If you know someone who has just experienced the death of a child, here are some suggestions as to what you can do to help them through this trying time. You may find all the suggestions useful however your specific relationship with the family will have an impact on the support you can offer.
We hardly know what to say or do. Feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and discomfort are common and often cause us to make conversation which is not very comforting. Bereaved parents and siblings find it important to talk about their child who has died. Listening and being there for them may give greater comfort than anything you could say.
- Be available. Listen, run errands, help with other children, provide meals or whatever you perceive as needed at the time.
- Tell the family how sorry you are about the child’s death and about the pain they must be feeling.
- Allow them to express as much grief as they are able and are willing to share with you
- Let them talk about the child and how they feel about death, as often a they want. Talk about your memories of the child.
- Give special attention to surviving brothers and sisters. Parents may not be able to give them proper attention during the early phases of grief.
- Reassure them that the death was not their fault if you know this to be true.
- Don’t avoid them because of your own discomfort with death.
- <Don’t say “I know how you feel”, unless you do.
- Don’t say “You should be coping better by now”.
- Don’t avoid mentioning the child’s name. The parents have not forgotten so your mentioning the child will not bring up bad memories.
- Don’t try to suggest some moral lesson or positive twist from the situation.
- <Don’t say they can always have more children or that they should be grateful for their other children.
Deal with the grieving individual gently and positively. Recognize that grieving has no time limit and varies from person to person. Don’t let your friend grieve alone. There is a tremendous sense of isolation during the grief process. You can help by being there… being the best friend you can.
You may not know what to say, but if you can show your natural concern in your own way and in your own words, the bereaved person will sense your sincerity. Perhaps a card when the person arrives back at work with an expression of your sorrow. It is better to say something than nothing. You may feel awkward but if you avoid the bereaved person, you may add more pain to an already painful experience.
The individual may not be able to concentrate at work the way he/she used to and a temporary sharing of the workload will lessen the burden. If the individual works for you, give work that insures success and does not cause additional frustration. If the person is your employer be aware that he/she may be unusually short-tempered and that his/her work efficiency will change. Patience and understanding can assist your co-worker through this grieving period.
When a child experiences a death in the family it is important for the child to feel the support of his/her teacher as soon as possible. Attend the funeral if possible. Other classmates could attend as well if the family feels that it is appropriate. Speak to the other classmates in class about death and tell them that one of their friends has lost someone very much loved. Speak to the grieving child privately, giving assurance that you are there to help and to understand.
The child’s behaviour may be a problem for a while. The teacher’s compassionate understanding is crucial. If it is necessary to talk to the child’s parents keep in mind that all members of the family may be suffering and therefore unable to provide much assistance. Children can be helped to express their emotions through art, music and story writing.
Classes may treat their bereaved classmate with avoidance or “babying” behaviour. There are excellent story books which explain death as a painful but natural event in the cycle of life. After the class discusses the meaning of these concepts at their own level of understanding, they may be less inclined to pursue harmful responses.
The death of a classmate illuminates for children their own mortality and evokes the fear of each child’s own death. Children’s disruptive behaviour may be the visible reactions to the death of a classmate. Teachers can identify these difficulties as part of the grieving process. However, if there is loss of control, drug and /or alcohol abuse or declining grades, the teacher should refer the youngster to outside help. Bereaved Families of Ontario is able to offer assistance by sending trained speakers to the classroom or teacher’s groups.
There is a high probability that in your professional career you will have to call on your skills to help a parent deal with the loss of their child through death. What will you do?
William J. Worden, PhD., describes four tasks of mourning which the doctor and nurse can facilitate.
1. To Accept the Reality of the Loss
Talking: Sympathetic listening will help you understand what it is that the parent needs to explore – the child’s lifetime of experiences; the pain of the loss; the time of death and dying etc.
Physical Contact: The parents may want to see their child; touching, holding and kissing may also be desired, but these difficult moments will require your emotional and physical support.
