In 1988 President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. October 15th is specifically a day that has been set aside to remember these precious children and the parents and families that mourn them.
Three years into my journey as a bereaved parent has taught me a lot; however, in no way am I an expert on loss or grief; this post is merely an attempt to help people who may not have suffered the loss of a pregnancy or child to be supportive of those who have. Every parent is different and what brings one comfort may not work for another. There are many things one should not do or say to a bereaved parent, but rather than get into what is unacceptable I feel it’s more important to focus on what is acceptable. My prayer is that these suggestions will help you better understand what to say or do if someone you love loses a child.
- Pray for them, but be careful with cliché phrases. For the first few months after my daughter died I had a really difficult time praying for myself; I relied on the prayers of friends, family and strangers to keep me going. I felt those prayers; prayer is extremely powerful, but be careful how you phrase other comments to bereaved parents. Many parents, even Christian parents, struggle with the “why” behind their loss. While well-meaning, referring to the deceased child as an “angel” or telling mom and dad that “God needed him/her more” than they did often times don’t come out the way you may intend them. Not only are those comments not biblically sound, they may add to a bereaved parent’s anger or confusion. It’s best to share a bible verse that may have gotten you through a hard time, or a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss and I’m praying for you” is sufficient. When in doubt, less is best.
- Don’t forget dad. Often times it seems that we tend to over-sympathize with mothers and under-sympathize with fathers. Not always, but I’ve seen many cases where dad’s feelings tend to get pushed to the back burner as friends and family continue to offer support to mom. As you reach out, remember that a simple “I’ve been thinking of you” to dad or referring to both parents by name lets them know you are thinking of them both – not just mom.
- Don’t just offer, act! Asking a bereaved parent what they need is like asking a toddler why they are crying; more often than not they don’t know. Expecting that a bereaved parent is going to pick up the phone and ask you to do something for them is highly unlikely, but you can be proactive! Here are a handful of things that can be helpful:
Financial Support – this may make people feel uncomfortable, but if there is a fund set up to collect money for the family, this can be one of the best ways to help. More often than not the family will have large medical bills for a child they never got to bring home from the hospital. While most funeral homes where we live offer free services for children under age 18, there are still “extras” that can add up. Add to that the time off that one or both parents may need to take from work and losing a child can become a huge financial burden, often in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Meals/Gift Cards – for those that aren’t comfortable offering money, meals or a gift card for pizza/groceries can be just as helpful. The first few weeks after losing a child can feel like a blur, especially if the family has other children. Lightening the load for the family by providing meals or groceries can be extremely beneficial. If you don’t want to bother the family, have one person in charge of meals and leave a cooler outside of their house so the parents don’t feel obligated to visit or chat as these items are delivered.
Activities for siblings – sending along coloring books, games or other items to keep older siblings occupied can offer mom and dad quiet time to be alone or rest. While the hustle and bustle of family life continues on, often times bereaved parents find themselves dealing with depression, anxiety and many other emotions that they neglect. Giving older siblings activities to do, or if the parents are comfortable taking the siblings out of the house for an activity can give everyone a little more room to breathe during this difficult time.
Cards/notes in the mail – if none of these suggestions seem feasible due to cost or distance, a simple card or note in the mail can go a long way. Some days the only fresh air I got was walking to the mailbox; being able to see and physically hold “love” from a friend or family member in my hands meant a lot. To take it a step further, place a small reminder on your own calendar for random dates throughout the next few months/year to send a simple “I’m thinking of you” card to your loved one.
- Use the child’s name. This may be one of the most significant things you can do for a bereaved parent: say their child’s name out loud. It may seem awkward at first and you may think that saying the child’s name will cause the parents to feel sad, but let me inform you that saying the name of the child does not remind the parents that their child died, it reinforces to the parents that the child is loved and remembered. The more you say the child’s name the more comfortable you will feel. If you know you are going to see the parents and you are feeling a bit anxious, decide what you will say ahead of time and practice it. It may sound silly, but if you are nervous about it, there is no better way to get over the awkwardness than to plan what you will say and how you will say it. Trust me when I tell you that not saying anything at all, or not acknowledging the child, speaks much louder than fumbling through a rehearsed comment.
None of these things will ever take away the pain one feels when they lose a pregnancy or child, but lifting another person up when they are in the depths of anguish and showing them Christ-like love is exactly what delights the Lord.
*October 15th is International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day; please take a moment and lift a bereaved parent up in prayer to the Lord. You are also welcome to light a candle and participate in the “Wave of Light” that will be recognized around the world at 7pm in all time zones.