Compassion for parents who experience the death of a child

Understanding grief is the first step in responding appropriately to a parent whose child has died.

The death of a child is often considered the most devastating loss there is. There is nothing that well-meaning friends can say or do to ease the pain of grieving parents. It does not matter the age of the son or daughter  or the circumstances around it.

Grief is a normal, healthy and very personal response to the extreme pain and heartbreak of loss. Each person’s grief is uniquely expressed physically, cognitively, socially, emotionally and spiritually. They may develop an illness, experience confusion, be unable to perform daily activities or withdraw from social support. Anger, fear, frustration, sorrow, loneliness and guilt are all part of the grieving process.

Family and friends often feel frustrated and helpless, and want to offer a way to resolve the grief and return to ‘normal.’ A bereaved parent cannot go back to being the person they were before their child died, but they  can create new thoughts, dreams and values in their own unique time and way.

How can we support parents who are mourning the death of a child, regardless of how recently it has occurred? Michigan State University Extension programs foster empathy as a critical component of healthy social-emotional development throughout the lifespan.

Empathy involves listening. Being present and allowing tears, anger, denial and guilt to be expressed without judgment are the key factors of being empathetic. A grieving parent may need to talk about their child and the circumstances of the death many times. It is not helpful to say “I know how you feel, or to try to minimize the loss by saying “everything happens for a reason," or “at least he/she didn’t suffer.”

Your caring presence and the words “I’m so sorry” with a hug or touch of a hand will give authentic expression to what is needed. Remembering and speaking the child’s name and honoring their memory on their birthday or anniversary of their death or holidays can provide consolation.

Send a card, call or visit. Let the grieving parent know that you remember, too. Displaying emotions related to the loss years after the death is healthy. Grief can last a lifetime, and although it is gradually integrated into a person’s new self-identity, it can resurface unexpectedly!

Another source of comfort for grieving parents is The Compassionate Friends. There are bereaved parents in each local chapter ready to offer support, friendship and understanding. On the second Sunday in December each year, The Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting unites family and friends around the globe in lighting candles for one hour to honor the memories of children who left too soon.

As candles are lit at 7 p.m. local time, a virtual 24-hour wave of light moves from time zone to time zone. Starting in the United States in 1997 as a small internet observance, it has greatly increased in numbers as word has spread throughout the world. Hundreds of formal candle lighting events are held and thousands of informal candle lightings are conducted in homes as families gather in quiet remembrance of children who have died, but will never be forgotten.

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