Every parent's worst nightmare is losing a child. Without a doubt, the pain of losing a child is indescribable. Knowing how to comfort someone who's grieving their child's death or offering the right words to say can be intimidating. Most people are uncomfortable talking about death and never really know what to say.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child
- Tips for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child to Sudden Illness or Addiction
- More Tips for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child After a Long Illness
Saying the right thing seems next to impossible when witnessing the overwhelming grief and sorrow a parent feels when their child dies. For a parent, coping with the grief of losing a child can feel like navigating through rough waters in an impossibly small rowboat or dinghy. Unable to keep steady and with no land in sight.
A child’s death changes a parent forever, and any sympathy message for the loss of a child seems vastly inadequate. However, you may want to provide whatever gentle words and supportive actions you can to help someone grieving with the unimaginable.
Steps for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child
Parents mourning the loss of a child will tend to experience the classic symptoms associated with grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Processing and working through their grief may take months, if not years. Once the initial shock wears off, an entirely new set of fears emerges.
The pain of their loss is extraordinarily surreal and heartbreaking. The following are some ways of how to comfort someone who lost a child when saying sorry for your loss is not enough.
1. Be present and available
Being present and available to help a loved one through the pain of having lost their child can be overwhelmingly taxing on your energy and emotions. Remember always to be loving and nonjudgmental regardless of the number of times you'll have to sit through listening to the heartwrenching description of the pain they're suffering.
Not understanding can lead to frustration and saying things you'll later regret—so try to practice focusing on the present moment. Find ways of offering your help and support to your loved one so that they can get through the first few moments following the death of their child.
2. Offer open-ended help and support
No one wants to organize a funeral for their child, but sadly it may have to take place. It's one of those life-altering things that no parent ever wants to have to go through. You can help by offering to organize the funeral, calling the funeral director, and taking care of all of the details for the grieving parents.
Offer help in creating a slideshow for the funeral or memorial service by doing it yourself or asking others for their support. Let those who are grieving know that you're there to help them in any way that makes sense for them.
3. Give them room to talk about their loss
The experiences of the day they lost their child will forever be etched in your loved one's mind. Allow the opportunity for them to talk about how their child died and how they are coping with their death. Reliving the experience may have a cathartic effect and help them with healing from their pain and sorrow.
Try not to offer any advice or correct their way of thinking or feeling. Introducing any thoughts of doubt regarding their understanding of their child’s death can compound their overall anxiety. They may be obsessing over the death of their child and replaying the details of their death over and over in their mind. Have the courage to share in this vulnerable moment, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you feel.
4. Offer practical help around the house
Someone who has lost a child may be so focused on their grief that they may completely blank on washing the dishes or taking care of the dirty laundry.
Even their sweet dog may go for days without being acknowledged, fed, or walked. Step in wherever you can to take over some of these necessary household chores that may have gone neglected. At the very least, offer to take care of the pets for a few days or weeks following their child's death. This can be one of the sweetest gifts for parents who lost a child.
Tips for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child to Sudden Illness or Addiction
Losing a child to a sudden illness or addiction are two ways a parent can be left at a loss for what's happened. It's impossible to believe that their child has died, especially when it happens suddenly and unexpectedly. The pain of their loss is no different, regardless of how the death occurred. It doesn't make a parent feel any more or less bereaved.
5. Understand the depths of their loss
Allow them to grieve exactly how they want to despite any affirmations of faith or loss thereof. As a friend, you can help them find a way to ease their pain, even if it's just a little each day. Educate yourself a little on addiction and sudden death so that you can talk to your loved ones about it.
Addiction is powerful and is an expected self-destructive behavior among those who are masking their pain and suffering. Find ways to validate their feelings of loss and hopelessness without adding your opinions or making it about your past losses, or focusing on the substance abuse contributing to their child's loss.
6. Ask what happened
When a child dies suddenly and unexpectedly, it's natural to wonder what happened to cause their death. Don't be afraid to ask the parents what happened, even if it's hard, painful, and difficult to talk about. Allow them to give you as much or as little information as they're willing to share with you.
Don't press for more details if you sense that they don't want to talk about it more than what they've already shared. Alternatively, encourage them to keep talking if it helps them make sense of their child's sudden death.
7. Stay in the moment
A parent who's grieving may find it hard to formulate the right words to express what they're feeling or going through. Try and be patient as they talk about their loss. Pay attention to the words they're saying and their body language and other non-verbal cues. A grieving parent will be in shock after they first learn of their child's death.
Try and be there for them as they field the incoming calls from people expressing their condolences or those that stop by to express their condolences. All that activity may be overwhelming to deal with. Try and stay in the moment to help those who are grieving manage everything that's going on around them.
8. Make a note of important dates
A friend or loved one will need continued support long after the death of their child. The first few days and weeks following their death may seem like a blur. Grief may not entirely set in until well after the funeral or memorial service. Most people make the mistake of supporting their loved ones through their grief only during the time shortly after their immediate loss.
In truth, most parents will grieve the loss of their child for the rest of their lives. Taking note of important dates such as their child’s birthday or other significant days and placing a well-timed phone call will let your loved one know that you care and still remember the child that they lost.
More Tips for Comforting a Loved One Who Lost a Child After a Long Illness
Coping with the sudden death of a loved one is challenging enough. Dealing with a child's death after suffering through a long illness comes with its own set of challenges. A parent who faces a child's death due to a prolonged illness can start to grieve their loss well before their loss. Here are some ways to comfort someone facing this type of loss.
9. Share coping strategies
If you've experienced a similar type of loss, share ways for them to cope with this tremendous loss. Talk about things that both worked for you and those that didn't. A coping strategy can be something that positively influences those around you.
When the time feels right, discuss the soothing consolation of volunteer work while they're enduring the grieving process. Your experiences may offer them some resolution, hope, or a direction toward healing.
10. Encourage them to be active
Encourage a grieving parent to become active instead of focusing on self-pity or other self-destructive thoughts and processes. Help them to discover creative means to work through their pain.
Whether it's through exercise, picking up a creative hobby, or something else, being active clears some of the mental fog associated with grief and suffering. A forward movement is a powerful tool in this particular journey through grief and loss. It helps the bereaved by giving them a more positive perspective and hope for the future.
11. Talk to them about their child
Find an appropriate time to express to your loved one what their child meant to you. Acknowledge their child by name and don't shy away from talking about them or bringing them up in conversation. You may want to recommend a grief counselor or therapist specializing in this type of loss to help them cope with their pain and sorrow.
A person who becomes consumed in their grief has the potential to fall into depression. When one cannot accept death's reality, it may lead to prolonged and unresolved grief. Their child's death may become an obsession and lead to behaviors that are unhealthy and counterproductive.
Comforting Someone Who’s Lost a Child
It is challenging to find the right path through grief. Grief can be so overwhelming and powerful that sometimes people will do anything to numb themselves from their pain and suffering. Understand that as your loved one progresses through grief, there's no right or wrong way to grieve. Their life has forever changed.
All you can do is comfort them in the best way you know how.