I've only technically been a bereaved mom for three months but my grieving began long before Mabel died. I haven't studied grief or it's complexities in a classroom but I feel like I have a PhD in it's components. I have walked it, both anticipatory and now in all of it's reality. I have studied it. In fact, I have spent countless hours reading books, and articles explaining what is 'normal' and healthy in the wildness that is grief. Much like an expectant mother is eager to devour 'What to expect when you're expecting,' I was eager to learn all that I could about myself and what exactly was happening within me during a time when I felt so unraveled. And that's exactly what was happening; an unraveling.
In the last week I have reached out to several mothers who have lost children and asked them directly, "What helped you after that loss and what hurt you (intentionally or unintentionally)?" We have discussed it in our own home and our answers were very similar to theirs. I am intrigued at the idea that grief is very much the same and yet so different for everyone. Losing a child is a different ache than losing a mother but the grief connection is deep and thorough, one that can be understood between two people with very little words. Everyone who is grieving very much needs to be validated for their own loss. Jeni and I went to a support group last night and I told her before going in that I wanted her to have a voice somewhere because unlike she has, I have never lost a niece. It's important to acknowledge that even in our own deepest hurt. Those around us are grieving too and it's unfamiliar and often frightening for them also.
I can only speak out of my own experiences and for those who were so kind to share theirs but I hope to do so articulately. I also hope to do so asking for a little grace, hoping you hear my heart, praying that it may help you or someone you know in the future.
There are very practical things that you can do to help a families who have experienced the loss of a child. Ours may be the first and only family that you have encountered in this situation but likely and unfortunately we will not be the last.
First: consider making and delivering meals without expecting small talk.
When Mabel was first diagnosed, one of my now-closest friends started bringing our family meals each week. She had a busy life with her own with kids, a husband, a home to manage, sports, and a full time job but she made it a priority to include this in her routine. Every week I looked forward to the night when I didn't have to worry about cooking and could focus just on my family.
After Mabel died, our family asked for strict privacy so that we could bind together and mourn properly without being bombarded by noise. However, the morning before our girl met Jesus, that very same friend literally dropped donuts on the doorstep, reminding me of this quiet ministry that was incredibly crucial.
Since then, there have been several instances when I have had women (moms) who have texted or messaged and said, "Dinner will be on your porch at 5:30. Pop it in the oven and enjoy. No need to come outside and talk. I love you and am here for you." You don't know how helpful this is and what a relief it is to simply eat without the expectation of having to carry a conversation. Even now, after three months, sometimes a conversation that I would have loved to engage in before Mabel's death exhausts me for the entire day.
It's not you. That's grief.
If you know a family that loses a child, this is the absolute greatest time in the world to practice true, Christ-like selflessness.
I have also had women text and say "there are gifts on the porch for the kids. I hope they enjoy them. We are thinking of you."
This means everything. This is a reminder to the grieving family that we are still on your mind. That you have not forgotten our pain. That you are praying and that you care. Each time this happens, the isolation is slightly lifted, even briefly and it makes the heart happy which in turn strengthens it.
Secondly: Talk about our baby!
Don't be afraid to ask about the deceased child (or even their death.)
When I asked Chris about this post, this was his first response, as was it the response of several of the mother's I inquired with. After your child dies there is suddenly this silence. Especially if the family lost a child due to an ongoing medical complexity such as a rare disease, we like to talk about it. And her. Just because we asked for privacy after her death doesn't mean we never want to speak about her again. We simply wanted time together to get through those initial hard days but we don't want to erase her from our dialogue with you. Her medical needs were part of our every day life. Her death was also part of life. In fact, it was a beautiful part. If you ask, that leaves it up to the grieving person to tell you the details that they feel comfortable with but it opens a door of flexibility when talking about their loved one. It's important to them.
Dad's have to return back to work, mom's have to figure out a new normal but ultimately that should involve being able to talk about our loss because she was our life!
Third: Keep texting. Or messaging. Or calling.
Again, this becomes an act of pure selflessness because truly, grief will likely cause us to not answer you many times. But to see your messages and to see the missed calls-it reminds us that you are here. It does matter. It isn't that we don't want to talk to you; sometimes it is that we do not have the emotional or mental capacity to carry on a 'normal' conversation. The confusing complexities here are known by those grieving and misunderstood by our friends or loved ones (who may or may not be grieving themselves). It's really to difficult to explain; just know that it means the world to see you still reaching out and taking the time to try. Please don't stop.
Fourth: Acknowledge that you can't understand (unless you truly can) but that you are praying.
This is SO important and was also an across-the-board answer when I asked the other moms. Even if they aren't super spiritual people, knowing that people are praying on their behalf seems to bring comfort. Sometimes we don't have the energy to do that ourselves and it feels very relieving to know that someone else is 'going to bat' for you on days when you maybe can't yourself. This is another complicated part of grief that a lot of people experience-feeling angry with God. So again, I can only speak for myself when I say that it has encouraged and helped me. If you know a family that is grieving, likely you'll know what to say. If you are aware that they are experiencing an anger phase of their grief, maybe use the words "you are always on my mind," or "I'm thinking of you."
Just simply acknowledge them for exactly where they are at the time, with no judgments and let them know you're with them in heart.
Most importantly: Show up and be consistent.
