Comforting Bereaved Parents
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. kristafoundation.org) 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
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 (www.kristafoundation.org). 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!