As a now retired pediatrician and medical geneticist, I know from experience the anguish that families experience with the loss of a child. Whether the circumstances include a previously healthy child who died from a tragic accident or a child with a chronic health condition who succumbed to their disease, families are never really prepared for their loss. They need our support, especially when we might be uncomfortable and not know what to say. Let me lend a few words of advice—
JUST BE PRESENT
Often the best thing to say is nothing—just be present. Families derive an incredible amount of emotional support from folks that are willing to share in their pain and just let them cry and talk. In these circumstances, listening is critical. Do not be judgmental. Do not try to make it about your experiences. Let them know how incredibly sad you are and share in their loss. Do not make empty promises or say “empty” things like “let me know how I can help.”
Families often feel very guilty about the loss of their child. “If I had just done this” or “if I had listened to the doctor” are two common laments I have heard. It is our job in that circumstance to comfort them and try to assuage their guilt. While we can tell them genuinely that it was not their fault, we must acknowledge their feelings and accept the process to work through the guilt will be lengthy.
DO SOMETHING TANGIBLE
Bring meals. Show up for support—to their house, to the funeral, to babysit sibs or other helpful tasks. Send personal handwritten notes, in addition to emails. In short, actions of emotional and physical support will let them know how much you care. Do not shy away from being engaged.
KEEP IN CONTACT
In the aftermath of loss, families will continue to need help and support. Oftentimes, friends and neighbors misinterpret a grieving family’s calm as a sign that they are doing okay and settling into their new reality. This new reality will be longstanding and will not go away even when they appear to have overcome their adversity. Anticipate that they will continue to need help and do not shy away from being there and continuing to do something tangible. By that continued support, you are helping them more than you know. They will not ask for help. You need to give it.
ENCOURAGE SUPPORT GROUPS OR PROFESSIONAL HELP
Even the most “solid” families are rocked with the loss of a child. They will need support that often exceeds our abilities to help. Most medical centers have support groups (including pastoral support) that can provide ongoing support, compassionate care with other families and professionals that can help families in these dire circumstances. These support groups also know that the pain and anguish does not go away anytime soon, and they are ready to be there for an extended period of time. The families with loss might need extended help with mental health professionals going forward.
ANTICIPATE FAMILY DYNAMICS CHANGES
The loss of a child usually shakes a family to the core. Shaky relationships can fall apart, and even sturdy relationships will need support. Encourage them to seek the help and counseling that might be needed.
HELP THE SIBLINGS
The siblings of the child that died are often neglected in this whole process. The siblings might feel the same guilt, loss and grief as the parents but will likely express these feelings in different ways. They might become sullen, have school problems, or act out. They will need significant support, and it is so important for us to recognize that their silent acceptance of the situation might just be the tip of the emotional iceberg that is brewing inside. Be prepared for a variety of responses and respond with compassion and empathy as they work through their emotional turmoil.
A great deal of literature has been devoted to the loss of a child. When it comes our time to talk with the family that has lost a child, the steps above might provide some comfort. But again, let me reiterate that listening and being present are the keys for the initial steps. Those two skills demonstrate our resolve to help the family and to be there with them in their grief.