Choices: The shock of the situation may prevent the parent from asking the appropriate questions. Give information in simple terms, gently repeating if necessary, and encourage the parents to participate in exploring alternatives and making choices.
Belongings: Often the child’s clothing and personal momentoes are very special to the parents. They should be treated with respect.
2. Help Parents to Identify and Express Feelings
Bereaved parents may think they are going crazy. They often are distracted and may experience things that are not regularly a part of their lives. You can reassure the parents that their grief experiences are normal.
Establishing a Relationship: The parent may wonder how you are able to help in this situation. Sitting silently and listening to the parent demonstrates your compassion more than any words can express.
Reflection: Encourage the parent to think about his/her loss and share the implications of that loss. Reflection helps to identify and clarify feelings that are being expressed.
Individuality: Remember that mothers, fathers and siblings often exhibit their grief in different way and at different times. Always consider these differences and how the family is effected by them.
3. Assist the Parents to Live Without the Child
The grieving process has a “wave-like” motion. There will be low days where the intensity of the loss is as real as it was on the first day. There will also be more manageable days where life is more or less the way it used to be.
Recognition and Identification: Sit with the parents and encourage them to explore what has stirred up the sad feelings at this moment. Help them identify the emotions that they are feeling and reassure them as to their appropriateness.
Family Involvement: Remembering and discussing the memories of the child who has died reassures family members that living without the child is not FORGETTING.
4. Encourage Parents to Reinvest Emotional Energy in new Relationships and Activities
Value Relationships: Help the parent to identify relationships that presently exist in their lives. They have already lost a loving parent-child relationship. With time to grieve, the parent will be able to return to daily activities. Don’t expect too much, too fast but encourage it when they are ready.
Help with Long Term Decisions: Each individual will need to evaluate their current life situations while considering such future choices as career changes and family planning. If we listen carefully to the bereaved they will tell us what they need.
Parental Bereavement – Mothers and fathers grieve differently. Usually mothers first exhibit more of the symptoms of grief and depression while fathers appear to be dealing with the daily routines of life. Husbands may resent their wives’ helplessness while wives may resent their husbands’ apparent coping. It is important for the social worker to know that once the wife has coped with her grief the husband may begin to display grieving behaviours which had been suppressed.
Siblings – brothers and sisters experience the personal loss of a companion and an empathic ally within the family situation. There may be a rapid shift in expectations for the surviving children. New behaviours, attitudes and competencies will be required. Sometime these new stresses are expressed through socially unacceptable behaviour. Also, siblings often suppress their feelings of loss because they believe it is to painful for the parents to deal with.
Family – Each individual’s grief is unique and may not be in harmony with the other family members’ ways of grieving. This means that family traditions which previously guided behaviour may be disrupted such that family members are left to fend for themselves. Parents may become overprotective or less conscious of the needs of the surviving children.Families eventually begin to resume normal activities and even see a glimmer of hope for their future.
Often clergy are involved with the planning of a funeral or memorial service. This is a painful period of confusion and shock for the family when necessary decisions must be made. It is important to encourage family members to be together, to be included in the planning of the service, if that is their wish and to support each other as a unit. Please ensure that the siblings are included and not overlooked during this period.
Many families have reported that, while their clergy were helpful at the time of the funeral service, they could have used more support afterwards. Depending on your relationship with the family as a pastor and counsellor, try to remain close to the family or see that a network of contact is established through others on your behalf. The family may be unable to reach out on their own. There may be individuals in your congregation who would be both willing and able to assist you.
All family members are different, unique and so their reactions to God after the death of a child will most likely be different also. There may be anger directed at a “God of retribution” or a “why have you forsaken me, God?” attitude. Faith may be shaken. A pastor can support the bereaved individual at this time. It can become a time of examining faith in oneself and in God. How you handle this question of faith can be very important to the future faith of the individual that you are counselling. Take time to be a friend and counsel gently.