By: Jordan Tate
As an infant loss mother who has lost two littles ones far too soon, I’ve learned a whole lot about the process of grief and the way this process relates specifically to those parents who have lost a child. It is an incredibly difficult road to walk, but I have found that having others walk alongside of us can be more helpful than anything else.
That being said, there is a reason that parents who have lost children tend to look for other parents who have also lost children as a means of support and encouragement. The reason is that there are some popular habits of well-meaning individuals that can actually trigger great pain for a grieving parents and, because of this, many end up choosing to retreat to a community of people (even across the internet) who they know will be a “safer” option to process with.
I fully believe that knowledge is power in these situations, and I have seen first hand the encouragement and comfort that can come from a group of people who are determined to be courageous in walking this road together, whether they have experienced child loss or not! I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the most popular mistakes individuals can make in trying to comfort a grieving parent and instead offer alternatives that could be much more healing. It is my hope that nobody reading this would ever have to put these four tips into practice, but I know that if the time ever came this advice would be useful.
Tip #1: When in doubt, ask questions.
It is a natural instinct for individuals in our culture to meet traumatic events with logical conclusions. We are a society of problem solvers. I can’t count the number of times people have started infant loss conversations with me by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” It is immensely difficult to process, as a grieving parent, that your child must have died for a reason. Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, this is a comment that many grieving parents talk about as being very difficult to swallow. There is no question that anyone who says this is well-meaning. You’d be hard pressed to find an individual who would maliciously speak to a grieving parent about their loss in hopes of causing further pain. My advice, though, is to ask questions rather than offer conclusions or comments about the loss of life. Try opening the conversation by asking, “How are you feeling today?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?” This will put the ball into the court of the parent and allow them to share (or not share) what’s going on inside and any specific needs they might have.
Tip #2: Don’t make assumptions about practical ways to help.
This is similar to the advice above, but relates more to the “do something” friends who feel like they are helping most when they are actively serving their grieving friends. These friends are the friends that make the world go round. They are absolutely necessary and they have hearts of gold. If you want to do something to help ease the pain, ask your friend the best way to go about doing that. When we lost our first daughter, our friends started a meal campaign for us where people signed up to bring us food almost every night for a few weeks. The gesture itself was so heartwarming, but I started to realize that I had a hard time getting the meals down, knowing they were brought to me because my child died. On a second note, not everyone feels this way, but cooking is very therapeutic for both me and my husband. I missed working with my hands and I missed how my mind could take a break from the reality of grief as I would delve into a new recipe or experiment with ingredients in the kitchen. When we lost our second child we actually requested that people not bring us meals. We had a few meals show up, but only for the first week or so, and from people who didn’t know we felt this way. Again, the gesture was comforting, but in the end we decided to be vocal and admit that we would rather cook together than be brought a ready made meal. What’s great, though, is that there are so many out there who might love this gesture and everything about it. That’s why my best advice is to ask!
Tip #3: Whatever you do, don’t bring up the conversation about future children.
It’s a natural inclination to wonder what’s next for the grieving parent. This may come as a surprise to you, but we had countless individuals ask us within the first few months of our losses what our thoughts were about moving forward (i.e. with expanding our family). Throughout my experience in processing with other infant loss parents, it seems to be split pretty much down the middle regarding how people feel about timing future children after loss. Some want to get pregnant or adopt right away because it feels right to them to do so, knowing their other child can never be replaced, yet longing to bring another child home. Others want to take their time in the grieving and healing process and wait years and years before even thinking about having another child. Both of these are okay, but this is an extra sensitive topic for the grieving parent. Post-loss, many parents feel a lot of guilt regarding this topic. If they want to get pregnant right away they fear people will judge them for “moving on” too soon, and those that want to wait fear people will judge them for not processing fast enough. Either way, allow the conversation to unfold naturally from the parents’ side, and if it doesn’t, don’t push the topic.
Tip #4: Don’t disappear for fear of doing the wrong thing.
I know these tips can make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells around a friend or family member who has recently (or not so recently) lost an infant or child. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable in these situations. Everyone processes loss so differently, and it’s okay to feel like you have no idea how to help. The worst thing you could do is to disconnect from them for fear of hurting them further. When in doubt, tell them how YOU are feeling! Tell them you want to help but you don’t know what to say. Simply tell them you are so sorry and that you wish you had the words to say to make it better. Sharing YOUR heart with them will help them to feel more comfortable sharing these hard moments back with you. My family is far better off because of our friends and family and their willingness to be vulnerable with us as we were vulnerable with them.
There is much more advice I’d love to give, but we’ll wrap it up with these four tips for helping a grieving parent. Whatever you do, just remember that it takes an entire village of people to support an individual or a family going through infant loss or child loss. It might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but it will be worth it. Your friend or family member will always remember those who did everything in their power to make an ounce of positive difference.