When you're needed or asked, come around. When you're not needed or not asked, be available and let it be known that you are. Let the grieving family know that you are there for them whenever they need you. They may very likely not ever reach out, and that has to be ok. They need to know that you are there.
My friends have been it abundantly clear that even they, knowing me the best, are very unsure of what to say or how to answer me most days. They try to be sensitive but it is difficult for them as well. Rache put it best, "I figure as long as I consistently reach out to you, even if I'm saying the 'wrong' things on that particular day, eventually there will come a day when what I say is the right thing and that will matter."
It's very true. Consistency in friendship during such hard and uncertain times is key.
On the same token, but the other side of this tricky grief game, I would like to give some examples of things that are not helpful and even sometimes can feel hurtful when dealing with a grieving family.
A lot of these do not specifically apply to me or how I have felt but are very common among other parents who have lost children. It's key to just be sensitive. What I can tell you is that grieving parents, especially of children who have suffered for most of their life, have learned a lot of grace for the things people say to them. We learn to really let go of things that unintentionally hurt us because we can't understand being where you are, either. We know that it must be very tricky to speak with us, relate to us and try to love us at the most unimaginable and worst times. We are dragon moms, after all. Please know that WE know how to be sensitive with you as well. Nothing you say out of true compassion is offensive or hurtful. We usually process it and move on, knowing your heart was only full of good intentions.
If you know a child who has died, sometimes it is hurtful for the mother of that child to hear:
-"He/She is in a better place."
(We know that they are! We are content and at peace with paradise most days, but most days the thought of them being here, in our arms, seemed pretty great too.)
-"What are your plans for the future?"
(Please note, we don't know and we shouldn't have to. We haven't the energy to compose a thought about the future without our child in it yet. We are simply going to breathe every day to make it through each minute. There is no plan. Surviving the pain is the plan.)
-"At least he/she is no longer suffering."
(Again, we are VERY aware of our child's earthly suffering. We lived it. But we also know that we provided the greatest comfort humanly possible to our child. We know they aren't suffering but it doesn't feel great hearing it from people who did not endure the suffering of our child every day in the same ways that we did. It often feels like an unfair statement made by someone unqualified to say it.)
-"You know he/she isn't at the cemetery. You shouldn't go so often. You should try going to a church or temple; somewhere holy."
(Please don't tell the grieving mother what you think she should do or where you think she should go. Leave the grieving mother to her grieving.)
-"You have [other sibling's names] to keep you going."
This is true for me. I have Nora and Braden and many families have other living children as well. Nora and Braden do not replace Mabel and they don't take away the hurt or pain I feel from her not being here. It's a lot of pressure to put on their little souls to be the things in this life that 'keep me going.' Mabel (or the deceased child you know) and her siblings are all very separate and combining them as living vs. dead is difficult to process. Though it's true, it doesn't always come out accurately or in a way that is helpful for healing. It makes me feel like Nora and Braden should be 'enough' to get me through the days that I miss her and sometimes nothing is 'enough,' which leads to deeper feelings of guilt surrounding Mabel's siblings.
Again, it's not them. That's grief.
-After a child dies, do not let the family see your guilt for not spending more time with that child. Do not let the family hear you say things like, "life is just so busy," or "life just gets in the way."
(To us, there really isn't a good enough excuse to have not been around. If you feel that way, it's understandable but please feel it elsewhere or speak it to someone other than us. We don't want to have to and can't be expected to comfort you for the things you chose to miss out on with our child.)
-Do not use the fact that other people were supporting the grieving family as an excuse to not be around. Plain and simple: it's not a good enough one.
(We have many friends, it's no secret. But you can always use one more person who cares. Always. Always. Always.)
-Do not expect a grieving parent or grieving person in general to validate your friendship with them during this vulnerable time. Be a friend and show up! Text or call. But do not NOT do those things and expect them to come to you to make things right. This is not the time for friendships to unravel because of insecurities or you not knowing the 'right' things to do or say.
There is never anything exactly right or perfect but I can promise you that by knocking on the door, sending one text, sending flowers or a card--those things will always be reminders of the kind of friend that you are; the selfless and thoughtful kind.
The last thing and I think the most important thing I want to touch on is this:
If you know a grieving family, be courageous and compassionate for them and to them. Show extra patience, extra kindness. Be sensitive and gentle. Though time has moved on for you, they are still living in the grit and muck of very unruly grief. It's a wicked and lasting ride; try to stay on board with them. Don't put a timetable on their grief and have very little expectations of when they may be 'the same' as they once were.
They may never be.
Step out of your comfort zone. Be present.
And love in ways that are unique because likely, that will matter so much to the family. So much, in fact, that they may never have the right words to thank you accurately. But they'll sincerely and gratefully appreciate all you do for them just by being there and being you.
Again, nothing you say or do is ever really 'wrong.' In life we all have to learn to just let go of the things people do or say that are unintentionally painful. It's just as a grieving person, it poses more of a challenge and a lot of times we don't have the emotional energy to figure that out and let it go. This often harbors pain or anger and that then extends grief into other areas of our hearts.
Again, not your fault. That's grief.
I'm sure that there are so many more things that I could write about in full detail but this will hopefully be a guide to some on how to move forward with a family who has lost a child or a loved one. If it's not accurate for your own grief, that's ok. Like I said, I can only really try to portray what I've felt myself or have personally heard from others.
"Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up."
1 Thess. 5:11
Coming up: How to help siblings of a deceased child.