Monthly Archives: September 2013

Comforting Bereaved Parents in the Long Season of Sorrow


A blessing.  That you do not know at the moment of impact how far-reaching the shock waves will be.  Only a year and a half.  Still, it is a long time to discover that you are still in shock-still in the infant stages of recovery.  Judith Guest in Ordinary People.

To “grieve” means to “bear a heavy burden” and we all need others to help carry the load. There are a mosaic of ways friends can give on-going comfort.  After Krista, our 25-year-old married daughter was killed while volunteering in Bolivia,  (see A Terrible Beauty at www. such friendships sustained us.

After the early months of acute grief ebbed, I became interested in how parents live creatively with life-long loss and sorrow.  Mothers and fathers shared candidly on what helped and what hindered their healing.  Here’s some of what they said.


  • Allow Time for this Life-long Loss

Parents need patience from others as they move from searing pain to living creatively with sorrow.

Our “mourning-avoidant” culture’s insistence to “move on” adds harmful pressure.  When a friend attempted to comfort a father after his daughter’s death by assuring him ‘You’ll get over this,’ he was enraged.  “I don’t ever want to get over her.  She will be a part of my life forever.”  Parents speak of the continuing bonds they always hold with their beloved child.

As Dr. Nancy Berns writes in her book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, “it’s not possible, not good, not desired, and not necessary.”  More of this later in another blog post!

Many also discover surprise gifts in grief.


  • Continue to Listen and Share stories about their child

After the initial months, parents often lament that a shroud of silence cloaked their families.  They interpreted this as culture’s subtle message to “keep grief to yourself.”

As one parent explained, “We go to family reunions and no one ever mentions our son.  I know it’s because they are not wanting to upset us, fearful we might cry.  But it’s like he’s erased.”

When ten mothers met for a weekend retreat at our home, their grief stories varied widely.  Yet the one thing they all agreed upon, “We just long to hear our child’s name again.” 



  • When parents desire solitude, still show care from a distance

The Chilean author Isabel Allende, writes in her poignant memoir Paula,  “Sorrow is a solitary road.”  Parents usually move in and out with their need for companionship or solitude.

When Lori gave birth to twins who died within minutes of their birth, she longed for the solace of solitude. “I didn’t want people coming over….I just needed to be alone  It’s not my way to talk a lot.”

What she appreciated most was the custom of friends sending condolence notes.  “It was my only contact with the outside world, but I knew people cared.  I’ve kept every one of them.”

We also kept every card, grateful for these expressions of compassion.   In beautiful handwritten script, one included a modern translation from Psalms, simply assuring,

“Shattered lives…by no means escape God’s attention.”


  • Join in on-going Rituals of Remembrance
These memorial statues in  Japan are in remembrance of stillborn and infant deaths.

These memorial statues in
Japan are in remembrance of stillborn and infant deaths.

Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and other special holidays can create anxiety and sharpen the pain of loss.  Knowing this, many parents create new rituals to help ease the day and remember their child.

When the date of Cameron’s 21st birthday was approaching, the Skaggs invited many of her high school friends for a special dinner.  They carefully selected a gift from their daughter’s music, books, or clothes for each friend.  “We worried about the night, but it was a wonderful time of laughter and remembering our daughter.  It seemed to help her friends too.”

Sometimes families participate in public events raising funds for the illness that took their child, like a cancer walk.  Others start efforts that continue their child’s passions, such as we did with the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship (  Sharing in a family’s vision nourishes our hearts and souls and gives meaning to profound loss.

If invited, come!



  • Respect that everyone grieves differently.  Grief has many faces

Contrary to the popularized five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), new research shows grief is more complicated, often messy.

At a country cemetery, I met a mother tending the grave of a son who died five years earlier.  “The best gift of guidance I received,” she told me, “was that ‘everyone grieves their own way….just trust yourself.’”

In a future blog, I’ll share some of the compelling research from Doka and Martin’s book Grieving Beyond Gender on how men and women grieve differently.


  • Offer tangible creative companionship

Practical help with airport pick-ups, comforting foods, memorial arrangements, child care, errands, snow shoveling, garden and home assistance all ease the burden of parents in the acute early weeks of grief.

But parents spoke of how important on-going support sustained them in the months and years ahead.

There’s a mosaic of ways to offer such companionship.  A listening, non-judgmental presence gives parents an outlet for their grief.  For Sheree, having a friend teach her to quilt using her teenage son’s sport shirts provided a time to laugh and cry together remembering Chris. Another mother valued two friends taking morning walks with her, assuring she’d get out of bed.  A faculty colleague of my husband took him out for coffee now and then, just “checking in.”

Your tangible actions will ease the hurt swirling inside.  Is there a gesture of kindness that you could do today to comfort someone living with loss?

What kindness have you received during loss that eased your days of sorrow?  I’d love to hear!

Can Grief Be a Friend after the Loss of a Child?

“You won’t always feel this bad.”  This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road.  Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”

She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies.  It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old daughter Krista was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.

“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.

“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry at inappropriate places.  But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay.  It would never leave.  I’d never be able to go back to the new normal.”

“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality.  It became my friend.”

Around the Table

Four Reasons to Befriend Grief


1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.

“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric.  “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one loved.  That worth abides.  So I own my grief.”

Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw.  But it has not disappeared.  That is as it should be.  I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”

Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child.  “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigsen, whose daughter died twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them.  I allow myself to let them arise.”

2)“Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.

After my faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him.  “My sister reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.”  Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.

As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo-backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest.  Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.

In contrast, grief counselors  observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life- destructive addictions.

3)    Grief can expands wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.

At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew.  “How did your family ever survive such loss?” I asked.

Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.”  It’s insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.

When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death.  Now acutely aware than each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.”    She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care  into this corporate structure.


4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action

Beneath sorrow, there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost.  When a grieving person accesses this, it become the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions.

“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas.  “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.”  Future blogs and my upcoming book Pilgrimage through Loss will show the beauty of such growth.

For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table over ten years ago, she found befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed.  Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now.  My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”

In what ways have you found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important?


Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit….The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.  ~Anne LaMott, Traveling Mercies

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About Linda
For everyone, life sometimes brings shipwreck moments.

Ours happened when four friends woke us one beautiful May dawn to break the news that our 25-year-old married daughter Krista had died 7000 miles away while volunteering in Bolivia. Our hearts shattered, much like the shards of her bus that plunged over a mountain cliff.
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Desperate. Determined. Unwaveringly confident. In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant named Helga Estby dares to cross 3500 miles of the American continent to win a $10,000 wager. On Foot. BOLD SPIRIT: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America introduces readers to this fascinating journey of an audacious act of courage and love of a mother trying to save a family farm.

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Support for Parents

+ Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors On-line forum and website

+ American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) (Formerly Candlelighters Childhood Cancer)

+ Compassionate Friends

+ First Candle: Support for Stillborn and SIDS deaths

+ Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS)

+ MISS Foundation (also in Spanish) On-line support groups : Infant & toddler death and advocacy

+Parents of Murdered Children

+ TAPS: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: 1-800-959 3277 for survivors of military deaths