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A Friend in Grief
How to Help a Bereaved Parent
Journey of Hearts
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A Friend in Grief
How to Help a Bereaved Parent

by Tammie Thomson

This booklet provides information for support people. It gives pointers on what to say and what not to say, and suggests things you can do to support friends who may be grieving. It is available as a free download in Word 6 and Word 97 format from the Inspirit Website.

1. How you can support your friend
a. The Ďageí question
b. What to say, and what not to say (Do's and Dont's)
c. The true value of listening
d. Practical things you can help with
2. Other things you may find helpful to know

Appendix 1. About Journeys Through Grief
Appendix 2. Resources


In January 1995 my two-year-old son Dale died, two days after drowning in a spa.

To my shock, many of the people who I had expected to be supportive and helpful under such circumstances were conspicuous by their absence.

It caused me great pain at the time I so badly needed comfort. I felt that my friends had been fair-weather friends only.

In the 5 years since Dale died, I have come to realise that in the majority of cases, lack of concern was not the issue. It could be said that it was concern itself, though misguided, that caused the lack of support. People were so unsure of what to say to me, and scared of upsetting me further that they said nothing at all.

Most people have little idea of how to react to the loss of a child unless they have been in the situation before. In todayís society, the death of a child is not as common as in previous eras, and with modern medicineís tendency to ensure deaths rarely take place in the home, most people have not had to deal with death closely at all, let alone the death of a child.

The aim of this booklet is to help friends and family of bereaved parents to find a way in which they can show the bereaved parents that they do care.

The truth of the situation is that without having been through it, you will never know just how much your support means.

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1.How you can support your friend
a) The Age Question

When does your child stop being your child?


Whether the personís child is 4 days, 4 years or 40 years old at death, the fact is that their child has died. Nothing can change the fact that a person they have raised and loved has died.

People have told of receiving comments such as:

(About the loss of a newborn or young baby) "You donít miss what you never knew."

People whose grown-up children have died are told, "You should be grateful that they had a good life."

Those who have lost children neither very young or grown-up may hear, "It would be better to have lost them when they were little," and advised to have another baby to take the dead childís place.

These things are seldom any comfort to the bereaved parents. If their child has died prior to, at or soon after birth, they have the pain of never knowing knowing the childís personality, the loss of those special moments such as the first smile, the first step, the first word.

When an older child dies the grief is compounded by memories and the glimpse of who the child might have grown up to be.

Adult childrenís deaths may come at a time when their parents are beginning to face their own mortality.

And so no matter what age a child is at death, there will be many issues that will contribute to the parentsí grief.

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b) Dontís and Doís for Support People (What to say or not to say)


Donít avoid the bereaved parent. This is the time they really need to know you care about them. There is nothing worse than being deserted when you are most in need.

Donít fail to acknowledge that they have just lost their son or daughter the first time you see them after the death. It will probably seem to them that you are denying the existence of their child if you say nothing, or that you do not care that they have lost a big part of their life ó past, present and particularly future.

Sending a card is a good idea, especially if you live a distance away. Many people have commented how much they appreciated that people have sent a card, note or letter of condolence, and they are usually kept and re-read from time to time, as the bereaved parent feels the need. One of my most treasured notes of condolence is a short note from Susan, the midwife who delivered Nicholas (my youngest son), saying that she was thinking of me, that she knew my inner strength and she hoped I would be able to draw on that strength.
Donít say things such as:
"Itís Godís will." ó this is seldom any comfort. Especially avoid it if you donít know the person well enough to be sure of their spiritual beliefs. If they believe it is Godís will, they will more than likely say so themselves. If they don't, they certainly don't need someone else spouting this to them.

"Itís all for the best." ó that may or may not be the case, but it does not in any way diminish the grief they feel, and sounds as though you are trivialising the death of their child.

"At least you still have the other children." ó the presence of other children still living may or may not be a comfort, but again, does not mean that the loss of the child is less important. Imagine you have several very close friends, all very different, whom you value and love each for themselves. If one died, would it help if someone said, "Iím sorry to hear that Joe died. But at least Fred, Susan and Peter are still alive,"? Would you mourn Joe less, or feel any better?

Remember; we are each individuals, and children are no different. Appreciate that parents have known their child as an individual, and grieve for them as an individual.

