The death of a baby or child is a deep, lasting tragedy. It changes the lives of the child’s parents and your life as well.
Things to remember about bereaved parents
- Parents may have sadness and depression for a long time. They may experience an outburst of anger, be afraid of going crazy, or have deep feelings of guilt and fear.
- People grieve in all kinds of ways. Remember that if and when they display a wide range of extreme emotions, they need your patience and support.
- Knowing there will be a wide range of emotions for a long time may help you accept the parents’ feelings and relate to them better. This is a time when they need your love, your caring and most of all, your acceptance.
- It’s often difficult for friends and family to allow parents to experience things in their own way, but your job as a support person is never to critique someone else’s grief.
How to reach out to parents after the death of a child
- Take the first step. Even if you are a close family member or friend, the first time you see/visit with the parents following their loss may be difficult.
- Call them.
- Send a sympathy card. It helps to know you cared about their child and that you care about them.
- Hug them. If words aren’t easy, try giving a hug, placing your hand on their back, or holding their hand. People in grief often need much more physical comfort than usual.
- Call the child by name (even if was a baby that they named after the death).
- Encourage the parents to share. Journey with the other in the search for meaning. Trust the other to lead you.
- Share your own memories of the child and/or pregnancy. The worst feeling for parents is when people act as though their child never existed. Carry the other in your heart.
- Let them know you respect their thoughts and feelings even if they are not grieving or feeling exactly as you think they should.
- Allow the other his or her privacy. Simply be there for them.
- If there are other children, encourage them to talk about their brother or sister. Let them show you a favorite toy or picture that belonged to the child who died. Let them talk, or sit with them if they are not ready to talk.
- Listen. This is probably the most important thing you can do. Letting them talk and encouraging them to “tell me more” or “go on” will let them know you are interested and supportive. Preaching and telling them how they should feel are definitely not helpful. Sometimes we think there must be something we can say to make people feel better. Talking about “God’s will” or saying the death was “for the best” is more likely to generate anger than appreciation. Probably one of the best statements is a simple “I’m sorry.” Radiate genuine hope.
- Cry if you feel the need. Lots of times we think crying will make the parents feel worse. This isn’t true. It helps them to share tears. Open yourself to what this experience holds for you.
- Remember the dad. He is often the forgotten griever and left with busy work and making arrangements, but he is grieving too, even if it’s not in a way you recognize.
- Be practical. In addition to sending cards and calling, there are other ways you can help. Bring food, clean the house, take one or both of the parents shopping (the first trip to the grocery store can be hard), do laundry, care for pets, or water plants. Right now it takes a lot of energy just to keep going. So, even helping care for the other children can be a big help.
- Tell them you care. Acknowledge what has happened. Respond in an authentic way. Accept the other as he or she is.
Download/print our bereavement guide for friends and family (.pdf).