I don’t typically pay mind to the myriad special awareness days, weeks, and months that exist, but they are great opportunities to advocate for social issues or illnesses, and certainly make for a good time to share relevant and personal stories. July is Bereaved Parents Awareness Month, a time to promote support for friends and loved ones who have experienced child loss.
Each year more than 50,000 children die, leaving their parents in the wake of the tragedy that is losing a child. My parents were among those statistics back in 1981 when their five-month-old infant son, Derek, died from complications related to a heart surgery.
When it comes to child loss and grieving parents, I long did not consider Derek’s story mine to share. My mom and dad’s story yes, my brother, Brian’s story, just four years old at the time, yes. But the thing is, the death of a child impacts an entire family system. It took me thirty-some years and a wonderful therapist to clue me in to the ways I have likely been impacted by my parents’ tragic loss.
A mother now myself, I have more insight and certainly more empathy for my parents in having endured the suffering and perseverance as a couple through such a trauma. I never did have the opportunity to speak mother-to-mother to my own mom about her loss, as she has since too died. But I remember that my dad brought her flowers each year on Derek’s birthday. I remember my parents encouraging me to ask questions about Derek, his life and his death, reminding me how important it was for them to talk about him. I remember the stillborn/infant death support group they joined was essential to them, and to this day we still have close family friends from that time. I remember my mom telling me that after Derek died, she would stare too long and too hard at pregnant women and infants at the grocery store or mall and cry.
Much has been written about the general grieving process, but because the death of a child violates the natural order of things, it can evoke even a greater variety of emotions: disbelief, denial, shock, bargaining, physical ailments, anxiety, guilt, relief, depression, envy, resentment, among many others. And while each individual and each family unit is different, there are some general recommendations for the best ways to offer kindness, love, and support to parents and families following child loss.
Make yourself open and available.
A listening ear or a crying shoulder might be what they need most. Don’t be afraid of saying the “right” or “wrong” thing. Your presence or support, even without words, speaks volumes.
Keep in mind the significance of dates.
Particularly in the immediate years following the child’s death. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays are likely to be particular triggers.
Don’t avoid talking about the child.
The last thing a parent wants is for their son or daughter to be forgotten. Consider sharing favorite memories or stories of the child, reaching out to let the parents know when you are thinking of the child, and how he or she has touched your life (unless, of course, the parents request that you not talk about their loved one right then).
Offer other ways to show your support and keep the legacy of the child alive.
Consider making a donation to a particular charity or fund (e.g. give to Children’s Cancer Network, set up a scholarship in his or her name), or create a meaningful memorial like planting a tree with a plaque at the child’s school.
Do more than offer general help. Decide on a task and make it happen.
For example, rather than saying “let me know if there is anything I can do,” say instead, “I am dropping off dinner for your family on Thursday at 5,” or “Danny is planning to mow your lawn for you on Saturday morning.”
Follow the parents’ lead. Don’t assume you know how they feel, or what they need.
Offer what you can, and don’t be afraid of doing or saying the “wrong” thing or upseting them. It’s not about you right now.
For more information on child loss, check out these resources:
Those families who have lost a baby may also add him or her to our Forever Loved wall of remembrance.