"Are you going to have another baby?" ó their child cannot be replaced by another, and by asking this you are implying that children are expendable. One does not just have a child after the death of another as though they are replacing a worn-out bomb of a car with a nice shiny, new, latest-model vehicle.

Some people will find that the prospect of having another baby is a comfort, but it is still not an issue of replacement.

You donít ask a newly-widowed person, "Are you going to get married again?" Neither should you ask the newly bereaved parent if they are having another child. If they do plan on it, they will tell you in their own good time. If they donít, more than likely they will mention it when they are ready.

"Never mind, you can always have another baby." This is the cruel version of "Are you going to have another baby?" This one suggests outrightthat the death of their child is nothing to be upset about. How would you feel if someone said it to you after your child died?

Donít forget them after the funeral. Time and time again people tell of having wonderful support for the first few days or so, which mostly disappears once the funeral is over.
For some reason, people seem to assume that after the funeral, you get back to a Ďnormalí life. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when a child has died.

Before the funeral, you are kept busy with funeral arrangements, friends and relatives visiting, often from far away, and numerous other things.

After the funeral, the friends and relatives have gone back to their homes and families, there are usually no more formalities to attend to, and you are left with an empty house, your memories and your emotions.

Particularly for parents who stay at home while their partner works, this is the worst time.
Our house felt so empty after Dale died. Max was at school, Ronnie was at work. I had Nick to care for, which was good in that it kept me focused on something during the day, but still, I felt the absence of Dale all the time. Everywhere I looked I saw him. I looked at the box of toys and could see where heíd sat only days earlier, playing with his cars and toys. I looked out the door at the trampoline and in my mind I saw him struggling to climb up to have a bounce. I looked at the yard and saw his favourite spots for digging, and where he used to stand at the fence and talk to the next door neighbour, and I saw him doing these things. I looked at our dog, Stitch, moping around, and saw Dale sitting on him, or pulling at his lips to check out his teeth. I looked at Nick and saw Dale either trying to clobber him or cuddle him.

He was everywhere ó or rather, he should have been everywhere. But he was gone. And I was alone with my memories and grief most of the day

I had none of my side of the family close by and had no particular friends in Darwin as we hadnít lived there long. The next door neighbour was friendly, but not overly, and made no approaches beyond the initial expression of sympathy and the usual chat at the fence when hanging out the clothes.

My lifeline was a routine and an acquaintance named Lindi. Wake up, cup of coffee, feed Nick. Walk to the shop for the paper, slowly, to take up time. Come home, read the paper. Watch a TV show (I think it was Entertainment Tonight). Go around to Lindiís. Play cards, talk, and drink coffee until it was time for Max to come home from school. Try to organise some dinner. Potter around in the garden. Eat tea, watch some TV, go to bed, cry my eyes out, eventually go to sleep.

Lindi lived a few streets away, but I had little to do with her socially until Daleís death. She had never met Dale. A day or two after Dale died she came around in the evening to offer moral support. A couple of days later she came around again.

Her home became my refuge. When I didnít know what to do with myself, or I couldnít stand to be in the house any longer, I went to Lindiís. She always welcomed me, and I was never made to feel a nuisance or that I had worn out my welcome. To this day, I donít know how I would have coped if not for her. She was the only social life and outside support I had. She didnít try to counsel me or tell me how to grieve, she was just there for me, and that was what I needed.

Donít expect them to Ďget over ití. The loss of a child, whether an adult child or an infant, is not something you Ďget overí. It is something you learn to live with.
The loss is not only the relationship, it is the person ó their son or daughter. And the loss of a son or daughter is not something that can be awarded the status of Ďgotten overí.

Do let them express their grief in their own way. Wailing, crying, screaming, talking about the dead child, not wanting to talk about the dead child, silence, needing to be alone, needing to be with people... the list is endless.

Everyone has their own way of expressing grief. Expressing grief is healthy, in whatever form it takes, and it is essential that the person be allowed to do so. I have heard from many people whose friendís and relativeís comments on their reactions have led them to think that there was something wrong with their way of coping. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is only what people instinctively feel they must do to express their grief.

Just because someone is not comfortable with the bereaved parentís way of grieving does not mean there is something wrong with their grief. It just means that the other person is not comfortable with it.

The person who is grieving is the one who must feel comfortable with their grief ó not the many others around them. Though we would all wish for everyone to appreciate our way of grieving, we realise that this is not likely. Personally, I donít care whether someone likes my way of grieving, but at the same time, I donít expect to have to put up with criticism and judgement from them, or anyone else.

