Top 7 ways to support a bereaved parent

My husband and I have been so touched by the outpouring of love and support during our time of need. Friends and family seemed to know exactly how to be there for us in our darkest hour. To some this comes naturally, but to others they need a little extra assistance. I hope these tips are helpful should you ever find yourself wanting to support a bereaved parent, or really anyone who is experiencing loss.

1. Show up and do something

Before Ellie died I oftentimes found myself telling other bereaved friends “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” And I meant it in the most sincere way. I would have done anything that was asked of me in the blink of an eye. But oh how much pressure that well-meaning statement places on a bereaved parent. Not being able to protect your child from death can take a toll on your self-confidence and can make you feel inadequate in just about every facet of your life. Even though you may desperately need help, the thought of having to reach out and ask someone can seem monumental. It can perpetuate the feelings of guilt and inadequacy we may already be experiencing. If you truly want to help a bereaved parent, try offering to do something specific and then suggest some dates. Take away that pressure from the parent who is already struggling.

Here are some ideas:

  • take their pet for a walk
  • offer to clean their home (or pay for a service to do this)
  • run errands
  • help with holiday shopping/wrapping gifts
  • take them a meal (bonus points for a meal that can be frozen and eaten at a later time)
  • send them a gift card to a local restaurant
  • offer to wash laundry or other household tasks

2. Write a condolence note

I have read these notes over and over and they are a testament to the love that was poured out on our family after our daughter’s death. The beauty of condolence notes is there is no expiration date on sending one. Our mail box was flooded for a couple of weeks after our daughter died, then all of a sudden the notes stopped, along with all the other support as well. The occasional note sent months or years down the road was so special when it seemed like the world had moved on from our grief.

Pro tip: avoid writing (and saying) the statement “at least” followed by something meant to be helpful. Such as: “at least you got to hold your daughter” or “at least you still have her older sister.” There is no substitution or replacement for our child and no statement is going to take away the pain from grief. Period. You don’t have to have eloquently written words – because I can assure you there is nothing you could ever say that is going to make a bereaved parent feel less pain. Using more words just increases the chance you could say something that could be interpreted as insensitive or hurtful. Simply let them know you are thinking of them.

3. Offer to help with surviving siblings

Early on after my daughter’s death, I found it nearly impossible to care for myself, let alone my then 2 year old daughter. How could I possibly give her a bath and brush her teeth when I was still unshowered and in my PJ’s from three days ago? My husband and I tried so desperately to keep life as normal as possible for her and shield her from some of the raw, ugly grief we were trudging through. But that’s so difficult and can be challenging when you don’t really have a break from caring for your child. It can be helpful to offer to assist with a bereaved parent’s surviving child(ren) so that the parents can have time away. This time may be spent grieving loss together away from the surviving child. It may also be critical time together as a couple just to reconnect and to continue to remain unified through grief that can so viciously try to tear you apart. Or maybe it’s a break from the innocent, but gut wrenching questions a surviving child will ask about their deceased sibling. Try offering to watch their kids so they can have a dinner date away from the home. Parents may also have anxiety over leaving their surviving children, so maybe they would feel more comfortable with you watching their child in one part of their home while they stay in another. Do you loathe babysitting? See #1 above for other ways to be helpful.

4. Listen

I’ll never forget the day we came home from the hospital with empty arms – our daughter had died mere hours beforehand. I showered, changed into PJs, and collapsed into my bed in a puddle of tears. A couple hours later there was a knock on my bedroom door and my sister-in-law was standing there after making the 2 hour drive to my house. She took off her shoes and crawled into the bed with me, and that’s where we spent the rest of the day. We cried together and she listed to my stories of Ellie, not offering a word of advice but quietly taking it all in. She was there in my darkest hour and sat with me in my grief. And let me tell you, that was so meaningful to me.

Be comfortable with silence – there’s so much healing that can happen when you stop talking just to fill a void. The good listeners can become a safe space for a bereaved parent, and that can be vital when as the rest of the world desperately tries to “fix” our un-fixable broken hearts.

5. Make a monetary donation or volunteer in our child’s memory

When our daughter died, we started a fund in her memory at our church which eventually was used to purchase a large play structure for the church’s playground. Not only did our loved ones contribute financially to this meaningful project, but they also showed up and got their hands dirty assembling it and then doing landscaping. Watching a community come together and support our family was one of the most humbling experiences for me.

Did the bereaved parents chose a charitable organization for monetary gifts in lieu of flowers? If so, that person has identified something that is meaningful to their family that would allow them to honor their deceased child. If they haven’t chosen something, perhaps consider donating to an organization that helps kids in some way. You may also consider donating your time in memory of their lost child. Do you have a local Ronald McDonald House? Or some other organization that supports children? The gift of time is beautiful and can be meaningful for grieving parents.

6. Remember our child

My biggest fear as a bereaved parent is that the world will move on and forget about my precious Ellie. We only have 10 days of memories to last us a lifetime and it can be heartbreaking to think of her memory fading over time. Her life and death is weaved into every fiber of my being and she has been one of the single most influential people in my life. I would venture to say that many bereaved parents feel a similar way.

How can you remember our children? Say their names. It seems so simple but can be profound for a grieving parent. It acknowledges that our child lived, albeit for a shorter time than anyone would ever wish for. Remember their birthday and date of death. Those days are particularly difficult and we may need a little extra love and support those two days each year. Do you have a favorite memory of our child? Or did something remind you of them? Tell us! And if you think that bringing up our child could cause us to think of them (and perhaps lead us to tears), I can assure you, they are constantly on our minds. We may greet your words with tears, but I would guess these tears would be those of gratitude over remembering our precious child.

7. Be patient with us

There’s no manual on how to survive the death of a child. Being a bereaved parent is living every parent’s worst nightmare and it can be an isolating experience for many of us. In case you haven’t heard, grief is non-linear. We may have a string of good days and then BAM! Grief slaps us in the face and knocks us back 20 steps. Give us grace as we ride the waves of grief. Hold our hand and help pick us up when we have bad days. And cut us a little slack when we cancel our dinner date last minute or forget your birthday. It’s not personal, really. Some days it takes every ounce of our being just to get out of the bed and put one foot in front of the other. Other days we may have more of us left to give, but some days we may run short.

Thank you for loving us bereaved parents. I can’t imagine this journey without the love and kindness of friends, family, and even complete strangers.

“Ellie’s Place”

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