Chettie blowing a kiss. Chester died April 1, 1999, at the age of 21. It could have been yesterday.
HOW TO COMFORT SOMEONE WHOSE CHILD HAS DIED
by Susan Dunn
Look for my book on the death of a child due to come out next year.
When a friend suffers the loss of a child, we don't know how to comfort them. Our first thought is usually, "I don't know what to say." When a child is lost, we all suffer, and it's particularly hard for other parents to deal with.
"Friends would cross the street to avoid me," one client told me.
What to say and how to help the grieving parents is a challenge.
I had first-hand experience with this when my son died several years ago. Let me share some thoughts from that perspective.
There are some things that aren't helpful:
•Asking the person what you can do to help, or any question, is beyond their capacity. People devastated by grief can't make the simplest decision, and they still have to make burial arrangements, etc. They are only capable of going through the motions. Nothing more. One foot in front of the other.
•Saying most of the things they say in movies --he's in a better place, it was God's will, your memories will comfort you, time will heal. They make no sense at the time. The person is trying to figure out something incomprehensible and doesn't have space to fit in other ideas.
•Assuming the grief-stricken person needs to express their emotions. It's all the person can do to contain the emotions. It's self-protection to shut down, and it's necessary.
•Trying ... trying anything. The grieving person feels the emotional pull when they're already on their last nerve and have nothing to give ... 'this person is trying to make me feel better, make me cry, make me explain something. I'm supposed to do something and I can't.' It's a fragile state.
•Thinking the grieving person needs to do something. To the grieving person, it feels like pressure, it makes absolutely no sense, and often it isn't 'needed' anyway. "You must eat something," elicits "Why?" You can't imagine how you're bouncing pebbles off a distant planet. Words, I'm sorry to say, really aren't of much use.
•References to other deaths. It's just a time not to do that, like sending a book about coping with the death of a child. The person needs not to be a part of a group -- widows who've lost husbands, mothers who've lost sons ... It needs to stand alone.
What, then, can you do?
Burying your own child has been called "a perversion of nature," and is that difficult to get your mind around. What parent has ever considered having to do this? Most of us care more about our children than life itself, and we cannot afford to entertain that thought, so there is no preparation. It's something we sincerely hope will happen to someone else, not us, if it must happen.
We expect our parents to die in our lifetime; it's difficult, but we've been expecting it.
Here are some of the things that helped me through. I can't say they comforted me, as for a time there was no way to comfort me, and I guess that's a point to be made. You don't even want to be comforted. What you want is your child back.
Understand I'm speaking from my personal experience. It's a terrible insult to imagine what someone else is feeling at this time, or what might help.
•My younger sister came to the Memorial Service and just made small talk. When she left, to go back home, she shook her head and said, "Oh Susan." She left a tape by Ian Tyson on my bedside table ... rock with me Jesus help me bear this heavy load, don't let her slip, don't let her slide ... all cowboys cross the Great Divide.
•After the dinner after the Service, folks came back to my house. My niece sat beside me and stroked my hair while she talked with everyone, so I didn't have to.
•A colleague at work met me coming out of the elevator my first day back to work. He looked up, then looked down with tears in his eyes and said, "I don't know what to say," and walked away with his shoulders bent. He had a child the same age as mine. It was thoughtful of him not to stick around and have me feel the need to comfort him.
•My friend who said, "Give me a list of people to call. I'll tell them for you."
•My boss said, when I returned to work, "The only reason I'm letting you be here is that it's maybe slightly better than being home." He gave me little things to do, to occupy my mind, but nothing requiring judgment.
•My twin sister called me every 6 weeks and said she was flying out for a visit. (Didn't ask, said.) She would show up at the house and just putter ... cook, clean, garden ... She didn't disturb me.
•When she answered the phone, I heard her say, "She can't talk now. She's seeking the mercy of sleep."
•My friend, who'd lost her 8 month old son ... when I asked her "How do I live with this?" she said, "I don't know. Yours is different. Mine was [just a baby] but yours was  and the longer you have them the worse it is." What a magnanimous statement.
•My friend who wrote, "From now on, for me, every tree will be missing a leaf."
•My son's friend who told me, when she heard about it, "That's really [expletive]."
•Between visits, my sister sent me homemade chocolate chip cookies, something very symbolic between the two of us. Mother ... home ... happier times. They arrived in shoe boxes, wrapped in plain brown paper. It's a time to be basic.
•The people who talked about how wonderful my son was, only at a distance ... by email, or letters.
•The friend who gave me a gift certificate for 10 massages.
•People who would, and still do, speak his name.
•Friends who remember the anniversary of his death. For most of us, it will never recede in time. It could be yesterday. It could even be today.
In the acute state of grief, the person can't think, and there's no emotional space. What isn't occupied by grief, is occupied by anger, which the person is trying not to vent against an innocent person. Just be around them, lovingly. Words aren't absorbed. There's authenticity in saying "I don't know what to say," when you don't.
Avoid trying to pull their emotions out, or to put yours on them. (Some people do express them.) Don't make any cognitive or emotional demands. If you can, remove cognitive tasks, i.e., tell them you're picking them up for dinner at Chili's, Tuesday at 6, and to wear jeans.
A gentle touch means a lot. Accept how they're being at the time. Understand that for them to respond is asking them to produce energy they don't have. Even the most gracious of us are hard-put to be gracious at such a time.
Avoid any references to "time." Time may heal this, time may not. You don't know, and the person isn't sure at all.
Chances are good "with time" your efforts will be appreciated and remembered, even if they didn't appear to hit the mark at the time. I'm not sure there is "a mark" to hit. Do the best you can, from your heart. Sincere, heartfelt intentions speak much louder than actual words.
(c) 2010 Susan Dunn, All rights reserved.