It is a matter of respect of the individual. Respect their way of grieving as you would respect any other thing about them; their taste in food and clothing, ways of raising their children, choice of lifestyle etc. It may not be for you, but it suits them, so accept it as their right.

Do listen. There is little more frustrating for a bereaved parent than having someone ask, "How are you?" and when you start to tell them, their eyes glaze over.
This is one reason why most bereaved parents eventually just say theyíre Ďokayí. They donít know if you really want to know, or are just being Ďpoliteí.

If you really are interested in how they are, after the initial, "Iím okay," ask them, "No, I mean how are you really?"

This gives them the go-ahead. It tells them that finally someone is truly interested in their wellbeing, and they feel free to talk, knowing that someone will actually listen to what they have to say.

So when they do start to talk, listen. Listen properly. Donít interrupt. Donít launch into your own story of how Mrs X down the road lost a child and so you know what they must be going through ó you donít, take my word for it. Even bereaved parents never know exactly what another bereaved parent is going through.

As a bereaved parent, what I wanted from listeners was that they be truly interested in listening to me. I wanted to see that they were interested. Nodding and "Uh huh," in the right places is helpful, providing itís not overdone, or done out of habit. We can tell if youíre not sincerely listening to us!

Questions are usually okay, but let us have our say first, please. Itís very frustrating when youíre trying to say something and the other person keeps interrupting you.

Be patient. We may get stuck for words or overcome with emotion while we are talking to you. Donít feel awkward, and feel that you must fill in the pauses in the conversation, second guess us, or tell us, "There, there, itíll be all right,
thereís no need to cry." There is a need to cry ó thatís why we do it. Feel free to cry with us.

Do just learn to be with us ó the people we will remember with appreciation are the ones who let us talk as much as we need to about our loss, and our lost child. We remember and appreciate it when someone is genuinely interested, and respects our need to talk about it, even if itís time and time again.

These are the people we need ó the ones who let us be ourselves, accept us as we are, and let us grieve as we must.

Support people often donít realise that just being with us is the best thing they can do in many cases.

While some people will prefer to be alone, many need people around them. Not necessarily for conversation, but just for the company. You donít have to entertain us, you just have to be with us.

I found it a great comfort to have my sister and my best friend (who both flew up from Queensland) around immediately after Dale died. They didnít feel they were being particularly helpful, but their presence was all I needed from them. Just to have them around gave me a wonderful sense of support.

Of course there are always times when people would rather be alone. It can be hard to tell when you should stay around your friend and when to leave them on their own. The easiest way to find out is to ask. Something like, "Would you like some company, or would you prefer to be alone?" gets the message across without sounding condescending or pushy.

Do realise that their life has changed irrevocably. (This ties in with ĎDon't forget them after the funeral.í) Their child is gone. Your life will go on more or less as usual, but theirs will not, and it will be a long time before they feel they live a Ďnormalí life again, if at all.

You need not live in their pockets, but remember to show that you think of them and you care. Drop by for a cup of coffee, or just to say hello, and donít be afraid to mention the dead child. Most bereaved parents welcome the opportunity to talk about their child. So many people shy away from even mentioning our child, and it hurts. After all, dead or not, our child is still part of our family.
Most bereaved parents appreciate it when people talk about their child normally, without hushed tones or euphemisms. If, for example, you mention that you notice a sibling has similar mannerisms, or you send a card or drop in because it is the dead childís birthday (or death day, or whatever), we are glad that our child is remembered, and that you are not afraid to say so. We appreciate it when others remember our child, and it warms us to know that you are not afraid to show it.

Jennifer Witt, a bereaved parent who has multiple roles in support groups, makes the following suggestions for friends and family of bereaved parents:

Donít be afraid to talk about the loss of the child. Parents need time to express their grief and speak of their memories.

Allow them their time to grieve. It is not up to others to denote the proper time to get on with life. Please be gentle and offer an ear or shoulder.

You do not always need to say something. Sometimes the greatest support comes in prayers, meals, cards, listening ears and hugs.

Donít forget to continue to make contact with the family after the funeral. So often families are left on their own after the initial bereavement period.

Make a donation in the childís name to the local childrenís hospital or charity of choice by the family. It is a beautiful way of keeping the memory of the child.

