child with us.
- Please be aware that we will have certain family events that will just be too painful to attend for many years and have grief attacks that sneak up on us for the rest of our lives. We just can’t help but think about our child who is missing and should have been there, and it really hurts.
- Do not expect us to start to pull out of the deepest part of our grief after that first year. For most of us, the second year is even worse than the first year! The fog and numbness has lifted, and we are hit full force with the fact that our child is gone for the rest of our time here on earth.The first year our minds knew it, but our hearts could not accept it. Now our hearts begin to realize what happened. Words cannot even begin to describe how painful this reality is, as it begins to sink in.
- When we show signs of deep grief after a few months or in that second or third year (such as not wanting to go anywhere social, still struggling to get out of bed, crying a lot, wanting to talk about how much we miss our child) we are often told that we need help and should see someone.While some parents may benefit from counseling (especially those dealing with severe PTSD), many do not. Most grieving parents will tell you that we do not need someone to help us figure out what is wrong with us. We know what is wrong. Our child is dead, along with all our hopes and dreams of watching our child live out his or her life.
- Please know that we are not diminishing the grief of other forms of deep loss. But also realize that trying to comfort us by saying you understand our pain because you have experienced a different but significant loss, might get a not-so-nice response. If the most painful grief you have experienced is the loss of your furry companion of seventeen years, then that is what you will measure other’s grief to. But don’t be surprised if you immediately get shut out of our life if you compare the death of your pet that you consider family, to the death of our child whom we created and brought into the world, planning to be with them through all of life’s milestones for the rest of our time here on earth.
Comparing the pain of our grief does no one any good. However, I think it is important to validate the fact that parents who have lost a child through death, have a weight that is extremely heavy…heavier than most will experience in this life.
Chances are pretty high that the grieving parent you know and love, feels like no one understands what they are going through, or understands the depths of their horrific pain that makes them want to leave this earth themselves (even if it is obvious to you they still have so much to live for, often including their other children). Remember, this is traumatic grief, and things will not make sense, even to us, in our grief!
THIS IS WHERE GPS HOPE COMES IN
Here at GPS Hope, you will find insight into the things a bereaved parent faces on a day-to-day basis that others don’t think about, which explains why they will never “get over it” and why they will never be the same person they were before the death of their child. You will find out why bereaved parents often isolate themselves, even many years later.
Knowing these things, is critical for the long-term support of anyone who is in long-term grief, and the best way to be informed, is to enter our world and be willing to help carry our pain, not try and get us to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
We are doing our best to give you the tools and resources needed to have compassion at a level that will truly help the bereaved parents in your life and be a strength to them at their deepest level of need.
Please check out the resources below.
Once again, thank you for being a person of compassion who wants to know how to truly help a bereaved parent. It means a lot to us…more than we can say.
For years, those of us here at GPS Hope have eventually found light in our suffocating darkness, and most of us have even gone on to live a full life, once we figured out how to function with our unwanted “amputation”, but it takes several years to get to that point.
Timing is important, but for most grieving parents, the sooner they can get connected to other bereaved parents who can walk with them in their place of darkness and understand the things happening inside of them that are confusing and scary, the less isolated and alone they feel, which is needed to move toward getting to a place of hope, light.
- I know some people have the thought, “Just tell me what to say or not to say!” If that is you, be sure to request a free PDF of Eight Things Not to Say to a Bereaved Parent.
- Laura has written a book Come Grieve Through Our Eyes to specifically help those around a bereaved parent have a better understanding of what it is like to lose a child, by opening a door into our world of grief through the eyes and words of dozens of bereaved parents. To find out more about Come Grieve Through our Eyes: How to Give Comfort And Support To Bereaved Parents By Taking A Glimpse Into Our World Of Grief CLICK HERE.
- In our digital store, you will find the session Come Grieve Through our Eyes that Laura shared with children’s ministers, which is extremely helpful to anyone who wants to understand a parent’s grief, to know how to help them after the death of their child.
- Consider reading the “I am a bereaved parent” section of this website, and be sure to click on the provided link to read our message to the newly bereaved. It will give you a window into the depth of what they are dealing with.
- Laura’s podcast has been a help to thousands of bereaved parents each week. You can look through the episodes to find ones that may deal with a topic you want to know more about. (Sharing the podcast is also one of the best ways you can help a pareavor get connected to GPS Hope.)
- Laura’s YouTube channel also has short videos that may have some topics the bereaved parent you know has been talking about or dealing with, which might help you understand their thoughts better.
Please consider sharing Grieving Parents Sharing Hope with any grieving parents you know, so that we can help navigate them through the darkness of child loss, guiding them to a life of meaning and purpose once again.
Would you like to keep up to date with Dave and Laura’s travels in the Hope Mobile as they provide support and resources to pareavors around the nation? Let us know here.