Twenty one years ago we lost our daughter to SIDS, (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.) She was six weeks, three days old and she was so healthy that the coroner advised she was the healthiest baby he’d seen but something inexplicable had happened and she was gone.
I read an article today on another set of parents who lost their 7 year-old son. I realized that sometimes it’s just as hard to be the friend of someone who has lost their child as it is being the grieving parents. The worst part is you just don’t know what to do. You want to physically contribute to the healing. Oh, you can send flowers and cards, I encourage you to support the research charities that we hope one day will solve the puzzle of why healthy babies just die before their first birthday.
But some people don’t have money for cards and flowers. Some single mothers have pooled their penny jars to buy gas and oil so six of them can pile into a tank of a car, drive an hour through a blizzard to be at the funeral to support the parents.
As friends of grieving parents, you are often left with feeling that you should be doing more. That there should be something practical that you can do that won’t seem intrusive. In fact I have often been asked by people for ideas on how to help when they are supporting a friend through grief.
So here is my list of practical things you can do for parents who are grieving;
Shine shoes. You are never prepared for a funeral and often men are so used to wearing running shoes they forget to dust and shine up their dress shoes. Ask if you can go in the closet and get their dress shoes and shine them. If you are close enough to the family, do it anyway without asking. It’s a simple little thing but it’s those things that overwhelm you as a grieving parent getting ready for your child’s funeral.
Do the laundry or offer to go out to get a dress shirt or dress. In Canada, a warm dress jacket for any siblings for the funeral might be needed. How many five-year olds have dress pants and suits? The child may feel disrespectful when everyone else is dressed up. Dad may not have worn his suit in three years and it may need airing, dusting or ironing.
Make juice, coffee, tea, fill the ice and water bottles and be sure there are plenty of fluids in the house. Fluids are needed not just for guests. Over the next few days the mourners will need to drink plenty of fluids. Sometimes when you are mourning you find you can’t eat but it’s very necessary to drink. The family will go through three or four cans of coffee, gallons of tea and juice in the first few days.
Make foods that can go in the freezer and be microwaved. If you are very industrious, make one person portions for the nights they need to feed the kids and can’t eat themselves.
Make or buy a “grieving basket.” I make these for grieving friends. They include;
Chocolate as a natural anti-depressant. The darker the better.
Lavender in seeds, oils or dried plants to promote calmness.
Chamomile tea to help them sleep and Rosehip and Hibiscus for energy.
A journal and pen for thoughts that they don’t want to share.
Another journal for friends and family to write their favourite memory of the deceased. It is a lasting testament that the parents can draw comfort from later on. Remember when you write your memory that you can write “ugly warts and all,” as these traits are what make characters into real people for future generations.
Some kind of humour or inspirational book depending on who I’m giving it to. My two favourites are “The Wit and Wisdom of Terry Pratchett’ and “The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom.”
White candles because when you cry, regular light can hurt but they never want to be in the dark.
A box of tissues, preferably the kind with lotion.
A list of phone numbers for later of local support groups such as Bereaved Families.
Gas up their car. If you can afford it, a tank of gas allows them the freedom of running away from all the stress, going to the funeral home and later when they need to go the five hundred places that they have to go to file forms. They may not be able to afford the gas just to get to therapy.
Find your local chapter of Bereaved Families and leave the contact information where they can find it two weeks after the funeral. When someone dies the funeral home gives them piles of literature and parents at this point have a hard time remembering how to tie their shoes, do the organizing for them.
The funeral home will be happy to give you extra pamphlets on the organizations that can help. Pick the ones most appropriate, in my case The SIDS Foundation and the Bereaved Families and put them where people who could not get to the funeral will find them.
Give any visiting grieving child paper and art supplies so they can express their own grief in their own way. A friend did this for the children visiting my home with their parents. It also keeps the kids quieter. The children of the neighbourhood made me a picture of a black hole. They were scared that my daughter would get cold. Getting the picture allowed the parents of these children to open a dialogue.
If it all seems to overwhelm them, kidnap them, put them in your car, drive to a rural area and let them get out into the middle of a field to just scream!
It’s natural for family and friends to want to gather at your home to “be there for you.” It’s just that sometimes you feel you have to be polite to them. You have to behave properly. They don’t say it but as a grieving parent, you know they are all on suicide watch.
When your best friend says, “Do you want to be alone for twenty minutes? Meet me at the front door in five. Don’t tell anyone where you are going.” When they have the car running and the passenger door open and they drive away like the FBI is after you, they take you to the middle of a farmer’s field and let you yell at God at the top of your voice, it can save your sanity.
Contact their doctor and update them on the situation. The doctor cannot give you any information about the parent but it’s important they know. Grief can exacerbate a variety of conditions such as heart conditions, stress/anxiety disorders etc…. This will give the doctor a chance to contact the parents if he/she has any health concerns. I once saw a man who went into a diabetic coma at his wife’s funeral because he forgot to take his insulin. Nobody knew he was a diabetic.
At Xmas or other family holidays, make an ornament that symbolizes the person they lost. You think you will be reminding them of their loss but I tell you this, they will be thinking about it anyway, even twenty years later. Knowing that people remember the child will help keep those memories of good times alive for the parent.
What you can say at the funeral.
You can say, “I don’t understand how bad things keep happening to good people, I’m so sorry that it happened to you.”
I interpreted my Gramma saying this as “Accidents happen. You just had the bad luck to have it happen to you. I don’t think this is your fault.” I still thought it was my fault but it helped to know that others believed it wasn’t.
You can say, “I know that your child is in the arms of (someone who died before that loved them.) By all rights, they should be in yours.”
I found great comfort in the idea that Dee was buried with Hubby’s mum and she was taking care of my daughter but I would give anything to this day to have her in my arms.
You can say, “You know, now might be the time to tell that person you don’t like that she’s always annoyed you. Give her a piece of your mind. You can always claim it was the grief anyway.”
Yes I know this sounds callous and stupid but it will give them a minute of thinking of something other than their loss. I thoughtlessly said this to a friend who had a son complete suicide and she burst out laughing, came back a year later and thanked me.
In one month or year from now, grab a bottle of drink of their choice and let them talk and cry. You get so busy with the funeral and there are so many people willing to support you at the time but it is when the hue and cry quiets down that you actually have time to examine and process your feelings. For some people this takes a month and for others it takes years but there will come a time they don’t want to talk to a professional, they need someone to listen who knows them. There is usually nobody there two months later but when there is, oh how it helps.
I remember at Dee’s wake, Hubby’s dad introduced me to a pair of his friends who had lost their daughter to cancer. I needed them to tell me it was going to get better. That I wouldn’t hurt so much forever because I just couldn’t bear it. I could believe them because they had walked in my shoes. Anyone else who told me it was going to get better was just “saying that to make me feel better. If you have another friend who’s experienced the same thing, whether they know the parents or not, get them on the phone or bring them over.