Above all, show your support of us in whatever way you feel comfortable. This is what we need.
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c) The True Value of Listening

Listening is listed in the previous Doís section.

Never underestimate how much it means to your friend that you are willing to listen to what they have to say about their loss and their child.

All too often they will be asked, "How are you?" They usually answer, "Iím okay," or something similar. They know that most people are only Ďbeing politeí. They find out the hard way that if they do want to talk about how they really are, the person doing the asking will become uncomfortable and either change the subject or develop an urgent errand to attend to.

Just by being prepared to listen you can provide invaluable support. Be aware that you may hear the same things many times as the parents try to find a way to cope with their grief. Some people have a strong need to talk about their loss,
and others not so strong. But we all appreciate it when someone will listen to us when we do need to talk.

Seldom will you be expected to offer any advice. Itís the listening that counts.

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d) Practical things you can do to help

These are things that can make a difference to bereaved parents for months after the death of a child, not just in the immediate days and weeks.

1) General housekeeping and yardwork eg. washing dishes, sweeping floors, mowing lawns etc.

These are only Ďlittle thingsí, but your help, at a time when just getting out of bed is an effort, will be appreciated.
2) Transport: you may be able to help by dropping people off for appointments, running errands, collecting children from school, shopping and so on.

3) Cooking: although many people will have little or no appetite, they often feel even less like cooking even if they do have an appetite. They may be tempted to eat if there is something ready to go rather than make the effort to organise
something themselves.

The classic casserole, stew or other dish that can be frozen if necessary will never go astray.
One point to remember is that if you see anything that needs doing, donít ask Ė just do it. Most people refuse offers of help either automatically or because they donít want to Ďtrouble youí. This is because they will have many people say, "If thereís anything I can do, just let me know, " and they know that it is often used as a polite expression, with little sincerity behind it.

If you just hop in and do something to help, your friends will appreciate that you have taken the time to support them.

EXCEPTION: Please be sensitive to things such as cleaning the dead childís room or sorting their belongings. In this case it is usually better to ask the parents if they would like you to help them, rather than do it yourself. It may be something they donít wish to do at the time, or it may be that they do want it done but donít feel up to themselves.

Also, keep in mind that that trivial things may mean a lot to the parents. When Dale died, there were several grubby handprints on the wall that I couldnít bear to wash off. It was a reminder that heíd been there, and the idea of washing away those little handprints was like trying to wash away his existence.

The handprints stayed there until we moved from that house eight months later, and even then it hurt to wash them off.

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2. Other things you might find helpful to knowÖ

There are many issues that arise after the death of a child. These include:

Parental marriage/relationship difficulties

When parents grieve in different ways, it can put a strain on their relationship.Such differences can include expression/ non-expression of emotions, using work or other activities to distract themselves (perhaps avoiding their spouse in the process) and what they want to do with the things they have that are associated with the child.

It often occurs that both parents are in need of support, and have no support outside the marriage. Thus they have little or no energy to support their partner. It can become a vicious circle of getting no support from the partner, and withdrawing, which may be interpreted as a personal rejection, causing the other partner to withdraw in turn, resulting in an ever-increasing distance between the partners.

The parents have to learn how to relate when death and grief is central to their lives, while in most cases, their usual support system falls away beneath them.

Issues of blame and guilt
There may be circumstances in the death that result in the parents blaming themselves or the other parent, which in turn cause marital difficulties.
Societyís expectations
Jennifer Witt comments, "Culture still mandates the man must be the stronghold of the family. Because of this, he is sometimes forgotten in the bereavement process and is only asked how mom is doing."

This is commonly observed amongst bereaved parents, particularly when the child is very young or pre-birth at the time of death. Society as a whole seems to think that the father doesnít have a very strong bond with the child, and discounts his place as a grieving parent.

There is also the issue of "boys donít cry". Society also tends to assert, "Well, even if the fathers do have feelings they donít need to talk about them anyway."

Together these issues may lead to fathers feeling particularly isolated, especially if the mother has a close network of friends and family who rally around her.

My husband Ronnie agreed with a comment from a father who contributed to Journeys Through Grief . When I read out Johnís comment, "The few times I ever said much, I had the feeling I was either being a nuisance or embarrassing the person. I had the feeling they thought I was only whining or looking for sympathy, so it was usually easier to say nothing," Ronnie said, "Exactly. Thatís what itís like at work."

