How to Help Someone Through Grief

Losing a child is everyone’s worst nightmare. It’s not the way things are supposed to happen; so how do you support someone you love through something you’re uncomfortable even thinking about? Should you talk about their child? Should you offer advice? While there’s no one path or right answer, there are some important things I’ve learned from working with grieving parents as well as research and reading on the topic. It’s normal to fear making mistakes when helping those who are hurting, but it’s much worse to make the mistake of not trying to help at all. Here are some tips on helping a grieving parent through the experience of loss that I’ve learned along my journey of helping.

1. Accept their personal experience.

Everyone’s experiences through life and loss are different. It is impossible to truly understand what anyone is going through at any time in life not having walked in their shoes. It’s important not only to accept that you don’t understand but acknowledge that lack of understanding as well.

2. Never blame them or let them accept blame.

There’s no place for “woulda, coulda, shoulda” in healing. It is not helpful to hear how they would have done things differently. It’s useless and hurtful to reflect on things that are unchangeable. Life and death are inevitable; the slightest insinuation that they could have prevented something is a road best left untraveled.

3. If parents have found a way to make meaning, embrace that.

A monumental loss can send people on an existential journey of sorts to make sense of life and death and find meaning in what has happened. Making sense of how life and death fit into the world, be it religious or otherwise, are important choices that can only be made for oneself. You cannot help your loved one make those decisions. Making meaning out of a loss through actions such as memorials, tributes, awareness efforts and collecting donations are ways parents can find strength in their loss in which you can support.

4. Maintain their child’s sense of presence.

Help remember and continue to create memories of their child. While their child’s life may have ended, the legacy of their child has not. You can help them maintain that legacy by talking about their child regardless of your discomfort. Share photos, stories and memorials over the days, months and years to follow. Grief and memories aren’t on a timeline. Continue to share in their child’s memory past 1 year; make sure parents know you haven’t forgotten.

5. Don’t be unrealistic with your support – remember there’s no “getting over” it.

There’s no “fixing” anything related to child loss. Sometimes your loved one just needs you to be there and express your love. It’s important to help restructure negative thinking, but don’t encourage wishful thinking or denial. It’s okay to help them accept their loss, but never expect them to get over it. While this may be an uncomfortable situation for you on the occasion that you see them, remember this is a lifelong reality for them.

There is no manual for navigating the journey of healing after loss but having loved ones who offer support and try to help guide the path are irreplaceable along the way. If you know someone bereaved after the sudden, unexplained death of a child, please encourage them to contact the SUDC Foundation to join our community of support services free of charge.

Hone, L. (2017). Resilient Grieving. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Thompson, A. L., Miller, K. S., Barrera, M., Davies, B., Foster, T. L., Gilmer, M. J., … Gerhardt, C. A. (2011). A Qualitative Study of Advice From Bereaved Parents and Siblings. Journal of Social Work in End-Of-Life & Palliative Care, 7(2-3), 153–172. doi: 10.1080/15524256.2011.593153

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