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5 do's and don'ts for grieving parents
The loss of a child is a terrible thing. Learn these 5 do's and don'ts for offering comfort to the grieving parent. - photo by Smarter Parenting
The loss of a child is about the worst thing most of us can imagine. You see reports on the news almost every day of families losing a little one and we think, Oh, how tragic! Then the news team breaks for commercial, and we get up to get a snack. Its almost as if such horrid things only happen to other people.

But eventually, you will meet one of these grieving parents. They could be a friend, a family member, or a neighbor down the street. Suddenly, the tragedy hits close to home, and you want to make it better. You pluck up your courage and approach the grieving parent, ready to give that little bit of advice that you know will just make everything better.

And about thirty seconds after they smile and move on, you give yourself a dope slap on the forehead because you just botched it.

Im a dad who lost his seven-year-old daughter, Rachel due to a medical condition. My wife and I were the ones that people were going to make better. Spoiler alert: it didnt work.

When a child dies, everyone is trying to make sense of the situation. Its a horrible truth that sometimes children die, and when the world loses that little bit of innocence, everyone suffers. Because most of us arent accustomed on how to deal with the situation, our ham-fisted efforts often dont come across as helpful as wed like them to be. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we all need to make sense of what may be the worst thing anyone can imagine.

In the process, though, some tips might assist in your efforts to actually connect with the grieving parent, and maybe help your own understanding as well.

Here are 5 dos and donts of dealing with a grieving parent:

These arent just pet peeves of mourners. They are points that tend to make matters worse for someone who is grieving. Nobody looks at somebody who has gone through this and says Hey, lets pile on the frustrations! But really, how do you approach a situation to which you have no experience or ideas on how to fix it.

First off, you cant fix it. Death is final, and losing a loved one cant be cured. But there are things you can do to make it a little easier. Most of these techniques can work for grief of any kind. Ive seen this kindness effective in the lives of widows or people who have lost a sibling or parent as well.

Dont do these 5 things:

1. Dont use aphorisms

Those plucky one-liner solutions to all of lifes problems arent nearly as helpful as you might think. Things like At least he/she isnt suffering now, or He/She is in a better place, dont actually help in this situation.

Its darkest before the dawn strangely doesnt inspire healing in the least, nor does it help the grieving parent to understand what has just happened. Sure, they sound like the nice thing to say, but nothing generates an eye roll like a poorly-executed aphorism.

2. Dont tell a grieving person how they should grieve

It sounds like an obvious bit of advice: who in their right mind would tell someone how they should react to the most horrible tragedy in their lives? But people do it all the time. A lot of people believe that once the funeral is over, the griever is ready to return to the regular social life they were used to before they lost their loved one.

The fact is, grief becomes part of a new life for most mourners, and they have to figure out what normal is going to be. Its a long and difficult road ahead. As an example, at the luncheon after Rachels funeral, I mentioned to a cousin that my wife and I were really lucky to have Rachel as long as we did. No! she raised an admonitory finger, Say it like it is. You were blessed. Okay I let that one slide, figuring it was some kind of cute aphorism that made her feel better. So I said that the biggest strength to me in this time was my wife, and I was really lucky to have her. No! The finger went up again. Say it like it is. You were blessed.

I just wanted to say Im sorry, I have to face this direction, now. The thing is, everyone grieves differently, and telling someone how they should grieve just pushes your opinion on them, which doesnt help anything.

3. Dont assume this is something one just gets over

Five years later, I still think of my little girl every day. There are days when the pain of loss is so keen I just dont want to get out of bed. There is no getting over the death of a child.

4. Dont assume that they are on the same level emotionally, spiritually or socially that you are

Sometimes a grieving parent isnt ready to do all of the things they used to, or think of things in a positive way. Maybe both parties in the conversation know each other from church or the same social group, but the death of a child changes everything for at least one of the parties. You have to let the mourner decide how this all fits into their new state of life.

Holidays are particularly difficult for a grieving family, so if they dont feel like going to that New Years party, its probably best to let them off without the guilt trip.

5. Dont try to get their minds off of it

If the parent is going through one of the stages of grief, they dont need distractions, but someone to go through it with them.

My wife and I go through what we call Rachel Days where the absence of our daughter is especially acute. During these days, it helps to have someone to talk to, admit that we miss her, and that it hurts to have our daughter gone.

Somehow, admitting the problem seems to lessen the pain. I once brought up that I was having a Rachel Day with an acquaintance, and his solution was to talk about sports. Other than the fact that I really dont like sports, his off-putting stance showed me that he didnt want to be a friend. It seemed that he simply didnt care.

Do these 5 things:

1. Do listen

One of the false schema in our society is that someone who suffers with grief shouldnt talk about it, or they would rather think about something else. When I needed someone to talk to, the greatest friend was the one who would sit and listen without judgment.

During the first days after Rachels death, and even on subsequent times when I miss my daughter, the best friends I have are the ones who would come over to my place and talk with me. People came to our house after Rachel died bringing food or gifts, but the greatest gifts were the good friends who came over and cried with us.

2. Do share memories

If you knew the child and even had experiences with them, why not share those memories? Something sweet or funny about the deceased are great ways to laugh through the tears.

If you didnt know the deceased, a great question is What was he/she like? Open the gateway to conversation and offer an opportunity to celebrate the life of someone so close to the parent. Its okay if it makes them cry. Theyre used to it by now. Bonus points go to the friend who has pictures of the deceased and bring them over a few months or years after the child has died and says I was going through my things and found this picture of your kid. Talk about making the parents day!

3. Do what youre good at

No, seriously, stick to your strengths. Ill give you a couple of examples. One of our friends is a scrapbooking fiend. A few days after Rachel died, she asked us to email her some pictures of Rachel she could use to put together for a guest book for the funeral. The result was so beautiful; we still bring it out from time to time to look at.

Another group of ladies in our area who were into crocheting got together after our daughter died to see what they could do to help. When we arrived at church that Sunday, everyone in the congregation was wearing a small crocheted angel pinned on their lapel to show their support. It truly shows that, when all you have is a hammer, all your problems begin to look like nails. And if all else fails, and your talent doesnt work in this situation, go back to #1 in this list.

4. Do be there

Show up, spend time with them, and dont assume they want to be alone. Sometimes, being a grieving parent can be the loneliest existence in the world. Take a day to help them clean the house, or call them up to let them know youre thinking about them. Or take them out to dinner. They like Italian and are free this Friday night around 7:00 (but theyll go at 6:00 if you want to dodge the crowds).

5. Do be patient

Becoming accustomed to grief takes a long, long time. It goes through different phases over and over again. It takes a major adjustment on everybodys part to get used to the idea that this is what life is going to be like.

Losing someone is awful; losing a child can be worse. What your friend is doing in their grief is creating a new normal. They are changing traditions, and their point of view is shifting dramatically. They are, essentially, becoming a new person.

Some aspects in their personality will be stronger than before, and some traits will fall by the wayside. If you value your relationship, the payment to sustain your friendship is going to be patience. Repeat the other 4 Dos in this list as often as required. The reward is that you will have a new friend with a deeper sense of gratitude towards your kindness.

Working with a parent who has lost a child of any age doesnt really take much. Overcoming social anxieties and norms is the only real obstacle, but in the end, it just takes an influx of love. Whether its a family member, friend or someone you arent familiar with, being a true friend just involves using your ears and a little bit of time. In the end, it makes someone elses burden lighter, which in turn can lighten your own.
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