Parenting surviving Children
Taking care of any surviving children after the death of a child can be daunting. The thought that Death, having struck once and letting us know once and for all that we are not immune, might call again any moment is chilling. We no longer
have that sense of, "It will never happen to me," to fall back on.

Some parents will become overprotective of surviving children, doing everything within their power to prevent anything happening to them.

Other parents may find they are struck with a sense of futility Ė "What is the point of being here if itís not even certain my kids are going to survive me?"

Having other children to care for can be a blessing in that it gives parents a reason to keep going, but at the same time, they may not have enough energy to get through each day, let alone to expend on other children.

In light of these issues (to name but a few), the importance of outside support cannot be stressed enough. Dr Paul C Rosenblatt, PhD, commented, "I think it's a rare couple who can hang on to very much of the support they had before
the death. It's a blessing when a best friend or a sister or somebody else hangs in there with a grieving parent."

He offers this advice to friends and family of support people:

"For starters, make contact. There's an enormous gulf between a grieving parent and everyone else. You've got to bridge the gulf. Pay your condolences, go to the funeral, do things for them, ask them how they are doing.

Beyond that, be there for them, be there for them. Be available. Ask questions. Listen. Let the bereaved parents know you care about them and about the child. Be real about your own feelings. Don't give advice. Don't make religious
pronouncements. Don't be surprised if a grieving parents gets angry with you, cries, says things that make you uncomfortable. Understand that that's where they have to be.

At another level, you may have your own grief to deal with. You may be grieving the child's death, too, or the child's death may remind you of other losses or of the vulnerability of others in your life, particularly of your own children. Don't be surprised that that comes up; don't let it block you from being there for the grieving parents."

In conclusion, YOU can make all the difference in your friendís world after the death of their child.

Reach out - show them that you care.

Return to Table of Contents
Jennifer Witt is a facilitator for the Evergreen program, a facilitator for the Empty Arms: Pregnancy and Infant Loss group and has volunteered for the Mt. Carmel Hospice program for ten years.

Dr Paul C Rosenblatt is the author of Help Your Marriage Survive the Death of Your Child, published by Temple University Press.

I thank them both for their keen assistance and insight.

Return to Table of Contents
Appendix 1 - About Journeys Through Grief

After my son Dale died I searched everywhere for books about the loss of a child. I found few that were what I wanted from a book for bereaved parents. Most were very analytical, or aimed only at certain circumstances. I wanted to
hear what parents had to say about losing a child, I wanted to hear more than the odd snippet inserted here and there - I wanted a whole book of parentsí stories. But I could find no books like that anywhere.

So I decided to write one.

I wrote to over 100 newspapers across the country with a letter to the editor asking for input from other bereaved parents.

The responses came and came and came. As a result, Journeys Through Grief contains over 60 personal stories of loss from parents, grandparents and siblings who have been through the death of a child.

As I went through their letters, I saw a reoccuring theme Ė a lack of support. I decided that the book needed to be aimed at support people as well as bereaved parents. I saw the need for support people to realise what bereaved parents really need from them.

And so I asked them questions about their support Ė what they needed and what they got. They answered honestly and in the hope that others would receive the benefit of their own experiences.

Journeys Through Grief  contains dozens of responses to questions such as "What was the best thing someone did to support you?" and "What would have been the best thing anyone could have done to support you?"

Excerpts from Journeys Through Grief  can be read at

Journeys Through Grief is available in hard copy from Inspirit Publishing or downloadable as an e-book from Booklocker -

Return to Table of Contents
Appendix 2 - Resources
A comprehensive, up-to-date listing, including General Grief-related links, Childrenís Grief links and Miscarriage/Stillbirth/Neonatal/SIDS and SANDS links can be found at the Inspirit Website:

SIDS International -

SIDS Network -

GriefNet Ė

The Compassionate Friends Ė

Griefworks Ė

Webhealing Message Board Ė

Many areas will also have local support groups. Please contact your local health resource centre to find out if there are any local to you.
Return to Table of Contents
This booklet is available as a free download in Word 6 and Word 97 format from the Inspirit Website.

Journey of Hearts is pleased to bring this booklet to our visitors. We receive no renues from including this article on our site.
We thank Tammie Thomson for writing such a helpful article and for granting her permission to reprint it on Journey of Hearts site.

©2000 Tammie Thomson. All rights reserved.

Grief resources for bereaved parents & families.
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